UFC 171 Factgrinder: The Wrestling Career of Johny Hendricks

Sarah Glenn

In the UFC 171 main event, Johny Hendricks faces Robbie Lawler for the Welterweight Championship. Bloody Elbow wrestling specialist takes an in depth look at Hendricks's wrestling career.

Johny Hendricks, favored to become the next UFC Welterweight Champion, hails from Oklahoma, which is appropriate, because once upon a time, an off hand comment on Oklahoma high school wrestling eventually inspired the creation of the Factgrinder series.

In 2007, when Matt Grice (who was a highly ranked high school wrestler nationally) went to fight Terry Etim, UFC color commentator Joe Rogan remarked on Grice's four Oklahoma high school state championships, saying something to the effect that four Oklahoma state championships were the equivalent of six California State Championships. I don't want to pick on Rogan, and his wrestling knowledge has improved greatly in the last seven years, but he was remarkably off base in that situation. With almost exactly ten times the population of Oklahoma, and a single state championship, one fifth the number as the Sooner state, California claims one of the three or four toughest state wrestling tournaments in the country, featuring a far more talent rich field than any of Oklahoma's state championships. To this day, only a single wrestler in history has won four California state championships, while, as of the turn of the 21st century, Oklahoma has produced fifteen four-timers.

Rogan's words represented a general lack of understanding in regards to the meaning of wrestling accomplishments across mixed martial arts, and indicated a general trend of overvaluing high school state results, which often serve as an unreliable indicator of a wrestler's ability relative to his peers in the remaining 49 states.

In 2005, Intermat ranked Hendricks as the 19th best College Wrestler in the Past 20 Years. The wrestler from Edmond, Oklahoma's Memorial High School did not earn this distinction because he won three Oklahoma State titles, he earned it by dominating future NCAA champions and All-Americans in high school wrestling's biggest tournament.

Hendricks won the USA Wrestling Junior Freestyle National Championships (better known as Fargo Juniors), high school wrestling's most coveted prize, twice, and he did it against some of the toughest competition imaginable. Intermat's Justin Kerr describes his most formidable opponents at Fargo:

In 2001, his junior year in high school, he scored technical falls over now NCAA champion Troy Letters and current two-time NCAA runner-up Ben Askren -- just to win his pool. In the finals, he registered a first period technical fall over highly regarded Matt Herrington. The following year, Hendricks again crushed all opponents in his pool before registering a solid 3-0 win over the outstanding Mark Perry in the finals.

Even before stepping on a collegiate match, Hendricks had already established himself as a prep wrestling legend. When he joined Oklahoma State University's storied wrestling program, he did not rest on his laurels, as he more than lived up to the precedence of excellence he set as a high schooler.

Before we get too deep into the details, here's my boss Kid Nate forcing me to embed the MMA Vivisections preview for Hendricks' UFC 171 bout with Robbie Lawler he did with Dallas Winston & Connor Ruebusch in the post:

Wrestling Style

Readers ask me often if Hendricks had some sort of special maneuver, or something special he did, which made him so successful. The truth of the matter is that Hendricks's success came not from what he did, but how he did it.

Hendricks always demonstrated very basic, and very sound technique. If he had a signature move from his feet, it was probably his left handed high crotch, which he usually finished with some sort of lift, either low or high. The left handedness of the high crotch originated from the fact that he wrestled almost exclusively left foot forward, and attacked opponents conventionally with high crotches to his right, and head-inside singles to his left. In light of his preference to shoot with his left foot, I find it somewhat strange that his fights as a southpaw, as that stance moves his shooting foot to his trail-leg position.

Solid technique provided a foundation for Hendricks's wrestling success, but his mentality set him apart from his competition. Hendricks outworked, out hustled and out conditioned his opponents from all three phases of the sport: top, bottom and neutral. Rarely in a bout did Hendricks ever back up, and he never backed down. Anyone who wrestled Hendricks received seven full minutes of impassioned and ultra-focused competition.

Paulson_medium

In addition to solid all-around technical prowess and a tenacious approach, Hendricks won through some very generous physical gifts. I am uncertain of his stats in the weight room, but Hendricks often displayed incredible, brutish power in his matches. See above, where, against Iowa State's Travis Paulson, Hendricks hangs on to a high crotch with one hand, secures the leg with both hands, and stands to his feet and lifts his opponent off the mat. That right there is some freak mutant strength, particularly when considering that Paulson has the build of a concrete slab, along with world class skills.

Hendricks the Heel

While at Oklahoma State, Hendricks developed a reputation as one of college wrestling's few true heels, and deservedly so. When he took the mat, he just seemed to have an air about him, an air of cockiness and discernable disdain for his competition.

TheMat.com's Craig Sesker gave a great account of Hendrick's somewhat antagonistic persona while wrestling in college.

Go ahead and boo Johny Hendricks when he steps on the mat ...


He won't mind a bit.

In fact, the louder the boos become the more pumped up the senior two-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma State is likely to become.

Hendricks has become cast in the role as the bad guy in college wrestling. The ultra-talented, ultra-confident and demonstrative wrestler in the orange singlet is the guy that non-Cowboy fans love to hate.

"I have kind of embraced the role of the villain," Hendricks said with a laugh. "It seems like people either love me or hate me - there's no middle ground. When people boo me it just motivates me even more to win. I use it to my advantage. I don't mind playing the bad guy out there - it is part of who I am as a wrestler.

"I will smile when they're booing me and that upsets the fans even more. I'll push guys off the mat and I'll say something back to the fans if they're ripping me. I'm myself when I step out on the mat and that's not going to change. I'm going to try and frustrate my opponents and wear them out because they're worried about what I'm going to do."

Letters_medium

As the above passage indicates, Hendricks had no qualms about running his mouth to his competition, even in defeat. Above, you can see him jawing at Lehigh's Troy Letters after a 2005 regular season loss. In an interview, Letters claimed that Hendricks said something to the effect of "I'll see you at nationals". It looks like he said a bit more than that.

The heelish antics of Hendricks hit their apogee in 2006, when after a legendarily controversial NCAA championship victory, he basked in the disapprobation of a capacity crowd with a prolonged public celebration in front of his Oklahoma State supporters.

Newsok.com provides the following discription of Hendrick's behavior after edging out Michigan's Ryan Churella:

Johny Hendricks led an orange flooded section at the Ford Center in the O-S-U chant, forming every letter in a twisting of body and arms.

Then Hendricks seized an Oklahoma State flag and draped it over his shoulders, taking on the role of some Cowboy Superman, which all season and in the end, he was.


Themat.com also provides this account:

Hendricks jumped up and down after the win over Churella, flexing for the crowd and then sprinting over to the corner of the mat and lifting Coach John Smith into the air.

Hendricks then ran off the stage and over in front of the orange-clad Cowboy fans in the corner of the arena. He pointed up to them with both index fingers as they roared their approval while numerous other fans booed at the same time.

I believe that both these reports offer a fairly tame version of Hendricks's famous celebration. I have heard witnesses describe it as a very long, very obnoxious chicken dance all round the arena. Personally, I imagine it as a more elaborate version of what you see below.

Muz2_medium

Hendricks's College Achievements

Love him or hate him, Hendricks had a spectacular college wrestling career. As a redshirt freshman, he placed fifth in the nation at 157 pounds, losing in the 2004 NCAA tournament only to the previous year's two finalists.

In his second season as an Oklahoma State starter, Hendricks moved up to 165 pounds, and really came into his own. He wrestled well enough to earn the third seed at the NCAA tournament, but, as shown in the above section of this post, however, he was unable to beat Lehigh's Troy Letters during the season. Letters, the 2004 national champion, looked unstoppable at the time.

Perry_medium

As fate would have it, Hendricks would never have to face Letters in the 2005 national tournament, as the Lehigh wrestler suffered a shocking upset at the hands of Iowa's Mark Perry in the NCAA semifinals. Perry scores the deciding near-fall points against Letters in the sequence above. This would pave the way for Hendricks to then claim the first of his NCAA titles by beating Perry in the finals.

Churella_medium

The next year, a match many fans see as one of the greatest screw jobs in college wrestling history came in Hendricks's 2006 national finals bout against Michigan's Ryan Churella. At the end of the second period, the buzzer saved Hendricks from a certain pin, after the Churella roll though cradle shown above. This bold move put Hendricks down by three points heading into the deciding third period, but the Oklahoma State star stormed back, earning a series of highly questionable takedowns to win the match at the last second.

Most fans think that referee Gary Kessell should never have awarded one, if not two, of Hendricks's third period takedowns. Personally, I have greater problems with the officiating in Hendricks's 2006 semifinals match, against American University's Muzaffar Abdurakhmenov, than in the match with Churella.

Muz_medium

In the above sequence in the 2006 semifinals, for reasons that remain mysterious to me, Abdurakhmenov receives a stalling warning, and Hendricks blatantly flees the mat with no penalty. The point Hendricks gets for Abdurakhmenov's stalling violation ended up deciding the match in Hendricks's favor (you can watch the entire match here).

Then, in 2007, Hendricks's final year of college, his national  finals match again ended with a fairly close call, only this one went against him. Once again, he faced Iowa's Mark Perry, whom Hendricks owned throughout college, and with a minute to go Hendricks enjoyed a 2-0 lead over the Hawkeye. Then everything started to unravel.

Perry2_medium

Perry reversed Hendricks to tie the score.

Perry3_medium

Then Perry improbably, and barely, exposed Hendricks's back to the mat for the two seconds requisite to earn two points. You will notice a fairly quick count, but that is how it ought to be called. These points would seal Hendricks's fate, and Perry would complete the upset for the national title.

Factgrinder Final Anlaysis

The way I see it, we can look at Hendricks's wrestling career in one of three ways. First, we can consider what he almost accomplished: had he rode out Perry for another minute in the 2007 finals, Hendricks would have earned his third NCAA wrestling championship and gone down as one of the all time greats. Second, we can hold what Hendricks's near failures against him: if Perry failed to pull off his unlikely upset of Letters in the 2005 semifinals, and a single close call gone against Hendricks in the 2006 tournament, Hendricks would never have won a single national championship.

The third way to look at Hendricks time as a wrestler is the most just: we can judge Hendricks on the record he earned. Of all the millions of wrestlers who competed on the high school level, Hendricks ranked as one of the greatest ever, and while in college, Hendricks earned All-American status four times, two national titles, won more matches than all but a handful wrestlers in Oklahoma State history and at one point won 55 matches in a row on college wrestling's highest level.

So on Saturday night, when Joe Rogan starts going on and on about how great a wrestler Hendricks is, the chances are, he's 100 percent right.

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