Everyone—or almost everyone—loves a good origin story. From the New Testament to the neverending deaths of Bruce Wayne’s parents and Peter Parker’s uncle, we’re fascinated by the catalysts, epiphanies, and pivotal moments that make people who they are.
With that in mind, Fightland has started talking to our favorite professional and amateur fighters and enthusiasts about the first big defining moment that started them on their martial arts journeys. Whether it was their first sanctioned bout, their first sparring session, or even some random scrap on the street or playground, when did these future warriors first realize that combat was something that they wanted to—and could—do?
In today’s My First Fight, we talk to former UFC welterweight champion Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks, who will face Kelvin Gastelum at UFC 200 on Saturday, July 9 in Las Vegas, about the moment he stopped being a wrestler and started being a fighter.
Given his highly decorated background in high school and Collegiate wrestling, we just assumed that any combat-related epiphanies that John Hendricks might have had in the early days of his career would involve grappling in some way. But when we asked the former NCAA champ and All-American to talk about what he considered his first fight, he preferred to focus on his striking.
Which is exactly what he chose to do going into his first MMA fight, a bout against Victor Rackliff at Battle of the Cage 16 on September 28, 2007 in Oklahoma City, mere months after his graduation from the University of Oklahoma.
He knew how good he was on the ground. So did his coaches, friends, family, and fans, all of whom encouraged him to use his wrestling in that fight. “Everybody was like ‘Take him down! Take him down!’” he recalls.
But Hendricks had other plans. He wanted to prove to himself that he didn’t need to take the fight to the ground to survive, or to prosper. So he made himself a promise. “When I was in there, I said ‘I’m not going to take him down. I need to see where I’m at.’ Yeah, I can take anybody down, yeah, I can outwrestle anybody, but is that going to get me where I want to be? No. Because every fight starts on the feet, so that’s what I told myself.”
By that point, months into his MMA education, he was relatively certain that he could take a punch in sparring, but he didn’t want to take that for granted. “Whenever the lights come on, it’s different. I’ll get beat at the gym, but I’m not a practice goon. There are some people in practice that can’t lose. They’re UFC champions right now [in the gym], but whenever it comes time to show up, they can’t. They can’t even break the top ten. You have to really understand, in the gym, that’s your safe haven. You have 16 ounce gloves or, with me, I’ve got 18 to 20 ounce gloves. You’ve got a head gear, so the threat level’s there but it’s not as bad,” he muses. “Training’s training. But you’ve got to know when you step into that Octagon or cage or whatever it is, can you do it? Can you get punched, keep your head, and still move forward?”
In that first ever round in the cage, he quickly learned that he could, in fact, take a punch and not crumble physically or mentally. With that out of the way, he also learned that he could throw them pretty well, too. “I did get hit some but, by the second round, I started winning the exchanges, I started beating him on the feet and that’s when I knew: I got punched, I didn’t rush for a takedown. I didn’t do anything stupid. I kept my cool, and I was able to stay focused on the task at hand. And, once I did that, I was like, OK, I know I can do this. I know I can take a punch. I know I can keep my head in a heated moment, and I can still get better.”
In that moment, with that win on the feet, the wrestler knew that he could truly be a mixed martial artist.
Almost nine years, sixteen more professional wins and one welterweight championship title later, he remains confident in his abilities on the ground, but it’s the praise—and the criticism—of his standup game that he appreciates the most.
“After the Lawler 1 fight, somebody said ‘Johny’s not that good of a kickboxer, because if he went with this kickboxer champ, he would lose.’... You’re comparing me to the champ! For kickboxing. So thank you. I’m not going to say anything negative to that. I’m going to say thank you very much because you’re comparing me to a guy who lives and breathes only one thing: kickboxing. And we have to train three things, at least. You have to have kickboxing, boxing, wrestling, or if you don’t have wrestling you have jiu-jitsu. You’ve got to be a completely mixed martial artist,” he says.
And he’s managed to stand and trade with the best mixed martial artists, even when others continued to doubt his ability on his feet. “Carlos Condit, they said that he’s a better striker than me. Martin Kampmann, he’s a better striker than me. GSP, better striker than me. Robbie Lawler, better striker than me. I can keep going down the list of everybody I’ve fought that they’ve said he’s a better striker than me and where did I win most of those fights? On the feet.”
Given how dedicated he’s been to expanding and strengthening his MMA arsenal since day one, Hendricks thinks it’s particularly amusing that Kelvin Gastelum has been accusing him of failing to evolve as a fighter in the weeks leading up to their bout at UFC 200.
“When have they ever compared him to a boxer? When have they ever compared him to a kickboxer? When have they compared him to anything?” he smiles. “They haven’t! So that answer there proves that I am developed, and I’m only getting better. I’m still learning. I’m still understanding combo flows. I’ve started throwing a new combo lately that my coaches like and I like it, too. So who knows?”
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