Johny Hendricks was for a short time the brightest star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s welterweight sky.
A four-time NCAA All-American wrestler and two-time national champion at Oklahoma State University, he made his professional MMA debut on Sept. 28, 2007 and won 15 of his first 16 bouts. Victories over Mike Pierce, Josh Koscheck, Martin Kampmann and Carlos Condit propelled him forward and led to a brief reign as undisputed UFC welterweight champion in 2014. However, competitive mileage caught up to Hendricks later in his career. He lost five of his final seven bouts before announcing his retirement at the age of 34 in June 2018.
As the in-cage exploits of the “Bigg Rigg” fade further and further into memory, a look at some of the rivalries that helped shape his stellar career:
A beautiful left hook from Hendricks laid waste to the former title challenger in the first round of their UFC 141 welterweight showcase on Dec. 30, 2011 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in L as Vegas. It was over just 12 seconds after it began. Fitch— who had not been finished in more than nine years and had lost only once in his previous 23 appearances—threw a straight right hand, backed away and ate the punch that flipped the switch. The thudding left hook found its mark, and Fitch collapsed. Hendricks moved in and fired off one more left hand for good measure, as referee Steve Mazzagatti stepped in to prevent Fitch from absorbing further punishment. With that, a new welterweight contender had officially arrived on the scene.
Hendricks thought he had it in the bank, but two judges had other ideas. St. Pierre retained his Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight crown with a controversial split decision over “Big Rigg” in the UFC 167 headliner on Nov. 16, 2013 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. All three cageside judges scored it 48-47: Sal D’Amato and Tony Weeks for St. Pierre, Glenn Trowbridge for Hendricks. The challenger landed the heavier blows and exacted more of a physical toll during the 25-minute encounter, his heavy hands leaving St. Pierre battered, bloodied and bruised. The Ada, Oklahoma, native also utilized brutal knee strikes to the thigh from the clinch while mixing in takedowns at various points. Hendricks had the longtime champion in serious trouble in Round 2, where he staggered him with a left uppercut and followed up with more powerful strikes to the head. St. Pierre did his best work in the third and fifth rounds, as he pecked away with his trademark jab, took down the two-time NCAA national champion wrestler and did just enough to curry the necessary favor on the scorecards.
Behind a diverse standup attack and an unbreakable resolve, Hendricks captured the vacant Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight crown with a unanimous decision over Lawler in the UFC 171 main event on March 15, 2014 at the American Airlines Arena in Dallas. All three cageside judges scored it the same: 48-47 for Hendricks, who complimented accurate punching combinations with stinging leg kicks and occasional knees across the first 10 minutes. Lawler turned the corner in the third round, where he had “Bigg Rigg” badly staggered with a crisp left hook to the beard. Hendricks survived, only to endure further punishment—Lawler carved out a nasty gash near the Oklahoman’s right eye—from his opponent’s educated hands in Round 4. The decision appeared to boil down to the fifth round, where Hendricks found another gear. He wore down a fatiguing Lawler in the clinch and battered “Ruthless Robbie” with left hands and leg kicks. A late takedown sealed it, as Hendricks kept the Pat Miletich disciple corralled on the canvas in the closing moments. Lawler exacted a measure of revenge in their unforgettable rematch some nine months later, as he laid claim to the 170-pound title with a split decision over Hendricks under the UFC 181 marquee.
“Wonderboy” chewed up and spit out Hendricks in the UFC Fight Night 82 headliner on Feb. 6, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, as he took out the former Ultimate Fighting Championship welterweight titleholder with first-round punches. Finished for the first time as a pro, Hendricks succumbed to blows 3:31 into Round 1. Thompson was dazzling. He denied the only two takedowns Hendricks attempted and went to work with his diverse standup weaponry. Thompson blasted the four-time NCAA All-American wrestler with kicks to the legs, body, arms and head while mixing in crisp, powerful punches. He dazed Hendricks with a searing right hand upstairs, pressed him into the cage and slammed a thrusting kick into his chest. A stabbing straight left sat down the “Bigg Rigg,” and Thompson cleaned up the rest with one final burst of punches. The South Carolina native outpaced Hendricks 25-11 in total strikes and 24-7 in significant strikes. It was the kind of rout few saw coming and marked the unofficial end of Hendricks’ run as an elite welterweight.