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The wheels have come off for one of the UFC's most popular recent champions

Johny Hendricks: “Would you call that a performance? Is that the guy who won the belt? That was so pathetic.”

UFC 167 Mixed Martial Arts Johny Hendricks has suffered back-to-back losses for the first time in his career. Source: AP/Press Association Images

IT’S NOT UNUSUAL for a professional athlete to see a period of decline on the horizon as they get deeper into their 30s.

But for Johny Hendricks, the downward spiral towards mediocrity has been particularly unusual, in that it has been drastically rapid and has come in the immediate aftermath of a spell during which he delivered the best performances of his career.

Given how many hugely important fights took place at UFC 200 in Las Vegas on Saturday, Hendricks’ latest setback was one story that emerged from the T-Mobile Arena but subsequently didn’t receive the post-mortem it would otherwise have been afforded.

As the Texan stumbled towards the finish line, where he was met by the announcement of a unanimous-decision verdict in favour of Kelvin Gastelum, it was difficult to process the fact that the same man was the UFC’s welterweight champion less than two years earlier.

It was a fifth career defeat for Hendricks (17-5) and the first time he’s suffered back-to-back losses. In February, Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson put him away in the opening round of their UFC Fight Night 82 headliner — the first time Hendricks had ever been finished.

Hendricks’ laboured performance against Gastelum came just over 24 hours after he missed weight for the bout. Complications involved in cutting to welterweight also forced the cancellation of his fight against Tyron Woodley last October, so if he does make a return, it may be as a middleweight.

The former NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler came in for a lot of criticism after last weekend’s loss, which was in stark contrast to how he was viewed by audiences at the peak of his powers. Combining elite wrestling with knockout punching power, it wasn’t too long ago that Hendricks was a fan-favourite.

In March 2014, he defeated Robbie Lawler to win the vacant UFC welterweight title — five months after he had been on the wrong end of a controversial split-decision loss to one of the greatest fighters of all time, Georges St-Pierre.

Hendricks had earned his shot at the title by winning six fights in a row, the last of which was against Carlos Condit. The bouts against Condit, St-Pierre and Lawler enhanced his popularity and he picked up ‘Fight of the Night’ bonuses for each of them.

But the rematch with Lawler nine months later, when he relinquished the belt, marked the beginning of the decline. Hendricks bounced back by beating Matt Brown — his only taste of victory in the 28 months since he won the title — but what followed was an abandoned bout against Woodley, a knockout loss to Thompson and — on Saturday — a failure against a fighter who had yet to make his UFC debut when Hendricks earned his first title shot.

“Would you call that a performance? He was the better fighter. I didn’t fight. No lie,” Hendricks told the UFC’s Megan Olivi following his loss to Gastelum “Is that the guy who won the belt? Is that a guy who would even be considered a guy who won the belt? No. Right now I’ve got to take a step back, talk to the family, talk to the wife, see what’s next. That was so pathetic. I’m my worst critic. I’d give that a D.

UFC 171 Mixed Martial Arts Hendricks in the aftermath of his narrow defeat to Georges St-Pierre. Source: AP/Press Association Images

“I mean, that’s probably the worst I’ve seen myself fight in a long time. Nothing against Kelvin Gastelum. Kelvin Gastelum did a great job. I’ll never take anything away from him. I like him, he’s a good guy. It’s just that I didn’t fight. That was so pathetic.

“I feel so bad for my coaches. They have a great athlete and he [puts on] probably the worst showing he could ever do for them. That’s what hurts more than anything. They prepared me, I prepared myself the best I could, and I go out there and look like a newborn.”

Asked what the difference has been for him lately, Hendricks responded: “Really, I don’t know. That’s why I’ve got to take a step back. I’ve got to take a step back and refocus. It might be a month, two months, three months… Hell, I don’t know.

“I have to decide, do I want to fight? I love fighting. For some reason when I get into that octagon it makes me so happy. But to perform like that? If I go out there and I fight hard like I did against Robbie Lawler and supposedly win but lose, I’m not hurt. I’m pissed off at myself because there’s so much more crap I could have done. Like I said, I’d give that a 40% for effort. That’s what’s hurting me more than anything.

“There’s just so much offence that I left out on the table. I saw every bit of it too. I was like, ‘There it is! There it is! Oh, you’re not doing nothing. There it is! Not doing nothing!’ You know, I’m an idiot. That’s really what it boils down to. I was an idiot in that fight.”

MMA-UFC 181 Mixed Martial Arts Hendricks overcame Robbie Lawler in March 2014 to become the UFC's welterweight champion. Source: AP/Press Association Images

Hendricks, who turns 33 in September, added: “Do I still want to fight? Because obviously that fight right there shows me that I don’t. But I do, you know what I mean? What do I have to do to get that fire back? I don’t know. Right now I’m just so frustrated with myself. I’m pissed off.”

Hendricks remains the last man to defeat the current champion in his division. Robbie Lawler will defend the belt against Tyron Woodley later this month and he was asked about Hendricks’ struggles at a media event on Monday.

“He’s having a rough go right now. I don’t know what’s going on, I’m not around his camp, but it looks like he’s going through a rough one right now,” Lawler said. “He’ll figure it out. It’s on him. It’s always on the fighter to try to figure it out.”

Hendricks has now slipped to eighth in the rankings at 170lbs, but a couple of wins could fire him back into contention. However, recent evidence suggests that ‘Bigg Rigg’ is more likely to become a gatekeeper for the division he once briefly ruled instead of making a final push for championship honours.

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Paul Dollery

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