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FIGHTLAND

An Aging Johny Hendricks Lashes out at Venison

Pity the athlete in the first stages of decline.

by Josh Rosenblatt
Oct 14 2015, 1:47pm

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

Johny Hendricks, the number three-ranked welterweight in the UFC, won 101 wrestling matches during his time at Edmond Memorial High School in Edmond, Oklahoma, and lost only five. When he wrestled at Oklahoma State University his record improved impossibly with each passing year. 37-7 in 2004, 27-4 in 2005, 29-1 in 2006, 56-0 in 2007. It was as if Hendricks had banished the possibility of losing from his mind during his adolescence, leaving him no option but perfection.

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Hendricks' early MMA career followed the same script. It wasn't until he'd won nine straight fights, four of them in the UFC, that he finally lost one. Then it was six more wins and a loss to then-welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre that probably should have been a win, followed by—at last, destiny!—the UFC welterweight belt. And even though he lost that belt nine months later, Johny Hendricks' ingrained impulse and ability to win always seemed inarguable, like he had been born to it. He could defeat anyone, sometimes with just a single punch.

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Johny Hendricks cannot defeat age, however. He can't fight off the slow and inevitable decay of the body. Deterioration is our great inheritance, but one wonders if top-level MMA fighters, with their psychotic determination, their devotion to anatomical sublimity, and their unquestioning belief in their own indestructibility, aren't especially unprepared to deal with loss and limitation and collapse and weakness.

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And so the body slows down and breaks down and gets thicker and heavier and less responsive and more stubborn, and a man like Johny Hendricks, who has spent 32 years of life commanding his body to perform perfectly, is perhaps incapable of seeing or comprehending or accepting what's happening now. He refuses to resign himself to fate and the invariable decay of the body, his-once perfect vessel. Which makes sense. He's only known himself as that one thing. Now he's 32 years old and becoming this other thing. This flawed thing. This imperfect thing.

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Reports of bad weight-cuts started to surface a couple of years ago, of poor lifestyle choices and walking-around weights 50 pounds over the welterweight limit. Hendricks' championship rematch with Lawler last December nearly didn't happen after he almost failed to make weight. When he finally appeared on stage and made weight he looked half-dead. Hendricks would later tell reporters he contemplated retirement after that weight-cutting experience.

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Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

So he searches for answers and reasons for this impossible turn of events. Earlier this month Hendricks was forced to drop out of his co-headlining fight at UFC 192 against Tyron Woodley after suffering intestinal damage and kidney stones resulting from severe dehydration. UFC President Dana White paid Woodley his show money and made it clear he thought the time had come for Hendricks to move up to the 185-pound division.

Yesterday Hendricks was a guest on the MMA Hour and told host Ariel Helwani that he's not ready to move up to middleweight yet, and that he blamed his recent weight-cut failure not on lifestyle choices or anatomical changes or a refusal to acknowledge the inescapable tragedy of human physicality but on an overabundance of deer meat in his diet.

"[We] did a lot of research, and I was eating a lot of deer meat and a lot of high-protein animal protein, which, that's the leading cause of kidney stones and your intestines failing you," Hendricks told Helwani. "I had no idea, because I usually eat a lot of fish and a lot of chicken. I wanted to eat more protein, a lot of cleaner protein, so we focused more on that and it ended up backfiring. I think that if I would've eaten more chicken and salmon, I wouldn't have been in this situation."

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Kidney stones are one of the risks fighters take when they cut garish amounts of water weight in the week leading up to a fight—10, 20, even 30 pounds. Exercising without sufficient rehydration can cause the formation of stones made of calcium and other minerals to form in the urine. These stones are water-soluble, but when the kidneys have been deprived of fluid via dehydration, and blood in the body consequently gets thicker and more difficult to move, the stones form faster than the body can produce urine to flush them out. This can lead to infection and, in worst-case scenarios, kidney failure, shock, seizures, coma, and even death.

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In addition to dehydration, a protein-rich diet can lead to kidney stones. Meats and other animal protein—such as eggs and fish—contain purines, a natural chemical compound that breaks down into uric acid in the urine, raising the risk of calcium stones. Which means Hendricks' risk was essentially doubled.

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Or tripled. Doctors say game and organ meats, like deer meat, contain very high levels of purines, while red meat, poultry, shrimp, and fish contain only moderate levels.

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Before his last fight, a win over Matt Brown in March that followed a weight-cut that from all reports went smoothly, Hendricks worked with famed nutritionist Mike Dolce. But Hendricks chose not to work with Dolce for this last weight cut, deciding instead that it was time he did "it on [his] own."

"I wanted to do it on my own. I learned a lot of stuff from Dolce and I'm using a lot of his stuff that I've learned, the way I prep my food and all that kind of stuff. But everybody's talking about my weight and it's time for me to man up and do it on my own, see what I can do," Hendricks said last March.

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So what did Hendricks get for his pride, prepping his meals with his wife and going about things his own way, convinced that his body at 32 was the same body—responsive to command, unfailing—as when he was 22, amassing a perfect wrestling record? Kidney stones, dried intestines, a failed weight cut, a missed fight, a lost paycheck, and what Mike Dolce has called a "comedy of errors."

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Mike Dolce: "He's not a 19-, 20-year-old kid wrestling at Oklahoma [State]. He's a 30-something-year-old man with three babies and one on the way. He cannot do the things that he once did to his body and get away with them. I think that finally caught up with him before this fight. That was kind of his M.O., feeling that he could get the weight off. But in your early 30s, you just can't do that. With his body-fat percentage, you're not able to get that weight off in a healthy manner. You really start to dehydrate the organs in the process. And I think that's where his body started to shut down."

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In other words Johny Hendricks was undone by his own prior perfection and his belief in an indestructibility that would last forever. Call it the power of delusion or the plague of self-denial or the first stage of the athlete in decline. It's the curse of those who've tasted perfection and who, in order to be great, live in a state of denial about the inevitable downward trajectory of human life, who rage blindly against the one inescapable truth, pining for lost glories—who can't believe they're just like the rest of us.

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