NCAA Champ Hendricks Making MMA Debut for Team Takedown

Say what you will about the newly formed Team Takedown, if nothing else they’re ambitious. The fighter management company is signing NCAA wrestling champions to MMA contracts before they’ve ever had a fight, hoping to groom them into champions down the line.

One of their prospects – two-time NCAA champion Johny Hendricks, from Oklahoma State – is about to get his first test this Friday. Though he’s been wrestling almost since he could walk, Hendricks has only been training in MMA for three months. Fortunately for him, those three months were spent at Randy Couture’s Las Vegas gym – just one of the perks of signing with Team Takedown.

“It’s great,” said Hendricks. “I wake up every day, train hard for three hours, and then I go home and rest. Later I come back and train again, and I don’t have to worry about anything besides training and getting better…Everything’s been like sunshine.”

It’s an advantage that most up-and-coming MMA fighters don’t get. In a world where even some experienced fighters have to work full-time jobs just to get by, Team Takedown’s model is a new way of building MMA stars.

But the big question is, will their substantial investment in these young fighters pay off?

At the moment, they don’t seem to be in a big hurry to turn a profit. Hendricks is starting his MMA career in Oklahoma City’s “Masters of the Cage” organization, facing off against jiu-jitsu fighter Victor Ratcliff (2-0). Despite his wrestling experience, he says he is well aware that the big time is still a long way off.

“I need more fight time before I can get in there with guys at the level of the UFC or IFL or Bodog,” said Hendricks. “I need that time to figure out what kind of fighter I am, what I need to work on. Right now I don’t know what kind of fighter I am.”

Hendricks’ move marks a larger trend in MMA. After the recent success of wrestlers like Josh Koscheck and Matt Hamill, more NCAA champions have to be considering a move to professional fighting instead of vying for one of the precious few spots on an Olympic squad.

But just because a few wrestlers have made the transition, doesn’t mean it will necessarily work for others. In Hendricks’ case, he’s fighting not only to further his own career, but he has the expectations of his management team – created by businessmen Ted and Doug Ehrhardt, along with Tim McBride – to shoulder as well, though he claims he isn’t feeling that pressure just yet.

“I put enough pressure on myself. Anything I do I want to win, want to be the best at. The way I look at it is basically like a scholarship. I want to do well for them, but I always want to do well. I’m just focusing on doing what I need to do to get my hand raised.”

What he needs to do obviously involves learning the other facets of MMA that his wrestling background might not have prepared him for.

“I train a lot of jiu-jitsu. That’s been my main focus. I’ve been working tons of jiu-jitsu. I haven’t even taken a shot for a long time. I’ve just been focusing on my striking and jiu-jitsu.

“I’m focusing really hard on my ground-and-pound skills, working on transferring from position to position, and working on hitting people from wherever I’m at. Wherever the fight goes I want to be ready, but I know I’m probably going to do what I do best and that’s wrestling.”

Friday’s bout could mark the first phase of a major sea-change in MMA. If Team Takedown proves successful in their bid to turn wrestlers into fighters, there’s no telling who might follow their lead.

Before anyone can call them geniuses, though, their fighters have to prove the validity of their vision in the ring. Hendricks will get his chance in Oklahoma City, along with teammates Jake Rosholt, Shane Roller, and Eric Bradley. Whether or not they help change the sport of MMA, these wrestlers turned fighters are worth keeping an eye on.

Note: For those interested, Friday’s bouts can be seen on the web via pay-per-view at watchthisfight.com.

Ben Fowlkes is the editor of the IFL’s official website and is a special contributor to CBSSports.com. Ben also maintains his own blog, The Fighting Life.

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