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Oklahoma State's Johny Hendricks embraces role as villain in college wrestling

Go ahead and boo Johny Hendricks when he steps on the mat this weekend at the National Duals.

He won't mind a bit.

In fact, the louder the boos become the more pumped up the senior two-time NCAA champion from Oklahoma State is likely to become.

Hendricks has become cast in the role as the bad guy in college wrestling. The ultra-talented, ultra-confident and demonstrative wrestler in the orange singlet is the guy that non-Cowboy fans love to hate.

"I have kind of embraced the role of the villain," Hendricks said with a laugh. "It seems like people either love me or hate me - there's no middle ground. When people boo me it just motivates me even more to win. I use it to my advantage. I don't mind playing the bad guy out there - it is part of who I am as a wrestler.

"I will smile when they're booing me and that upsets the fans even more. I'll push guys off the mat and I'll say something back to the fans if they're ripping me. I'm myself when I step out on the mat and that's not going to change. I'm going to try and frustrate my opponents and wear them out because they're worried about what I'm going to do."

Hendricks likely will hear his share of boos this weekend, especially if the reigning four-time NCAA champions meet Iowa as expected in the quarterfinals of the National Duals. The teams would meet on Saturday just up the road from the Iowa campus at the UNI-Dome in Cedar Falls, Iowa. The event runs through Sunday afternoon.

Hendricks pulled out a pair of controversial wins in capturing his second straight NCAA title last season at the Ford Center in Oklahoma City. The second-seeded Hendricks edged American University's third-seeded Muzaffar Abdurakhmanov 4-3 in the semifinals before beating No. 1 seed Ryan Churella of Michigan 9-8 in the finals.

Oklahoma State fans cheered wildly while other fans booed loudly in an emotional scene after the 165-pound finals. A number of calls were questioned in the match, including whether Churella had pinned Hendricks near the end of the second period.

Hendricks jumped up and down after the win over Churella, flexing for the crowd and then sprinting over to the corner of the mat and lifting Coach John Smith into the air.

Hendricks then ran off the stage and over in front of the orange-clad Cowboy fans in the corner of the arena. He pointed up to them with both index fingers as they roared their approval while numerous other fans booed at the same time.

The Hendricks-Churella match was talked about for a handful of months on message boards complete with video trying to back up claims Hendricks was pinned after being caught in a cradle.

"I read everything that's on, every bit of it, and it makes me laugh more than anything," Hendricks said. "It's been kind of quiet the past few weeks, I haven't read my name on there in a while. A lot of those people don't know anything about wrestling. I'm mature enough and old enough to not let what people say bother me. It's pretty funny, a lot of what they're saying. I don't take it too seriously."

Hendricks said he knows he won the match against Churella, who had Hendricks on his back in a cradle as time ran out in the second period. Churella, who was a senior last year, was awarded a two-point near fall when a number of fans thought it should have been ruled a fall or a three-point near fall at the least.

"Watching the tape of that match, he didn't pin me," Hendricks said. "I was the aggressor the whole match. I know I won the match and that's what counts. I gave my all to win the match. I still think about that match because it taught me that anything can happen and you can get caught like I did in that match."

The actions of Hendricks, a three-time state champion from Edmond, Okla., suggest to some people he is arrogant. He has been called T.O. by some fans as they liken his brash behavior to that of Terrell Owens of the Dallas Cowboys.

"I wouldn't say I'm cocky," Hendricks said. "I'm just confident in myself and my abilities. If people talk trash to me, I'm probably going to say something back and defend myself."

Hendricks is undefeated and ranked No. 1 this season. He is 17-0 and has recorded bonus points in 15 of his 17 matches. He has recorded six falls and nine major decisions this season. He was named Outstanding Wrestler at the Reno Tournament of Champions and the Lone Star Duals.

Hendricks beat then-No. 2 Mark Perry of Iowa in the All-Star Dual earlier this season. The two could meet in the quarterfinal dual this weekend and again when Iowa wrestles at OSU on Jan. 19. Hendricks beat Perry in the 2005 NCAA finals before Perry moved up to 174 last season and placed third in the country. Perry is the nephew of OSU coach John Smith.

"This is the first year I've been in shape this early in the season," Hendricks said. "I'm working twice as hard this year as I have in the past. I'm not holding back at all. I'm doing all the extra running and everything I need to make sure I'm prepared. And this is the first year I've actually been healthy. I feel great."

Hendricks is trying to become the 14th OSU wrestler to win at least three NCAA titles.

"It would mean so much for me to do that," he said. "It's something I want really bad. It would be a great way to finish."

Hendricks can't say enough about the impact Smith, a two-time Olympic Champion and four-time World Champion, has had on his career.

"Coach Smith has pretty much meant everything to me," Hendricks said. "Who better to learn from than an Olympic and World Champion. He's the best. If he tells you that you are doing something wrong you listen to him. He's done everything you can accomplish in wrestling and he's everything you want to be. He really pushes me and he is a great technician and a great motivator.

"He's great with the mental approach and he's helped me through some hard times. He really cares about his athletes as people first. He's an unbelievable coach. He lets his guys wrestle to their strengths and will enhance whatever style that suits you best. You don't have to shoot low singles to wrestle for Coach Smith. We're not afraid to mix it up and wrestle a physical style. He's been all over the World as a wrestler and a coach, and he's always teaching us something new."

Smith admires the passion Hendricks brings to the sport.

"Johny loves to wrestle and loves to win, and he has a lot of fun with it," Smith said. "He's not afraid to show his emotions on the mat. I think he brings a little life to the team and to our fans. Some people can look at that differently. We've had guys who won and you wouldn't have even known that they won. Everyone is a little different and that diversity that we do have is very healthy."

Hendricks said Smith doesn't have many problems with how he conducts himself on the mat.

"I think Coach Smith enjoys it," Hendricks said. "He's never said anything to me about doing those things. He will smile at me. If I do something totally disrespectful, he will tell me about it. He's accepted the way that I wrestle. He knows that I am intense and that's the way I wrestle."

The Cowboys are ranked fourth nationally after the departure of three-time NCAA champion Jake Rosholt along with two-time champion Steve Mocco and champion Zack Esposito.

"We lost some great wrestlers, but the goal never changes around here," Hendricks said. "When you wrestle at Oklahoma State you're expected to win. That's part of the game. Our goal this year is to win another national team title. I think the team race is pretty wide-open this year and we're definitely one of the teams who can win it."

Hendricks said he plans to compete internationally in freestyle.

"I want to be an Olympic and World Champion," said Hendricks, a Junior Nationals champion in freestyle. "I will take a couple months off after the college season and then start working toward that goal. I plan on trying to make the 2008 Olympic team in freestyle."

Spend a few minutes talking with Hendricks and it's hard to find anything to dislike. He's upbeat, personable, articulate, polite, engaging, funny and candid. What you see - and hear from him - is exactly what you get.

"Off the mat, I'm real laid back, easygoing and fun," Hendricks said. "I can get along with anybody. I don't take things too seriously. Life's too short to be mad about anything. And life's too great for me to worry about what people say about me."

Hendricks hopes to eventually become a high school or college coach.

"I want to give back to the sport," he said. "I've done a lot of camps and I love teaching kids and seeing them improve. It's rewarding to work with these young guys."

Hendricks also talks openly about being his Christian beliefs.

"I pray before every match and give glory to God for all that I've accomplished," Hendricks said. "I am very thankful to God for everything I've done."

With the NCAAs being held in Auburn Hills, Mich., Hendricks said he expects to be booed more than ever as the tournament is held near the Michigan campus where Churella wrestled.

"Oh yeah, I'm sure I will hear it every time I step on the mat in Michigan," Hendricks said. "I've been booed by the Iowa fans at Carver-Hawkeye Arena and I was booed by the Minnesota fans when we wrestled up there. I'm booed no matter where we go now. When the Gopher fans booed me last year at nationals I just played along and told them to boo me more. I love it. I don't take it personally. I just laugh - that's all I can do. I just use it as extra motivation to help me win."
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