Benson Henderson had a comfy seat near the top of the lightweight mountain. Then Rafael dos Anjos showed up and decided to kick the seat out from under him. Well, it was more like a handful of hard punches and a well-timed knee, but you get the idea.
Heading into their clash at UFC Fight Night 49, few were picking dos Anjos to defeat the top contender, much less predicting the Brazilian to claim the win via knockout. Even dos Anjos himself wasn’t going into the contest thinking his method of victory would come by knockout. However, it only took a matter of seconds for the Brazilian to insert himself to the title picture with a candidate for “Upset of the Year” performance.
We know that dos Anjos is heading up the lightweight rankings and will likely get put into a title eliminator match-up, but what of Henderson? The answer is a bit complicated, and Henderson has himself to blame for a lot of it.
The first problem for Henderson is Anthony Pettis, the man currently wearing the UFC lightweight strap. The champ has been Henderson’s biggest rival throughout his WEC/UFC career, having bested Henderson on two separate occasions. So long as Pettis is the UFC champ, it’s going to be hard to justify Henderson getting a third crack at Pettis. That leads into the second (and probably the biggest) reason Henderson will struggle moving forward.
Henderson has never been known to be a fan-favorite across the hardcore and casual MMA fan base. His style, although effective, doesn’t make him the easiest fighter to sell to the masses. It’s pretty telling that a guy who has gone 9-2 in historically one of the UFC’s toughest division against top-ranked competition is effectively out of the title picture. That’s because Henderson has either won by dominant decision or by eking out a close decision on the judges’ scorecards, save for one finish. As much as people want to throw barbs at fans on the other side of the fence in regards to finishes, when you’re 0-2 against the current champ, exciting finishes are definitely needed. Even if Pettis drops the belt to Gilbert Melendez in their December fight, it’s not as if Henderson can claim that his victory over the former Strikeforce champ was a resounding win.
Facing a situation in which finishes and exciting performances are a necessity, Henderson is now staring down the worse possible outcome following his loss to dos Anjos. It’s going to take another win, maybe two, over a top contender to get back to where he was prior to his fight with dos Anjos. Yet, many of the top contenders in the lightweight division believe they’re on the fast track to a title shot. Khabib Nurmagomedov has an undefeated record and holds a win over the top-five fighter dos Anjos. Donald Cerrone is on a serious roll and is always a fan-favorite. Michael Johnson is having a career resurgence after stumbling early in his post-TUF career. Bobby Green is a contender after his win over Josh Thomson. And let’s not forget about Myles Jury either.
Henderson has a tough road ahead of him if he hopes to climb back up the mountain. But despite all of the factors working against him, the former UFC champ does have a few cards up his sleeve. For one, he’s a dedicated martial artist who has no problem with going back to the drawing board. Anyone who has heard Henderson speak outside the Octagon knows that he won’t head down a self-destructive path or be content with just being a good fighter. Henderson will head back into the gym and begin working on honing his skills as soon as possible.
Another factor working in Henderson’s favor is the lack of damage he’s received over the course of his career. The loss to dos Anjos was the first time Henderson had ever lost by knockout. Think back to Henderson’s contests prior to the dos Anjos fight—outside of his contests with Pettis, it’s hard to think of a time Henderson absorbed a great deal of punishment in his bouts. His safe style may not be fan friendly, but it is definitely brain-cell friendly.
We haven’t seen Henderson’s skills fall off a cliff (his boxing actually looked improved in the loss to dos Anjos), and he hasn’t been involved in a lot of brawls inside the cage. He’s always in excellent condition and is rarely injured. Henderson’s ranking might have been knocked down a peg, but the former UFC champ has the talent and mental toughness to rebound.