The emotions MMA fans have used to describe former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson range from complete apathy to boredom. There were a few pockets of Henderson supporters throughout the MMA landscape, but, for the large part, MMA fans were seemingly through with throwing their support behind Henderson. However, that all appears to be changing at a rapid pace.
Henderson had seemingly eroded any goodwill he brought with him from his WEC days. The Henderson of WEC fame was a slick submission artist who owned two victories against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and one against the always popular (read: sarcasm) Jamie Varner. After losing to Anthony Pettis in the final WEC bout, Henderson bounced back in the UFC with a pair of dominant victories over Mark Bocek and Jim Miller.
But once Henderson ascended to the realm of title challenger and, eventually, champion, something seemed to change in his approach. Gone were the days of Henderson looking for the submission finish. He became one of the faces of the point-fighting debate. It didn’t help that all but one of his title bouts were razor-thin decision victories.
Henderson’s title reign came to an end in a rematch with Pettis, but wins in his next two outings kept Henderson in the title picture. However, when he suffered back-to-back losses recently, it put the fighter behind the eight-ball. He couldn’t count on roaring fan support to keep his status as an elite lightweight, and this meant he didn’t have the drawing power a former champion should possess. Henderson didn’t present the most exciting style in the cage either. Yet, it appears that reaching such a low point in his career has somehow given Henderson a renewed drive. The man is very religious, so it’s only fair to say Henderson has managed to baptize himself as a new fighter to MMA fans.
Following his loss to Cerrone in January, Henderson made a quick turnaround to step in versus Brandon Thatch at UFC Fight Night 60. Thatch had put himself on the radar through his impressive showings inside the Octagon. Not only did Thatch have the highlights of a talented up-and-comer, but he gave Henderson a new facet of MMA to face. At lightweight, Henderson had usually been the bigger fighter in the cage. His legs were bigger than those of fighters in multiple weight classes above his own. But, against Thatch, Henderson could no longer count on his size as an advantage.
It showed early on in the bout, as Henderson struggled to string together much offense. But, like the true former champion he is, Henderson persevered and slapped on a tight rear-naked choke in the fourth round to defeat Thatch. The victory marked only the second time Henderson had finished an opponent in the past five years. Another plus: Henderson’s performance came in a highly entertaining scrap in which he was viewed as the underdog.
Henderson’s public-relations renaissance wasn’t over following his victory against Thatch. After hearing news that Quinton “Rampage” Jackson wouldn’t be able to compete at UFC 186, Henderson threw down an open challenge to anyone in the 170-pound division. Although the responses he received weren’t likely what he was looking for, Henderson has already gained a moral victory with both the UFC brass and MMA fans. It’s a page straight out of the “Cowboy” Cerrone playbook: fight anyone, anywhere, anytime. It’s that method of thought that has gained Cerrone so many fans throughout his MMA career despite the fact he’s yet to win a major MMA title.
In Henderson’s case, it represents a chance for him to convince fans to fully get behind one of the few remaining good guys in the sport. Throughout his career, Henderson has managed to avoid the scandals and bad press that typically accompany an athlete of his caliber. Anyone who has seen any type of footage showing Henderson in his daily life knows this isn’t a guy who lives by the “bro code.” He’s a devout Christian who is happily married and always manages to carry himself like a true martial artist. He isn’t brash or looking to hype himself up through social media. He’s just a seemingly good-natured guy who happens to excel with a pair of four-ounce gloves. He may stifle his growth up the rankings by offering to take bouts in two different weight classes, but it’s pretty clear that his popularity has reached new levels.
If Henderson can continue to maintain this current attitude and put on exciting fights inside the cage, odds are he’ll find himself quickly back in the position he wants to be, sitting atop UFC cards with the chance of UFC gold on the line.