When the era of free agency dawned in the NFL in the mid-1990s, it was welcomed as an end to the dynasties of teams like the Pittsburgh Steelers, San Francisco 49ers and Dallas Cowboys. The introduction of parity through free agency meant players were allowed to negotiate for contracts that matched what they believed represented their monetary value.
While the New England Patriots have shown that dynasties in football can persevere, free agency has become a hallmark of professional sports. Mixed martial arts is no different, and the UFC is not immune either. While the UFC is routinely hailed (and rightly so) as the biggest game in town, fighters like Tito Ortiz and Phil Davis have left the seemingly greenest pastures of the promotion for new opportunities.
They may have company in the form of former lightweight champion Benson Henderson.
Henderson won the last fight on his UFC contract on Nov. 28 against Jorge Masvidal. He is on record as saying he wants to test the free-agent market, but that he intends to retire in the UFC.
While Henderson should make the decision(s) that he thinks are best for his career, he runs the risk of already handicapping himself before enjoying his next big payday. When a fighter says that they want to test the free-agent market but still retire for the their current employer, the fighter runs the risk of receiving lowball offers from other suitors.
Bellator President and CEO Scott Coker would love to have Henderson in his organization, but he wants to go about it “the right way.” Coker appears to be playing coy when it comes to reaching out to fighters who are no longer under contract, as he is wont to do. But why wouldn’t Bellator want to bring “Bendo” into the fold? Imagine a fight between Henderson and Michael “Venom” Page at welterweight in the Bellator cage, or, if Henderson decided to return to lightweight, fights against Michael Chandler and lightweight champion Will Brooks. Those fights would be must-see TV.
If Henderson decided to venture even further off the beaten path to the World Series of Fighting, he could possibly have fights against Jon Fitch, Yushin Okami and Jake Shields waiting for him. These would all represent interesting fights that would raise the profile of a promotion lagging behind the UFC and Bellator.
Of course, an advantage that Bellator and the WSOF have over the UFC is that they’re not beholden to a deal that is a clear disadvantage to fighters. I’m talking about the UFC’s deal with Reebok, of course.
Under the pay structure that’s part of the deal, payouts range from $2,500 with fighters who have up to five fights in the UFC, to $40,000 for its champions. Henderson has 14 fights in UFC, counting his latest victory against Masvidal, so he likely saw a payout of only $10,000 (not counting any potential bonuses). For a former champion who defended his belt three times, including in back-to-back classics against Frankie Edgar, that’s pathetic, frankly. It should be enough unto itself for Henderson to seriously consider jumping ship to another organization like Bellator, who, it’s safe to assume, can provide a much more lucrative offer. Even ROAD FC, an MMA organization based in South Korea, recently offered $200,000 to Henderson.
There is obviously a demand for Henderson’s services, and why wouldn’t there be? He’s one of the best and most exciting fighters in the world. It’s admirable that he wants to secure his legacy as one of the best to ever compete in the biggest MMA organization in the world. However, he should not shortchange himself during the limited amount of time fighters (and athletes in general) have to make as much money as they can.
So to “Bendo,” I would say: Relax. Enjoy your courtship with various organizations. Make them take you out to dinner. Travel the world to find out who really wants you to be a part of their family. But, most importantly, take your time and make the decision that you truly think is the best for you. You may not get this opportunity again.