During a key point of his MMA career, Benson Henderson was riding high as the reigning UFC lightweight champion. He successfully defended the title three times against top competition. This was way back in 2012-13, though. He had not yet hit the prime of his career, and many people thought he was only going to get better.
Then he ran into Anthony Pettis… for a second time.
Henderson had been champion in the WEC organization, as well, albeit, not as dominantly. He lost the WEC title to Pettis in a fight that had a dramatic moment where the challenger landed what has come to be known as the “Showtime Kick.”
During Henderson’s UFC title run, he didn’t finish any of his fights. He settled for a decision in every single win. First, there was a split decision over Frankie Edgar. Then, a unanimous verdict against Nate Diaz. Finally, a split decision against Gilbert Melendez. Some can speculate that he was playing it safe, or maybe his opponents were too tough for him to resoundingly put away. Whatever the reason may have been, there was nothing Henderson was doing that really showed his dominance.
After he lost the title to Pettis in mid-2013, Henderson tried to get back to regular form. He won his next two fights, defeating veteran Strikeforce lightweight champ Josh Thomson and up-and-coming Russian contender Rustam Khabilov, the latter of whom Henderson finished with a rear-naked choke.
Following his June 2014 win over Khabilov, which was Henderson’s first finish in nearly four years, I penned a piece for Politicus Sports, criticizing Henderson and suggesting that he wasn’t taking his fighting career seriously, especially when his last eight wins were all via decision.
I also took him to task for attacking the media for the stories they wrote about him, which he addressed at the post-fight news conference after his victory, where he basically assured journalists that him and fighters like him are on to their “tricks” of getting them to say certain things to get soundbites. That condemnation didn’t make a lot of sense at the time and still doesn’t to this day.
After his win over Khabilov, Henderson went 2-2 to close out his UFC tenure. He lost his final two lightweight fights in the UFC, but won his last two outings with the organization while competing as a welterweight. Following the fulfillment of his UFC contract, Henderson jumped ship to Bellator MMA, where he lost his welterweight title bid to Andrey Koreshkov in his promotional debut.
Henderson’s most recent fight, which took place nearly two weeks ago, pitted him against former Bellator featherweight champion Patrício Freire. The fight would decide the No. 1 contender for the Bellator lightweight championship. The winner would take on divisional kingpin Michael Chandler.
While the fight did enter into the second round, it ended in unfortunate fashion when Freire injured his leg and went down in pain. The fight had to be stopped. Henderson ended up winning via TKO. He received the No. 1 contender slot in a fairly undeserving fashion, but the fight was established as a title contender eliminator, so it was only fitting to give Henderson the shot.
The issue now becomes whether or not Henderson will be prepared to handle Chandler, who has been in wars with some of the best Bellator has had to offer. It would be to Henderson’s benefit if he brings his performances up a notch and really makes a statement. There should be no more settling for decision wins and eking out with victories. People want to see great fights, and as we all know, Bellator is a distant second in the race for the most watched combat organization, behind the UFC. If the company really wants to get somewhere in gaining popularity, then its big name fighters need to put on class-A performances.
Just becoming champion again, something Henderson has already achieved in two separate organizations, isn’t really going to do a lot for his career. What he needs to do is let people know that he fights to kill or be killed. Maybe every fighter says they have that mentality, but the key is to show it.
In another sense, maybe that mentality doesn’t work with everybody, and they choose to take up a more technical striking or grappling approach. However, if Henderson is going to do that, then he needs to at least be successful with it, instead of barely just getting by. Henderson is an excellent fighter, but he has failed to live up to his potential as of late.
Not only would better performances get Henderson more recognition from fans and the media, but it would be much better for his career as well. He is not in his prime anymore, and he decided to leave the best MMA organization in the world, arguably for the second best. If he’s not the champion for his new employer, then that counts as a huge blotch on his legacy.
Henderson needs to be an even better fighter now in a lower-tier organization. If he’s not, then his career could just flame out into something nobody would have expected.
Henderson is capable of recapturing and exceeding his former glory. Will he go beyond the expectations people have for him, or will he remain complacent and make sure to get wins by playing it safe? Only Henderson can answer this question.
Henderson’s fight against Chandler will be very telling, no matter the result. It will also inform the executives at his former employer, the UFC, as to whether it was truly a good idea to let him go rather than to give him a contract extension.