Benson Henderson needs to make a change. After dropping a controversial decision to Donald Cerrone last month to fall to 2-3 in his last five fights, the former champion has fallen to the bottom rung of a ladder full of talented lightweight contenders, most of whom he had competed against before. A future at 155 pounds for Henderson now represents an extremely difficult road back to the top and another long stretch of fights where Henderson, an incredibly large lightweight, would have to endure a particularly draining weight cut in order to compete. Given the circumstances surrounding his last few fights and his current spot in his division, Henderson’s decision to jump on an opportunity to move up in weight and join the welterweight division caused many fight fans to rejoice with the thought that “Smooth” had a chance to resurrect a slowly floundering career.
What’s surprising, then, is that Henderson’s decision to jump head first into the division on less than a month’s notice against Brandon Thatch at UFC Fight Night 60 is apparently going to be a one-time thing. Fighting on short notice is nothing new to Henderson, who took last month’s fight against Cerrone with less than two weeks to prepare, but doing so while jumping up a weight class is a bold move, even for a fighter as talented as the former UFC champ. Now that it’s evident that Henderson isn’t going to remain in the division regardless of the outcome next weekend, it’s even easier to question his decision. Even a win is unlikely to move him up the 155-pound rankings.
While Thatch may not be one of the bigger fighters at 170 pounds who could potentially out-muscle Henderson, he’s still going to be much bigger on fight day than Henderson’s recent opponents. Obviously, a world-class fighter such as Henderson should be able to more than hold his own against the majority of the fighters at welterweight, Thatch included. But gearing up for a new weight class with less than 30 days to prepare is a tall order and, as a result, the expected growing pains that come with a change in weight may stick out a little more than “Smooth” would like in his welterweight debut.
While it’s doubtful that many fans expect Henderson to come out as a killer against Thatch, it is a little surprising to see the lack of faith the oddsmakers have in Henderson heading into next weekend’s battle with Thatch. He isn’t a sizable underdog by any means, but the fact that a former lightweight champion isn’t favored over a welterweight prospect with just a 2-0 Octagon record is almost shocking. Thatch has proven to be a strong finisher and has shown flashes of serious talent in his pair of UFC bouts, but he’s still largely unproven in the Octagon.
In attempting to take out a rising star like Thatch, Henderson is in for a tough test. Henderson may not possess one-shot knockout power or a dominant mat game, but he point-fights better than almost anyone in the sport, and his cerebral approach to striking could easily give a young, untested fighter like Thatch fits. If that ends up being the case and Henderson looks like the champion of old while taking out the heavily hyped Thatch, it would be a major mistake for Henderson to brush off the performance and move back to lightweight.
As a strong wrestler and one of the bigger lightweights in the division, it’s almost surprising that Henderson never tries to use his grappling skills in order to shut down his opponents, instead opting to stand and strike no matter whom he’s up against. While that strategy may not have always been the best for Henderson at lightweight, it would be a good sign for his future in a 170-pound division full of big, strong wrestlers that Henderson would likely have a hard time taking down anyway. As long as his takedown defense held up against those same guys, which seems likely considering his career takedown defense is sitting well over 50 percent, there’s no reason to believe Henderson couldn’t take his current style to a new division with little difficulty.
After standing and doing more than enough to hold his own against high-caliber strikers like Cerrone and Frankie Edgar during his time at lightweight, the only real question surrounding Henderson’s striking during a move to welterweight would be how hard he can both land and take a punch. Fifteen pounds seems like nothing to most people, but getting hit by a big right hook from a guy like Cerrone is far from the same thing as taking the same shot from a big hitter at 170 like Hector Lombard or Jake Ellenberger. Henderson’s ability or inability to take those punches would go a long way toward determining exactly how far he can go in his new weight class, but considering “Smooth’s” only knockout loss came due to a flash knee from Rafael dos Anjos, there’s no reason to doubt his chin.
If Henderson can get past Thatch and look anything resembling the champion he once was in the process, it’s likely he could end up right in the thick of things in the 170-pound division if he decided to stick around. He could even land, at the very least, on the cusp of a spot in the welterweight top 10. The division is just as deep as lightweight and may have even bigger names rounding out its rankings, but Henderson is talented enough that he should end up in close to the same position he’s been in at 155 pounds over the past year before too long.
Henderson hasn’t proven that he’s a legit welterweight yet, but nothing about him suggests that he would be anything other than the same high-level fighter that he’s been at lightweight for the past five years. “Smooth” has earned his reputation as a world-class fighter and a former champion. While he certainly ended up hitting a rough patch in his last few fights at lightweight, there’s nothing left for him to prove while competing in that division. A move to welterweight would give Henderson a legitimate shot to make a push for UFC gold that’s unlikely to happen if he stays put. It’s easy to see why Henderson would want to stick around at lightweight and try to recapture his old throne, but if he honestly wants to return to glory his best shot will come at 170, not 155.