Benson Henderson is 10-1 in fights that reach the judges. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
It took some time, but the Ultimate Fighting Championship is finally planting its flag in Albuquerque, N.M., which has long been one of mixed martial arts’ hubs thanks to the renowned Jackson-Wink MMA camp. Not surprisingly, UFC Fight Night “Henderson vs. Khabilov” features several prominent fighters from the Southwestern dojo, including surging Dagestani Rustam Khabilov, who squares off with former lightweight king Benson Henderson in the headliner at Tingley Coliseum.
In addition, flyweight talent -- and New Mexico native -- John Dodson meets fellow former title challenger John Moraga, while Mexican prospect Erik Perez locks horns with Bryan Caraway. No Albuquerque fight card would be complete, however, without the presence of homegrown star Diego Sanchez, who played an integral role in putting his state on the MMA map by winning the 185-pound tournament on the initial season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Sanchez will likely receive a rousing ovation when he walks to the cage for his co-main event showdown with Ross Pearson.
Here is a closer look at the UFC Fight Night “Henderson vs. Khabilov” card, with analysis and picks:
LightweightsBenson Henderson (20-3, 8-1 UFC) vs. Rustam Khabilov (17-1, 3-0 UFC)
The Matchup: Though not quite as celebrated as fellow Dagestani lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, Khabilov has a chance to potentially surpass his countryman in the lightweight pecking order should he upset Henderson, a former UFC 155-pound champion. Ironically, when Henderson originally agreed to the fight, he thought it was Nurmagomedov who was challenging him.
In order to better distinguish himself, Khabilov must continue to build upon the improvements he displayed in his last outing. While many expected the Jackson-Wink MMA product to get the better of Jorge Masvidal through wrestling and grappling at UFC “Fight for the Troops 3,” the combat sambo specialist instead relied on his striking to outpoint “Gamebred.” The most spectacular evidence of his progression was a spinning wheel kick to Masvidal’s neck that floored the American Top Team member in the third round. In addition, Khabilov had success landing his overhand right, as well as punching combinations to the head and body.
A point of concern was Masvidal’s ability to counter Khabilov’s takedowns and hold his own in the clinch. Henderson is considerably more advanced in the wrestling department, a powerfully-built lightweight with tree trunks for legs who has made a living outpacing opponents in grappling exchanges. Great balance and flexibility allow Henderson to escape from precarious positions on the mat.
However, in his controversial split decision triumph over Josh Thomson in January, Henderson had his back taken repeatedly by the former Strikeforce champion. Some of that might have been a result of “Smooth” getting too deep on his punching combinations, while some can be attributed to Thomson’s wrestling and grappling savvy. Either way, if Henderson allows Khabilov to achieve a similarly dominant position, he will likely be going for a ride via suplex.
A taekwondo black belt, Henderson excels at throwing kicks to the legs and body, but if Khabilov can time him effectively, the Dagestani can land trip takedowns after catching some of those kicks. While Masvidal tends to have some issues when faced with a foe that will be in his face, expect Henderson to match pressure with pressure. A five-round fight is a specialty of Henderson’s, as he is 6-1 in UFC and WEC bouts that go the full 25 minutes. While many believe “Smooth” has been fortunate to emerge on the right side of the scorecards so many times, his experience in such situations will no doubt benefit him here. Khabilov was tiring late in the third round of his encounter with Masvidal; add the potential for 10 more minutes against the rugged and well-conditioned Henderson, and a closely contested three-round fight could change course in a hurry in the fourth and fifth frames.
It is worth nothing that Khabilov is very early in his UFC tenure, and in theory, his capacity to make significant leaps from fight to fight should be great. T.J. Dillashaw’s dominant performance against Renan Barao at UFC 173 is a perfect example of a fighter putting everything together. If Khabilov’s striking and grappling are working in tandem, Henderson could be in for a surprise. Khabilov has already shown a penchant for the spectacular, whether it was the aforementioned kick against Masvidal or the trio of belly-to-back suplexes landed against Vinc Pichel in his Octagon debut. To see him add something else unforeseen to his arsenal would not be surprising.
Still, Henderson’s ability to prevail in close fights is a skill that not everyone has. His wealth of experience in big bouts will come in handy against someone headlining a UFC card for the first time.
The Pick: Plenty will depend on Khabilov’s ability to consistently take down a foe more powerful than Masvidal. A back-and-forth fight begins to swing in favor of Henderson in the fourth and fifth rounds, allowing the MMA Lab product to emerge with a decision or late submission victory.
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