Benson Henderson heads into a Bellator 208 clash with Saad Awad this Saturday in Uniondale, New York, on the last fight of his contract. The onetime Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder changed mixed martial arts free agency when he signed with Bellator MMA two-plus years ago. Faced with the possibility of entering free agency once again, the 34-year-old aims to prove himself worthy of one more lucrative contract before his best days are totally behind him.
“I’ll probably try to renegotiate [with Bellator], do what’s best for my family and get the best money I can on this last contract,” Henderson told Sherdog.com.
Henderson ended his seven-year tenure under the UFC umbrella and signed a six-fight deal with the California-based Bellator organization in 2016. It was a move that sent shockwaves throug the sport, because the UFC rarely loses former champions in their prime. The trend has continued, as other Top-10 fighters like Phil Davis, Ryan Bader and Rory MacDonald have left the industry leader and signed with Bellator during the best years of their careers. Henderson views himself not as a trendsetter but as a man making a sensible business decision.
“As MMA fighters, our window of opportunity to make money is pretty small,” he said, pointing to other professional sports leagues as a comparison while explaining his decision to leave the UFC. “Our good money is nuts and peanuts to them.”
Upon entering Bellator, many expected Henderson -- he has wins over notable names like Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz -- to be a dominant force in two divisions for the organization. However, he quickly found out during his promotional debut against Andrey Koreshkov that Bellator would not offer a step down in competition.
“Koreshkov, one of the best in the world, threw me a whooping for about 25 straight minutes,” Henderson said.
The former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion lost three of his first four bouts inside the Bellator cage. His lone victory came against reigning featherweight champion Patricio Freire in a fight he was losing before an injury to “Pitbull” led to a technical knockout. Yet the strong resistance presented by the organization’s roster did not surprise Henderson since he was fighting the very best it could offer.
“We knew that in Bellator the top three guys in every weight class were pretty tough, world-class level,” he said while admitting his stay in the organization has not gone according to plan. “Obviously, you want to win every fight.”
Although Henderson remains loyal to the MMA Lab in Arizona, he understands that adjustments are necessary for a fighter to evolve. With that in mind, he has brought in new coaches in every discipline over the years to integrate fresh ideas and techniques.
“We are doing everything we can to get better,” Henderson said, “but as far as leaving the MMA Lab, not so much. I’m MMA Lab through and through. I own the place.”
Henderson gained some redemption in April with an impressive victory over fellow former UFC lightweight Roger Huerta at Bellator 196. Controlling the match throughout, he ended the proceedings with a guillotine choke in the second round. It did not come without resistance.
“Props to Roger; he’s a tough SOB,” Henderson said. “I landed a good clean head kick on him, cut him open pretty good, and he got fired up and he brought it.”
It was the sort of top-shelf performance for which “Smooth” always strives. However, he admits such efforts had evaded him in Bellator.
“I think the fight played out how I envisioned it,” Henderson said. “I was just happy that I had a great performance because those seem to be pretty hard for me to come by in the Bellator cage so far.”
Henderson draws the aforementioned Awad in his next assignment. One of the longest-tenured fighters in Bellator, the heavy-handed Californian owns victories over Will Brooks, Evangelista Santos and Ryan Couture. Henderson understands the threat Awad poses.
“For me against Awad, it’s just about dictating what happens and where it happens,” he said, “and not letting him dictate his power shots. He has big power in his hands.”
Contrary to past reports regarding his future, Henderson wants to continue fighting for the foreseeable future, be it in Bellator or elsewhere. Not long after he made his Bellator debut, talk turned to the possibility of his joining the armed forces -- a dream he had long held. When asked whether or not military service and early retirement was still on the table, Henderson clarified a common misunderstanding about that particular story.
“I think it was a little bit overplayed when I stated that, because the thing with the military is I’m old now and have a wife and kids,” he said. “I do want to be home for them, so I wouldn’t be doing active duty. I should have been more clear about that part. I’ll be joining the reserves.”