The slightest of margins oftentimes separate victory from defeat at the highest levels of full-contact fighting. Anthony Pettis taught Benson Henderson that lesson when, in the words of “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 finalist Stephan Bonnar, he sprang off the cage “like a ninja” and kicked him in the face in the fifth round of their unforgettable encounter at WEC 53 in December 2010. The unanimous decision defeat remains Henderson’s only setback in his past 15 appearances.
Some sports offer the security of the next day on the schedule, but MMA has proven far less forgiving for the athletes who populate its ranks.
“Some guys in a basketball game can afford to have a bad game because they have 82 a season [in the NBA],” Henderson said during a pre-fight media call for UFC 150. “For fighters, if you have a bad performance for a world title, there aren’t a lot of re-dos.”
Though Henderson has not yet had the opportunity to avenge his loss to Pettis, he has won four consecutive fights since, culminating in his triumph over Frankie Edgar in February that brought with it the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight crown. Now, six months later, Henderson draws the unenviable task of defeating Edgar again in the UFC 150 main event on Saturday at the Pepsi Center in Denver.
After engaging in 25 minutes of spirited combat, the two men share a certain familiarity with one another entering the rematch.
“I know what he does. He knows what I do,” Henderson said. “I think it’s more a matter of who got better at the fundamentals. It’s not about the little tricks. I’m big on fundamentals, and I’ll always be trying to improve my basics.”
Based at the MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., where he trains under longtime mentor and Royce Gracie protégé John Crouch, Henderson has rapidly evolved into one of the sport’s premier pound-for-pound fighters. The 28-year-old has not lost since his crossover from World Extreme Cagefighting, rattling off wins against Mark Bocek, AMA Fight Club standout Jim Miller, former Strikeforce champion Clay Guida and Edgar. Henderson tends to focus on the nuts and bolts of MMA.
“I don’t really do much different,” he said. “There’s no hidden secrets on how to be a good fighter. It’s the same as everybody else. You try to pay attention to the fundamentals, learn new tricks and do the little things to make yourself that much better.”
Whatever the approach, it was worked. Henderson has blossomed, and, as a result, he has brought recognition and respect to the MMA Lab camp, which has included fellow former WEC lightweight champion Jamie Varner, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 8 winner Efrain Escudero and fast-rising flyweight prospect John Moraga.
“What makes my coaches great is that they are always trying to get better,” he said. “They don’t have all the answers .They’re great at each specific style. It makes our team better. Traveling makes you tired. I’m not the best traveler. I toned it down in the lead-up to the fight. A bunch of guys have wanted to come out and train with us now at the MMA Lab in Arizona, so that’s cool and nice to feel.”
The rematch could serve as a crossroads bout for Edgar, who has resisted calls from UFC President Dana White and others to downshift to 145 pounds. He had significant difficulty dealing with Henderson’s unique combination of size, strength and athleticism at UFC 144 in Japan, and another defeat could lead to a move to featherweight. The twice-beaten Edgar is no stranger to sequels, as he defeated both B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard in rematches. The 30-year-old Toms River, N.J., native has become revered for his fierce competitive spirit and seemingly indomitable will.
“I’m expecting more of the same,” Henderson said. “Frankie is a tough fighter, and he’s always better in rematches. They always have a great game plan for rematches. For me, I expect more of the same, just a lot hungrier, tougher, smarter and more well-game planned Frankie.”
With the surging Nate Diaz in prime position to challenge the winner, White has only increased the burden on the champion’s shoulders. Should Henderson fail to retain his title, he will not be afforded the luxury of an immediate rubber match with “The Answer.”
“Dana can say what he wants to say,” said Henderson, who has not yet finished an opponent inside the Octagon. “I want to win my next fight no matter what, whether he says I’ll be out of the UFC or have to go to 170 [pounds] or anything. I want to win my next fight -- period -- [and] very badly. People sometimes don’t understand the desire for a fighter to win our next fight. I don’t care what the add-ons are; I want to win my next fight.”