Benson “Smooth” Henderson spent 75 minutes in the Octagon in 2012. | Ezra Shaw/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images
Benson Henderson holds grand aspirations, and, in the weeks leading up to his Ultimate Fighting Championship title bout against Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in February, he let the world in on one of them: to be considered the best of the best.
“I definitely have long-term goals [and] short-term goals, but that has been my goal since I first got into fighting: to be the best fighter on the planet, no ifs, ands or buts about it; not one of the best, not Top 5, not Top 3. I want to be the best pound-for-pound fighter -- period,” Henderson said. “That goal is still in my sights. I still always wake up thinking about that.”
While doubters scoffed, Henderson shrugged.
“I don’t begrudge anybody their opinions,” he said. “I heard a few people [say], ‘Who is this Ben Henderson guy? Who does he think he is? He’s not Top 10 in the world.’ Well, that was your opinion a year and a half ago, even less than that. I’m not mad at you for your opinion, but I think your opinion might be a little off.”
Henderson -- the Sherdog.com “Fighter of the Year” for 2012 -- made tremendous strides in his pound-for-pound quest over the last 12 months, as he defeated Edgar by unanimous decision to become UFC lightweight champion and then successfully defended the belt twice, first in his August rematch with “The Answer” and again against the surging Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5 in December. By the time his work was complete, the 29-year-old had gone 75 minutes over 15 rounds and ascended to the 155-pound penthouse.
It all started on Feb. 26 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. In a riveting five-round battle that showcased the best and most endearing qualities of both men, Henderson dethroned Edgar and captured the lightweight championship in the UFC 144 headliner. All three cageside judges saw it in favor of Henderson: 49-46, 48-47 and 49-46.
Based out of the MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz., Henderson leaned heavily on powerful kicks to the legs and body of the champion. To his credit, Edgar pinned many of them between his arm and body, but they served their purpose nonetheless.
Late in the second round, Henderson permanently altered the complexion of the 25-minute fight, as he delivered a searing upkick from his back to Edgar’s exposed face. The New Jersey native crumpled where he stood and Henderson leaped into action, seeking his trademark guillotine choke.
Edgar avoided further danger, but the damage was done and it was considerable.
Rounds three, four and five unfolded into a beautiful tapestry of skill and will between two of the 155-pound division’s premier fighters. His left eye nearly swollen shut and his nose badly damaged by the upkick, Edgar never went away. However, Henderson landed more strikes of consequence -- according to FightMetric figures, he out-landed Edgar 87-68 in terms of total significant strikes and 100-81 in terms of total overall strikes -- and unleashed his guillotine once more in round four. Again, Edgar freed himself.
Neither champion nor challenger held back in the fifth, as the indomitable Edgar cracked Henderson repeatedly with short, straight punches. Henderson provided his retort late in the frame with a jumping knee and followed Edgar to the ground in the closing seconds, working for a guillotine one last time. Alas, a finish was not in the cards.
Henderson saw his size and strength as keys to the life-altering victory.
“I wanted to use my size to my advantage,” he said. “Making weight kind of sucks for me. I have to do like eight hard weeks and then two hard days of cutting down the weight. I pay a big price for that, and I want to make sure my opponents feel that pain when we have our 25 minutes inside the Octagon.”
Six months later, they met again at the Pepsi Center in Denver. The result was far more contentious, as Henderson escaped with a split decision in the UFC 150 headliner on Aug. 11.
“Frankie is tough as heck, man. All his fights seem to be controversial,” he said. “I think Frankie is just so good and so tough that if he loses or wins, everything is going to be controversial. Thankfully, [two of the three] guys who were judging the fight ringside had it in my favor.”
Henderson’s game plan centered on kicks to the challenger’s lower leg. The tactic was effective early, but Edgar grew wise to it as the fight deepened. He countered beautifully with right hands, one of which planted Henderson on the seat of his shorts in the second round. Rounds one, two and five were relatively clear, with the first going to Henderson and the second and fifth to Edgar. Rounds three and four appeared far more competitive and difficult to call.
“He was doing a good job of backing away and staying out of range,” Henderson said. “Those leg kicks, we game planned to use those, to get him off-balance and then to capitalize right away. I wanted to pounce. I think I got him off-balance three times in the first round, and I hesitated. I squandered my chance to jump on him.”
According to FightMetric figures, Edgar bested Henderson 70-65 in total strikes and 66-62 in terms of significant strikes. He also delivered four takedowns in the five-round affair and threatened Henderson more than once with the guillotine choke. Afterward, the champion admitted he left the cage with some regret.
“I should have pushed [the pace] a lot more. I didn’t push it enough,” Henderson said. “I thought I was doing enough to win the fight going into the fifth, but I knew the fifth was a crucial round. I should have pushed it a lot more, and I’m very disappointed in myself that I didn’t.”
Diaz served as the next hurdle for “Smooth,” and Henderson was in prime form at the Key Arena in Seattle. There, he cruised to a one-sided unanimous verdict over “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner in the UFC on Fox 5 main event on Dec. 8. All three cageside judges scored it for the champion: 50-43, 50-45 and 50-45.
Searing leg kicks, energy-sapping clinches, takedowns and heavy ground-and-pound were all part of the Henderson scheme, and he executed it with remarkable precision.
Henderson secured takedowns in all five rounds, totaling eight of them by the time the 25-minute fight was over. The Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt neutralized Diaz’s boxing skills by attacking his legs, smothering him with clinches and grounding him repeatedly. Moreover, Henderson twice sent the Cesar Gracie protégé reeling with punches -- an overhand left in the second round and a right hook in the third.
Perhaps sensing his situation was dire, Diaz turned to leg locks midway through the fight. None of them were successful. Henderson simply scrambled out of danger, assumed top position and cut loose with punches, elbows and hammerfists. According to FightMetric.com figures, the MMA Lab representative out-landed Diaz by a staggering 124-30 margin in terms of significant strikes.
Henderson has won 16 of his past 17 bouts, including six in a row since joining the UFC as part of the World Extreme Cagefighting merger. He has clearly established himself as the alpha male at 155 pounds.
“It’s just a matter of being well-prepared,” he said, “and being in the gym as much as possible.”
Trained by Royce Gracie protégé John Crouch, Henderson has yet to reap the mainstream rewards of gold-bearing counterparts like Junior dos Santos, Jon Jones, Anderson Silva and Georges St. Pierre, all of whom have struck major endorsement deals. However, with continued success inside the Octagon, he believes his time will come.
“I just need to continue doing what I’m doing,” he said. “It doesn’t happen overnight. If you want to be the best MMA promoter and build your company up, it takes time. You have to lay the ground work, stay on that grind, stay at it and, eventually, you get those big, huge national deals. If you put the work in, it will fall into place.”