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When Benson Henderson signed with Bellator MMA in early 2016, there was enthusiasm and positive sentiment all around. Bellator was ecstatic to have signed a former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder as part of its talent acquisition initiative. Many names have come since and Henderson was one of the key fighters to normalize that pathway. For Henderson, it was an opportunity to be a big fish in a smaller pond. He would benefit from a greater focus and could become one of Bellator’s showcase fighters.
There was good reason to believe Henderson’s Bellator foray would turn out well. Unlike some name fighters departing the UFC, Henderson still looked to be in the prime of his career. He had recently turned 32 and won his first two fights at 170 pounds. The UFC to that point rarely let star fighters on winning streaks go, which made Henderson’s departure all the more intriguing. Henderson went into his fight with then 18-1 Bellator welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov as a 2-to-1 favorite. There was discussion about Henderson potentially holding titles in two different weight classes.
Less than two years later, Henderson faces a very different situation. With three losses in his four Bellator fights, Henderson appears to be a fighter in marked decline. It isn’t readily apparent where Henderson goes from here, and just as problematically, there doesn’t appear to be great fan curiosity about the subject, either. Bellator knows that it isn’t going to hit with each of its high-profile signings, but Henderson may end up being one of its biggest misses.
To some degree, Henderson’s recent struggles are influenced by luck. In the past, Henderson had a number of close decisions go his way. Many thought he lost fights to Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez, Josh Thomson and Jorge Masvidal, but he won split decisions against all four. Split decisions against Patricky Freire and Michael Chandler broke the other way, and Henderson’s 4-0 record in UFC split decisions compared to 0-2 in Bellator split decisions is something of an anomaly.
On the other hand, there’s also reason to view Henderson’s Bellator performance as worse than it appears on paper. His only win came after Patricio Freire suffered a fluke leg injury in a fight the Brazilian had been winning. Moreover, Henderson’s defeat against Koreshkov was the only time in his career he hasn’t been competitive over the course of a longer fight. There’s also just the eye test. Henderson doesn’t look like the same fighter he once was. The crispness and precision that have marked his best performances haven’t been present. Patricky Freire feels like the sort of fighter Henderson would have feasted on when “Smooth” was at his best.
Unlike fighters in higher weight classes, smaller fighters often fade quickly. B.J. Penn, another former lightweight champion who dabbled at welterweight with greater success than Henderson, was younger than Henderson is now when he won his last fight. Power is the trait that lasts the longest for fighters, a problematic reality for a fighter like Henderson, who has always relied more on speed and technique than power. He can’t rely on landing one big shot; he needs to outclass opponents over time, and that’s difficult to do if he has lost a step. The other alternative is to rely on submissions, but that’s something he has gotten away from over time: He won eight of his first 13 fights via submission but only two of his last 19.
Beyond his struggles in the cage, Henderson also hasn’t delivered for Bellator financially. His first three fights for the promotion disappointed as far as television ratings went. The Koreshkov and Chandler fights fell below the mean and median for the year for Bellator despite Henderson being one of the promotion’s most famous and well-paid fighters. The Patricio Freire fight did better but still fell below cards headlined by the likes of Cheick Kongo-Vinicius Kappke de Queiroz and Joe Warren-Darrion Caldwell. Caldwell-Joe Taimanglo at Bellator 159 beat out Henderson-Chandler and Henderson-Koreshkov.
Bellator surely expected a better return on their investment when it signed Henderson, and it feels like the high point might have already come. It’s not as if Henderson has become more of a ratings mover and star over the past four fights. Additionally, with the signings of Matt Mitrione, Roy Nelson, Ryan Bader, Chael Sonnen, Rory MacDonald, Lorenz Larkin and others, Henderson risks getting lost in the Bellator shuffle. As Bellator’s roster grows deeper, no individual fighter is as crucial.
There’s of course still time for Henderson to turn things around. He’ll be given high-profile fights where impressive performances are more likely to stand out. He remains durable and active. However, none of those traits will help all that much if he’s simply no longer the fighter he once was. The optimism of Henderson’s early Bellator days now seem like a distant memory, and his fighting prime may now be over.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.