Benson Henderson, now 34, has little left to accomplish in mixed martial arts.
The onetime World Extreme Cagefighting and Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight titleholder will take his latest turn as a Bellator MMA headliner, as he does battle with Roger Huerta in the Bellator 196 main event this Friday at the Budapest Sports Arena in Budapest, Hungary. Henderson enters the match on a two-fight losing streak, having dropped consecutive split decisions to Michael Chandler and Patricky Freire; he has never suffered three straight defeats. Henderson sports one of MMA’s most accomplished resumes at 155 pounds, with wins over Rustam Khabilov, Nate Diaz, Jim Miller and three former Strikeforce champions: Clay Guida, Josh Thomson and Gilbert Melendez. The longtime John Crouch protégé was a two-time NAIA All-American wrestler at Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, and holds the rank of black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and taekwondo.
In a career filled with defining moments, here are five that stand out:
It all came together for Henderson in the WEC 43 main event on Oct. 10, 2009, as he captured the interim lightweight championship with a unanimous decision over Donald Cerrone at the AT&T Center in San Antonio. “Smooth” drew 48-47 marks from all three judges in what was later named the Sherdog.com “Fight of the Year” for 2009. Henderson outstruck Cerrone across five breathtaking rounds, executed eight takedowns and successfully defended nine submission attempts from the relentless “Cowboy.” Cerrone threw everything in his arsenal at the MMA Lab export, from omaplatas, triangle chokes and kimuras to armbars and guillotine chokes. Nothing stuck. It was as if Henderson was bulletproof. They have since met on two other occasions -- Henderson owns a 2-1 edge in their head-to-head series -- but this was the masterpiece.
2. Unifying Force
Henderson unified the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight championship at the expense of Jamie Varner, submitting the abrasive UFC veteran with a guillotine choke in the third round of their WEC 46 headliner on Jan. 10, 2010 at ARCO Arena in Sacramento, California. Varner conceded defeat 2:41 into Round 3, his run of five consecutive victories at an end. After a relatively uneventful first 10 minutes, Henderson drew “C4” into his web. Varner shot for a double-leg takedown, only to be countered immediately. Henderson tightened his squeeze on an arm-in guillotine, forced the tapout and took his place as the undisputed WEC lightweight champion.
3. Wrong Side of History
No one can ever forget the first time Henderson encountered Anthony Pettis in the cage. Their historic showdown in the WEC 53 main event on Dec. 16, 2010 in Glendale, Arizona, served as the perfect final chapter for World Extreme Cagefighting, as they fought tooth and nail until the end. Even so, only one man could leave the Jobing.com Arena as the last WEC lightweight champion. Both men landed their share of clean blows and traded submission attempts across 25 memorable minutes. Back and forth they fought into the fifth round, with neither Pettis nor the defending champion establishing a clear advantage on the scorecards. Then it happened. With precious seconds ticking off the clock, Pettis sprang off the cage, kicked Henderson in the face and dropped the MMA Lab standout where he stood. Though the impact failed to knock out “Smooth,” the term “Showtime Kick” entered the mixed martial arts lexicon forever. Pettis went on to win a unanimous decision, earning 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46 scores from the judges.
4. All the Right Answers
He completed his climb to the lightweight summit halfway across the world. In a riveting five-round battle that showcased the best and most endearing qualities of both men, Henderson dethroned Frankie Edgar and laid claim to the lightweight championship in the UFC 144 headliner on Feb. 26, 2012 at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. All three cageside judges saw it in favor of Henderson: 49-46, 48-47 and 49-46. “Smooth” 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 torso, 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 outlanded Edgar 87-68 in terms of significant strikes and 100-81 in total strikes -- and unleashed his guillotine once more in the fourth round. Again, Edgar freed himself. Henderson was not surprised. 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 before settling for the decision.
5. Rude Awakening
Henderson’s friends, family and fans would have been better off looking the other way on April 22, 2016. He found himself woefully outgunned in his bid to unseat Bellator MMA welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov in the Bellator 153 main event, as he bowed to the Russian in a one-sided unanimous decision at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut. All three cageside judges saw it 50-45 for Koreshkov, giving him a clean sweep on the scorecards. No one previously had bullied Henderson for such an extended period of time. Koreshkov squashed the MMA Lab rep’s takedowns and systematically dismantled him from the outside, utilizing his superior height and reach. He had Henderson teetering on the brink more than once, nearly finishing him with a flying knee on the button late in the first round. Only Henderson’s guile and heart kept him around for the full 25 minutes.