Viewpoint: Mastering the Tightrope

By Tristen Critchfield Jan 27, 2014
Benson Henderson is 10-1 in fights that go the distance. | Photo: Dave Mandel/

It made Frankie Edgar change weight classes, prompted Gilbert Melendez to get reckless and most recently caused Josh Thomson to publicly contemplate retirement.

Yes, Benson Henderson Split Decision Loss Syndrome is making a significant impact in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division. While it might be a stretch to give Henderson sole credit for altering the career paths of all of the above, it is undeniable that he has had at least some effect on each of them.

Edgar dropped a contentious split verdict against Henderson at UFC 150 in what was his second consecutive loss to the former World Extreme Cagefighting titlist. “I thought I brought it to him,” a confused Edgar said after the August 2012 fight. Shortly thereafter, he dropped to featherweight despite having balked at the notion of changing weight classes on multiple occasions in the past.

Meanwhile, Melendez failed to find favor with two of the three cageside judges in a loss to the MMA Lab standout at UFC on Fox 7. “I’m just kind of heartbroken right now,” Melendez lamented in April. In his next outing, “El Nino” cruised against Diego Sanchez for the first two rounds of their UFC 166 encounter. That did not prevent him from engaging in exactly the type of slugfest Sanchez wanted in the third frame. Melendez still won, but if the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product had been able to capitalize on a right uppercut that briefly floored his opponent, who knows what the outcome might have been. Then again, who can blame Melendez for emptying his figurative clip after the Henderson loss?

Finally, there is Thomson. By his own admission, “The Punk” did not have his best camp leading up to the UFC on Fox 10 headliner on Saturday. To make matters worse, he broke his thumb early in the first round, which, not surprisingly, severely impeded his ability to perform.

“It was a huge hindrance,” said Javier Mendez, one of Thomson’s coaches at the American Kickboxing Academy. “He couldn’t do what he needed to do. He couldn’t use his right hand. He’s a lot better striker than he showed, [but] he couldn’t do any of that; and the grappling ... he couldn’t do anything, either.”

Photo: D. Mandel/

Thomson left frustrated.
Thomson’s version of not being able to do anything turned out to be pretty effective. The 35-year-old had Henderson on the defensive from the opening minute, when he landed a takedown, took his opponent’s back and locked in a body triangle. He then repeated the feat in the second frame. Despite his limitations, Thomson weathered the inevitable Henderson rally in the third to finish strong over the bout’s final 10 minutes. There was no doubt that it was a close, competitive fight. There was also little doubt in the minds of those scoring at home that Thomson deserved the nod.

Just like Edgar and Melendez before him, Thomson was about to suffer a letdown. While judge Gabriel Sabaitis saw what many of us did, a 48-47 victory for “The Punk,” Brian Puccillo submitted a 48-47 tally for Henderson. Inexplicably, Sal D’Amato saw it 49-46 for the former UFC lightweight ruler. That 12 of the 15 media scorers tracked by favored Thomson was but a mere footnote amid the indignant outrage that spread like wildfire over social media when the official ruling was announced.

“My opinion doesn’t matter. As you can tell, I lost,” Thomson said at the post-fight press conference. “The only thing that really matters is the three people sitting on the cage, and they decided [my opinion] didn’t matter. That’s it.”

It was a sour ending to a low-key card that drew the lowest gate and attendance of any of the four UFC events held in Chicago. Much of that was to be expected. With the promotion’s traditional Super Bowl weekend card on the horizon and an overwhelming itinerary to fill in 2014, UFC on Fox 10 lacked the oomph of its previous Windy City iterations.

Still, it would have been nice to have some satisfying closure to the lone bout with anything resembling title implications. Instead, it was yet another example of faulty judging marring proceedings. While even Mendez acknowledged that a 48-47 scorecard for Henderson was plausible in such a closely contested matchup, D’Amato giving Henderson four rounds was indefensible.

“I thought 49-46 was ours, so when I heard 49-46 [announced], I thought for sure we won that fight,” Mendez said.

Such assumptions are never safe in a sport where the phrase “This is MMA” qualifies as a reasonable explanation when things go wrong. It is no wonder that Thomson was contemplating retirement in the aftermath. He went from potentially fighting Anthony Pettis for lightweight gold in December to having a valiant effort against a former champion end in heartbreak.

“You train this hard for this long -- this was a long camp -- and you see your title shot just [expletive] disappearing,” he said. “Without getting emotional right now, it’s really irritating me.”

At 35 and with a long history of bumps and bruises, Thomson’s willingness to ponder the end of the line makes sense. Though he said differently, Thomson would not have been expressing the same sentiments on the heels of a hard-fought win.

None of this is Henderson’s fault. He has proven himself to be a master of walking the tightrope, and it just so turns out that he usually makes it to the other end unscathed. To beat Henderson, to earn more than just a moral victory from the masses, takes something spectacular. Just ask Pettis, who has accomplished the feat twice in three years. However, if a fight comes down to “just doing enough” to win, Henderson has that market cornered.

“He’s got an iron will, a big heart and he keeps fighting,” said John Crouch, Henderson’s trainer at the MMA Lab. “We’d like to have dramatic, exciting finishes. We’re working with what we’ve got.”

What they have is working. Anyone else who faces Henderson should take notice that simply making it to the finish line and hoping for the best is not enough. After all, this is MMA.
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