A month before the latest in what has been a continual string of “biggest fight of his life” bouts, UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson wasn’t spending his Sunday resting on the couch, engulfed in all things Gilbert Melendez.
He was competing in the brown belt division of the 2013 International Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu Federation Pan American Championships in Long Beach, California. The previous weekend, the consensus top lightweight in all of mixed martial arts and the pound-for-pound stalwart was doing the same in the Arizona Jiu-Jitsu Open, where he would defeat Christian Broadnax to win his division.
“I love competing,” states Henderson, who is currently a brown belt under Royce Gracie black belt John Crouch. “Whether it’s a pick-up game of basketball down the street, a flag football game with all the boys, or whether it’s a jiu-jitsu tournament, I love competing and having fun, and it’s nice to compete when the weight of the world isn’t on your shoulders.”
Henderson adopts the role of a nondescript observer breaking down what comes with every trip into the Octagon in rapid fire fashion: the pressure, the need to win, the consequences of losing, and the amount of time that goes into each fight.
Anywhere from eight to 12 weeks are spent working towards one performance that will last no more than 25 minutes, with one move, one hold, or one misstep potentially being the difference between victory and defeat.
“It’s nice to just go have fun, compete, and if I lose, I lose - no big deal. If I get caught in an arm lock, no biggie - I got caught in an arm lock, oh well. It’s nice to have that – just to be able to compete for the sake of competition; no money, just go have fun.”
It’s also a training tool for Henderson, and a break from rolling with the same collection of teammates and sparring partners that help him prepare at The MMA Lab. Training with the same people day after day, you learn their tendencies – how they set up this hold, what they’ll do in that position – and the instinctive drive to excel and win doesn’t necessarily kick in the same way it does when you’re facing an unfamiliar opponent in a competitive environment.
“That’s the other part of it – you still get pretty worked up to compete and to try to win. I want to win at everything, always, so it’s nice to be able to see different looks, see different people who have different set-ups.
“Maybe Gilbert Melendez uses the same arm lock set-up as this guy, so it’s nice to see different looks, and see things from different angles and a different perspective while still improving your skills.
“It does help my MMA career too,” he adds with a laugh. “Jiu-jitsu is pretty prevalent in MMA, and I use it quite a bit – but it’s no big deal if I lose. I can just go have fun.”
When the horn sounds to end his fights, a wide smile almost immediately appears on Henderson’s face, a sign that he’s enjoyed the time he just spent in the cage. You used to be able to tell the 29-year-old known as “Smooth” was having fun during his bouts as well; the pearly-white post-fight grin used to be present as he traded leather and looked for takedowns as well, but not as of late.
The in-fight smile has been absent since Henderson made his UFC debut against Mark Bocek at UFC 129, a result of the outcome of the fight that came before it.
“Any time you compete, you should definitely learn how to improve and get better from your last performance,” suggests Henderson, who has developed into a dangerous all-around force inside the cage after beginning his career relying primarily on his skills as a grappler. “Coming off a loss, you should have even that much more to learn.
“Coming off my last loss, I definitely learned from that, took away from that, and one of the things we learned, we took away, and we got better at was not being as casual, not being as lackadaisical inside the Octagon. (We worked on) being more aggressive, pushing forward more, driving forward more - taking control, and taking what we want. That’s what we’re about, and it seems to have paid off pretty well so far in our UFC career.”
Indeed it has.
Henderson is a perfect 6-0 since losing to Anthony Pettis in the final fight of the final card in WEC history, and he has climbed to the top of the deepest, most competitive division in the company in the process. Tomorrow night, he’ll look to maintain his unblemished record in the Octagon when he defends his lightweight title for a third time, sharing the cage with Gilbert Melendez.
The long-reigning Strikeforce lightweight champion will make his long-awaited debut in familiar confines, crossing the threshold of the UFC cage inside the HP Pavilion in San Jose, where he’s competed eight times in the past, boasting a 7-1 record.
Henderson knows all about holding a “home field advantage” on fight night, having earned his most recent victory before a partisan crowd in his hometown of Seattle. His two previous bouts before that were considered “home games” as well, which has the lightweight champion excited about being the out-of-towner looking to spoil the party this time around.
“I won’t lie: being the invader, being the outside guy, the guy the crowd doesn’t like – my first fight in the UFC was against Mark Bocek in Toronto, Canada at the UFC’s largest event ever – 55,000 people. I kind of liked it. It was cool having 55,000 people cheering their heads off, wanting me to lose, and then at the end of the fight, they were all cheering their heads off that I won. It’s kind of cool. I dig it. It’s just another challenge; the next challenge in my life, and I’m ready for it.”
He’s also ready for Melendez, who comes into this fight in a somewhat similar position to Henderson and his fellow WEC lightweights when they first transitioned into the UFC.
“Gilbert is being a little bit under-appreciated,” Henderson says. “He’s not as well-known by a lot of the casual fans and that kind of stuff, but to the hardcore fans, they know how tough he is; they know how good he is.
“He’s been considered a top what – Top three? Top five fighter on the planet for a long, long time, not just recently. I know how tough he is. I’m definitely not sleeping on him. I know how good he is.
“I’m going to make sure I bring my best; bring my A-game. I’m not going to sleep on him or disrespect him by saying, `He’s just this. He’s not very good.’ Naw – he’s darn good. I know how good he is. I have to make sure to bring my best so that come April 20th, I leave there with my hand raised and the belt around my waist still.”
Henderson and Melendez will close out Saturday’s event on FOX, and just as he takes some satisfaction from playing the role of the visitor in this “Champion vs. Champion” encounter, the 18-2 UFC champion also takes a great deal of pleasure from being the final pairing on the nationally televised fight card as well.
“It is awesome being on a FOX card for the third time,” begins Henderson, who defeated Clay Guida in the co-main event of the inaugural FOX event before besting Nathan Diaz on the network last December. “I still have a bad taste in my mouth from being on FOX the first time.
“It’s FOX, the first time ever - a huge, huge deal, a lot of press. It’s a big, huge deal – the UFC being on FOX; first-time every on prime time television, that kind of stuff, and to not actually be on FOX didn’t sit well. It left a bad taste in my mouth.
“The little kid in me – I get a giggle every time I think about it – for this card, I have some heavyweights who are…” He pauses, literally giggling to himself. “The heavyweights were ahead of me on the first one ever; it was the heavyweights who got all the press, got all the attention, who made it to FOX, and us little guys were on Facebook. It’s nice that for this one, us little guys get a little bit of love, and we are the headliners now, and the heavyweights are the co-main event. The little kid in me gets a pretty big kick out of that.”
Headlining a second consecutive FOX event, and doing so after heavyweights Daniel Cormier and Frank Mir occupy the Octagon, brings a smile to Henderson’s face. Being in a position to headline events of this size and standing atop one of the most talent-rich divisions in the sport provides the lightweight champion with another feeling altogether.
“It’s validation,” he says. “I chose this crazy life, this crazy career as a way to pay my bills – I chose this after I graduated college and stuff – and it’s validation. `Hey, you didn’t pick the wrong career. You weren’t crazy, you weren’t nuts for thinking you could do this.’
“It’s nice to be at that level, knowing that all that hard work paid all, knowing that all that hard work, the sacrifices, the tears, the getting punched in the face,” he stops dead without finishing the sentence, but resumes a second later. “People think it’s easy – going to the gym getting punched in the face everyday – but it’s not easy; it’s hard. Getting kicked and choked. It’s nice to have that validation to prove all that hard work was worth it, and that I wasn’t nuts for doing this.”
Those who have watched Henderson’s progression from the WEC to the UFC have known he wasn’t “nuts for doing this” for some time, and the shiny gold belt he’ll carry to the cage tomorrow night against Melendez represents further affirmation of his choice.
But Henderson isn’t content with having been the best for the past year, or being the best today; he wants to continually prove himself to be the best, day after day, fight after fight, every chance he can.
That’s why he spends the occasional weekend competing in jiu-jitsu tournaments, and why he welcomes the opportunity to share the cage with a dangerous foe like Melendez tomorrow night on FOX. It’s another chance to prove he’s the best lightweight in the world and one of the best in the sport as a whole; it’s a fight he’s looking forward to, and one he says you’re not going to want to miss.
“Gilbert is top two, top three on the planet. I believe I’m the best lightweight on the planet, he believes he’s the best lightweight on the planet, and now is when we’re going to find out who definitely is the best.
“He always brings his best. He does a good job of always being well-prepared, and always bringing his best every time he steps into the Octagon, and I think I do a pretty good job of being prepared, bringing my best when I step into the Octagon.
“If you happen to not be watching this fight, you’re going to get a text or a phone call from one of your friends telling you, `How are you not watching this fight right now? You have got to see this!’ You better expect that, so you might as well just decide to watch the fight ahead of time.”
Benson Henderson: The Competitor
"I believe I’m the best lightweight on the planet, he believes he’s the best lightweight on the planet, and now is when we’re going to find out who definitely is the best." - Benson Henderson