There is something about a challenge that stirs a sense of fight deep inside of Benson Henderson. His natural competitiveness alone makes a test of any variety appealing in some form or fashion. But when something arises that has the potential to push him beyond the limits he’s found previously, a different animal comes alive.
That’s not to say he doesn’t have an easy nature about him, because he absolutely does. But when moments of potential conflict arise, his kind eyes sharpen, and his signature toothpick becomes fixed in the corner of his mouth as he weighs out the risk, reward and trajectory toward greatness involved in the equation. Once those immediate issues are worked out in his mind Henderson will return to his relaxed state, but his eyes and the shifting toothpick are sure-fire signs that the fires of the internal drive have been ignited.
Up next for Henderson: Thiago Alves in Seoul, South Korea
Take his 2015 campaign, for example. After spending years as either champion, challenger or contender in the shark tank that is the UFC’s lightweight fold, the MMA Lab leader decided to try his hand in the deeper waters of the welterweight ranks, where the aforementioned sharks were much larger and more vicious than anything he’d encountered before.
Most fighters would do everything in their power to keep their elite status intact in one division and never think about jeopardizing that position with such a dangerous roll of the dice. Then again, most fighters aren’t Benson Henderson, and that’s exactly what he did against 170-pound striking machine Brandon Thatch in Broomfield, Colorado on Feb. 14.
Better yet, after “Smooth” put the cap on a career-defining performance by choking out “Rukus” in the fourth round of the tilt, he doubled down on his bold claim by making the welterweight division his permanent home.
When the Arizona transplant made his official decision to vacate the 155-pound collective for a home in the welterweight swarm, it became clear his was a mission that marched to a far different drum beat than anything seen in the current era of mixed martial arts. Giving up a certified role as a perennial contender to be a small fish among giants may have seemed absurd to some, but it was the uncertainty of it all that got Henderson’s blood pumping.
That’s not to say there won’t come a time or situation where he finds himself interested in jumping back down a weight class, but as of right now, there are far too many motivators for him to look anywhere but the welterweight roster for the caliber of challenges he’s seeking.
“I’m not going to say I’ll never go back to 155,” Henderson said. “Making the weight would be hard to do on short notice and it’s not a pleasant cut, but if the right fight was there for the taking, I would definitely consider jumping on it, but I’m so excited to really test myself at 170. In my opinion, the large majority of fighting comes down to how big your heart is. I’d say at least 75 percent of fighting all comes down to the size of your heart and how far you are willing to go for victory.
“Everyone has a certain skill set, and is good at certain things, but everyone who holds a championship belt has a great heart. I think [Georges] St-Pierre had a great heart. I think Demetrious Johnson has a great heart. I think Jose Aldo and Chris Weidman have great hearts. Regardless of what happened outside of the cage, I think Jon Jones has a great heart when he’s fighting. Anderson Silva had to put his heart on display against Chael Sonnen.”
And when it comes to the crucial attribute that is impossible to measure in the fight game, Henderson saw no better example than the battle that unfolded between Robbie Lawler and Rory MacDonald in the co-main event at UFC 189 back in July. For just north of 20 minutes, the resurgent champion and the talented young Canadian upstart waged all-out war on one another in a battle that pushed each man to their physical and mental limits.
The blood-soaked affair took its final turn early in the fifth and final frame when a clean shot from Lawler sent the appropriately named “Red King” crumpling to the canvas to make the first official defense of his welterweight strap via TKO. What Henderson saw transpire in that whirlwind of action marked a special type of challenge in his mind, and it’s one he is going to do everything in his power to ensure he gets the opportunity to pit himself against.
“The display of heart Robbie put out there and displayed in that fight was amazing,” Henderson said. “That’s the type of display stories are written about and people tell their grandkids about years later and will make them look it up on Youtube. I would like to find out who has the bigger heart between myself and Robbie Lawler. Let’s put it out there and find out.
“I think he has a great heart, an amazing skill set and cement bricks in his hands. He has all of those weapons, but what impresses me the most is the heart the man has. I think I have the best heart in MMA, but I had to question myself when I saw what Lawler did in that fight. I’d love to find out. I have to do the work to get to that title shot, but hard work isn’t anything I’ve ever shied away from. I’ll give my best to climb the ladder and get to a title opportunity, but I’m doing so because I want to find out if I have more heart than Robbie Lawler has.”
Before Henderson can climb the welterweight ranks he has to prove he can swim through the turbulent waters of one of the most competitive divisions under the UFC banner. Knowing he wanted a tough customer directly out of the gates, the former lightweight champion saw a roster of potential killers to lock up with, and his team immediately set about looking to land the biggest shark possible.
When the UFC came to call with former title challenger and heavy-hitting knockout artist Thiago Alves for the promotion’s debut in South Korea on Nov. 28, the human cardio machine was satisfied to draw such an established name from the divisional hierarchy.
“Thiago Alves is as tough as they come and has been fighting the best of the best for years,” Henderson said. “He just came off a tough title eliminator fight with Carlos Condit where the winner landed the next shot at the welterweight title. He unfortunately lost that fight, but his entire career is filled with great performances. He fought Georges St-Pierre to a decision and we were very pleased to land an established name like Alves.
“Stylistically, we’re not too much different from a physical standpoint. He doesn’t have this overwhelming physical appearance where he’s 6’3” and 210 pounds. He’s actually the same height as I am at 5’9” and his reach is actually shorter than mine. I am prepared to fight a bigger, stronger welterweight, but his physical attributes are not very different than mine are. We feel great about the matchup, but we believe I’m a great matchup for any style in this division. Whether they bring an all-around game or they’re a pure boxer or takedown wrestling specialist; it doesn’t matter what they are because we believe I have the tools to take care of it all.”
The equation becomes that much sweeter since it’s taking place in the country of his heritage. Henderson’s mother was born in South Korea and both he and his brother Julius grew up taking Taekwondo, which is South Korea’s signature form of martial arts.
The live-wire scrapper will face Alves in the main event of the UFC’s first visit to Seoul, and headlining a UFC card in a brand new market is an honor he doesn’t take lightly.
“Not to blow anything out of proportion, but for me it’s awesome,” Henderson said. “I’m super thrilled to get to fight in my mother’s home country. With me being half-Korean, I am ecstatic, but I’m also excited to have the faith from the UFC top brass that I can open up a new market. I’ve opened up new markets for them before and have done several other first-time events for them that were big deals in the past and it feels good to know I have their belief in me. It’s even bigger for me knowing it’s a main event fight, even though there were some talks that it wouldn’t be the headlining bout on the card, but they ultimately chose me to be the main event fight for the card.
“When the UFC does that, you realize how much faith they are placing in you that you are going to have an exciting fight and perform well. They know I’m going to represent them well. Whenever I’m a main event I know that is the case and that is extra motivation for me. Plenty of other fighters don’t think about those kinds of things, but it means a lot to me. I get the chance to go out there and put on an exciting fight that is going to sell some tickets and get people excited about MMA who have never had a UFC event in their country before.”
And while the Henderson family recently welcomed the addition of their first child and he has weeks of preparation for “The Pitbull” ahead of him, that didn’t stop the former WEC and UFC lightweight title holder from throwing his hat in the ring when former champion Johny Hendricks was forced out of his title eliminator bout against Tyron Woodley with kidney stones this weekend at UFC 192. Henderson let the UFC brass know he was ready to go, but unfortunately the phone call to face “The Chosen One” never came.
Some in the MMA community thought Henderson may have been bluffing, but “Mr. Anytime, Anywhere” doesn’t have that play in his arsenal. The 31-year-old Glendale representative is all in all the time, and he’s willing to throw himself to the wolves just to find out what he’s made of, because he’s willing to bet his health and longevity has more of what it takes to succeed than you do.
“I found out when I was at the gym and I was absolutely up for it,” Henderson said about making an 11th hour play for the Woodley fight. “One of the great things about fighting at this new weight is that it doesn’t take me much to hit the mark and I definitely could have made the weight limit on a day’s notice. That’s one of the benefits to always staying ready and always being in the gym, even when you aren’t in training camp. I’d already sparred five rounds that day and I was ready to jump on a plane and go fight Woodley. I was about to do more sparring when I slipped off to text Joe Silva, Sean Shelby and Dana White that I would absolutely take the fight, but that apparently wasn’t in their game plan.
“I was hoping they were going to see my message and try to call my bluff. ‘Oh you are sending out these messages and want to fight? Well here you go.” I was hoping they’d try to call it because I absolutely would have taken them up on the chance to get that fight because it’s one we wanted anyway. That didn’t happen though and they never tried to see if I was bluffing or not.”
Once again, Henderson proves that he’s simply a different breed of fighter, and one who is willing to push himself to overcome every challenge he can find. And while he’s spoken publicly about his personal quest for greatness, the truth of the matter is that the greatness he’s seeking and is fighting for is within himself. Henderson is a man who strives for the best he has to offer and his demand to reach his goals provides the fuel needed to make such a unique journey possible.
Those attributes set him apart from so many of his peers, but there are very few who have ever walked the walk quite like Henderson has. And when this realization takes hold, once again his kind eyes return and that ever-present toothpick begins to flip from side to side in a loose manner until some other goal on the horizon sets his mind afire once more.