Even a year ago, it seemed highly unlikely Henderson could reach such a level anytime soon while under the banner of the WEC. But a sudden merger paired with a crack at the UFC lightweight champion for the winner of Thursday's WEC title match between champ Henderson and No. 1 contender Anthony Pettis puts him two wins away from likely adding his name to the pound-for-pound list.
The first obstacle will be at WEC 53, with Henderson and Pettis closing out the last show in organizational history, but the ultimate goal remains somewhere in the back of his mind.
"I haven't thought too much about it, but every fighter's goal is to be the best on the planet," Henderson told MMA Fighting. "In their heart and in their head, they believe they'll be the best one day. But I knew I was going to be the best a long time ago. And it just so happens that here's my chance to dance. After I win this fight, I'll be dancing in the UFC for the lightweight title. I always thought it was going to come at some point in time. It's the same thing every fighter thinks. It just so happens that mine's about to come true."
Though he's only been a pro for four years and admits he has plenty to learn, any suggestion that he might not be ready for the prospect of fighting for the UFC gold against someone like Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard is met with a strenuous objection.
"I'm ready to fight tomorrow," he said. "I'll cut 13 pounds and make weight tonight and fight tomorrow. I'm not saying I'm not ready to fight whoever. I'll fight whoever you put in front of me. I'll fight anyone on the planet at 155 right now.
"I like having time in between training camps to improve and get better," he continued. "I want to be a better fighter than the last time I get in the cage. Am I willing to step into the cage against whoever? Yes, I am completely, whole-heartedly ready to step into the cage against whatever 155-pounder you put in front of me. Anyone on the planet."
First things first, though, and Henderson (12-1) will have plenty of help in getting him to that UFC title match. Thursday's WEC 53 event takes place at Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona, his hometown, and a partisan crowd will surely give him a push.
To simulate a usual fight week experience, however, Henderson is staying in a hotel, keeping everything "business as normal." But he can't deny the feeling of it all is a bit different.
"It's cool and exciting to fight in front of the home crowd, but I'm even more excited to have my friends and family there, sharing a good moment in my life," he said.
In Pettis, he is facing what he terms an "unpredictable" fighter, who seems equally confident on his feet and on the ground. At 11-1, Pettis has four knockouts and six submissions (though two are due to strikes).
Pettis peppers his striking with kicks that are rarely seen in MMA, culled from his background in taekwondo. Those kicks have been effective against several opponents, but like Pettis, Henderson is a taekwondo black belt. Because of that background, he says he's "not overly concerned" about the weapon.
"The fan in me loves seeing it," he said. "It's exciting, it's awesome and fun to watch. As an opponent, it is what it is. It's part of his skills, and I'm aware of it, along with everything else he brings to the table."
Henderson will likely look to take some of that offense away with his constant pressure game, utilizing takedowns or clinches to slow Pettis down over the potential five-rounder.
"I've always used my cardio and conditioning as a positive for me," he said. "I always want to turn it up a notch. Every guy can run a mile, but can he run it at my pace? Every guy can fight three rounds, or five rounds, but can he fight them at my pace? I'm going to say no, not a whole lot can."
It's been eight months since Henderson defeated Donald Cerrone, and he says he's appreciated the time off, using it to work on and sharpen several parts of his game. Because of that, he believes he's at a place where he's going to be tough to beat, regardless of the opponent he's facing or the organization in which he's fighting. But even with his big plans, he's practical enough to realize that there's only one way to find out just how good he really is.
"There's a reason why we play the games," he said. "There's a reason the New York Giants play the Super Bowl against the undefeated, 16-0 New England Patriots. Everyone wrote them off, but guess what? They won the Super Bowl. There's a reason we play the games. There's a reason we fight. To find out. I'm not a big talker, I don't talk crap. Let's just go into the cage and find out whether Anthony Pettis can stop me or not."
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