"Did you practice?" a young man from the public relations staff nervously asks as gawkers and hang-arounds on the baseball diamond shuffle into place.
"Na, I meant to, but I never got around to it," Benson Henderson casually answers, gazing out to the mound, then back to the half-capacity stadium filled with 22,466 curious Arizona Diamondbacks fans, all of whom are ogling the mild-mannered man just announced as the world's No. 1 lightweight fighter like he was a circus sideshow. The staffer plops a brand-new ball into his palms, and the champ flashes a grin, "But now I'm really wishing I did."
It's a respectable showing. The pitch doesn't careen wildly to the left or two-hop it's way to home plate like some do. It sails high over the strike zone, but otherwise straight, ensuring Henderson a sigh of relief and another grin when the catcher reaches up and snags it. "That wasn't too bad," he announces as he strolls back to his seat, stopping to snap a few photographs with a pair of ecstatic fight fans who never expected to meet a UFC champion at a meaningless Tuesday night baseball game between two non-playoff teams.
It's the life most fighters dream of the first time they walk into a gym, but for the 28-year-old Henderson, few thought it would come so quickly. "It's kind of crazy if you step back and look at it from the outside in," he muses.
"Four years ago I was just starting in the WEC. But when you're actually going through it, for me, actually going to three practices a day for the past four years, five years, it's about time I've finally got here. I've been working my butt off for it."
Henderson speaks softly, his words tumbling out with an aplomb that doesn't exactly demand attention, but instead nicely suggests it. He's about as laid back a fighter as you can find in this sport, which only makes his ferocious alter-ego in the cage that much more menacing.
It took just eight months for Henderson to defy expectations and propel himself to the top of the UFC. But it took nearly another year for everything to seem real. Two fights against Frankie Edgar, the perpetual motion-machine who long reigned over 155 pounds, and two decision wins, the latter more polarizing than the former, changed everything. Now it's Henderson's division to lose, and an army of hungry young contenders are gnashing their teeth at the door. It'd be a waste of time to worry about those who still doubt the legitimacy of Henderson's throne. "No matter who you are, you're going to have people who [disagree with you]," he remarks. "It doesn't matter.
"You can be Michael Jordan, you can be, literally, one of the best athletes, the best basketball player on the planet, and have people not like you. You can win a record number of Olympic gold medals, you can win 12 Olympic gold medals, and you're still going to have a ton of people who dislike you. That's the nature, I guess, of having that spotlight shined on you."
Surprisingly, there's little to no resignation in Henderson's voice as he glosses over criticism. In fact, it's the opposite. He seems to genuinely enjoy it. It's easy to find motivation from the bottom, but at the top, motivation is usually self-created. Henderson often references Jordan in conversation, and in the same way "His Airness" carried a high-school snub with him until he retired, the personal slights to Henderson actually appear to be a favor; kindling to keep the fire raging.
It's the same reason Henderson looks at his current situation with such glee. Fate, with an assist from UFC officials, has presented him with a chance to write the next chapter of a championship reign on FOX, the same platform that left him wanting last year when Henderson was penciled into the co-main event of the first-ever network card.
A No. 1 contender match opposite Clay Guida, the fight had title implications and predictably became one of the leading candidates for ‘Fight of the Year.' Yet, despite a heavyweight main event that lasted all of 64 seconds, it never made the FOX broadcast and was relegated to a much smaller audience on Facebook. "I was pretty sad," Henderson admits looking back. "I'm not going to lie. I was sad when they announced UFC on FOX, first time ever on main television, huge, a lot of hype behind it, a lot of promos behind it, it's a big deal, it's a very big deal, it's a historic moment, history in the making, and then I wasn't on the [main] card. I wasn't shown.
"Clay and I, we went out there and poured our hearts out. We gave everything. We didn't hold anything back. We gave everything for the fans, for the UFC. Said, ‘Here you go, guys. Use us up. Use our bodies, beat us up and we'll put on a good show for you guys.' Clay and I went out there and did that. But, they didn't show it. So to go back and say now, on the next UFC on FOX, to know I'm going to make the air, to have it be in Seattle in KeyArena, 20 minutes from my hometown, 20 minutes from where I graduated high school, to be the main event, I'm very excited. I'm very at ease in my soul to make up for the last time."
As Henderson's world comes full circle, standing across him at UFC on FOX 5 will be Nate Diaz, an uncompromising brawler who grew up idolizing his older brother and has emerged as a contender in his own right after brutalizing Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller in succession. Carrying with him the indelible Stockton mystique, Diaz presents a far different challenge than any opponent Henderson has faced in the past. Yet he also lugs the weight of five UFC losses on his record. Granted, those losses came at a time when Diaz was a far different fighter than he is now, but Henderson still believes the blueprint to beat him is out there.
"Every time a fighter does what they're supposed to do, and improves and gets better every fight, I wouldn't say the blueprint goes out the window, but it can be harder to execute the blueprint," Henderson steadily explains. "Guys leave holes open in their game. Those holes get smaller if you do what you're supposed to do and get better from fight to fight. Nate Diaz has shown a big improvement from his early years in the UFC and he's made those holes a lot smaller, but I think the blueprint is definitely still out there on how to beat Nate. It's not just, ‘Oh, we think you've got to do this. We think you've got to do this.' No, if you want to beat him, you've got to do A, B, C, and D. And then you beat him. Period. You're done."
Of course, the most notorious aspect of that blueprint is also the biggest boon to the Diaz brothers' mystique. The insults, the wild in-fight taunting and flipping of the bird across the cage; while some see it as unprofessional, it's hard to argue with its effectiveness. Just ask Cerrone, who admits Diaz buried deep into his head before the two could ever even lace up their gloves. "I am mentally preparing myself to deal with that," Henderson concedes. "Nate and Nick, the whole scrap pack team, they do a good job of getting inside other fighters' heads, whether it's their body language, whether it's their words or whatever the case may be.
"It works well for them. I'm definitely preparing myself mentally to face that, and when I do face that, act accordingly. I don't intend on it affecting me. I don't intend on going out there and being all mad, all of a sudden getting emotional."
Henderson finishes his thought with another smile as he climbs down the dugout stairs and back into his seat, shaking a few more hands along the way. "Hopefully, I'll be able to take it in stride."