UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson (18-2) is coming off what many say was his career best performance, as he was constantly one step ahead of Nate Diaz when he retained his title on the Dec. 8 FOX show.
He's also coming off a 2012 where he picked up a number of Fighter of the Year awards. He's had a career filled with fights that fans can instantaneously recall and visualize when they get brought up. The Diaz fight was one of the ten most-watched fights in U.S. MMA history. And on April 20 in San Jose, Calif., he's defending his title against Gilbert Melendez, who has a very similar championship resume.
A lot of fighters having pulled off that kind of success, would feel that their next title defense should be on pay-per-view. And many would have made a request for a next opponent, given that arguably the division's top contender, Anthony Pettis, is the only person who has a win over him since he made it to the national stage.
After drawing 5.7 million viewers on FOX for his battle with Diaz (with Spanish language viewership on Fox Deportes, the number was likely closer to 6 million U.S. viewers, which would be 7th place all-time), he said he felt it was just another fight, but using the "soccer mom" criteria, he now wants to fight on FOX as opposed to pay-per-view.
"(I felt) probably pretty much the same, but it was taken very well," said Henderson. "I did a pretty good job. I earned a `W.' But just the number of people who tuned in for the main event, 5.5 million (he shortchanged himself), that's a lot of people. That smashes any pay-per-view numbers. A lot of guys talk about pay-per-view buys. I don't give a crap about pay-per-view stuff. I like fighting on the biggest platform and FOX is that platform. I'm excited to be on FOX for the second time in a row. I think that it shows the trust the UFC top brass and the FOX top brass have in me. They think I'll portray the sport in the right manner. I think it's the cool to have that bigger platform. 5.5 million viewers and the core demographic of males, but it's great to be watched by soccer moms who are flipping channels, they stop and watch and become fans. I go to the grocery store now, 50-year-old soccer moms say, `I saw you on TV.' I really dig that, and it only happened after being on that big of a platform."
Henderson said he's hoping to top 6 million viewers for his fight with Melendez. From a championship standpoint and record standpoint, this fight is bigger. Melendez (21-2) held either the Strikeforce lightweight title or an interim belt for all but nine months from June of 2006 until the promotion closed in January. It was one of the more lengthy championship runs in the sport's history, and because of it, Melendez was promised this title shot when Zuffa shut down Strikeforce.
You have to go back five years to the purchase of Pride and UFC champ Anderson Silva vs. Strikeforce champ Dan Henderson to find the last time there was such a dynamic on the UFC stage.
But there are also reasons they may fall short of 6 million viewers. April is likely more difficult than December to draw a big number on FOX, since there aren't NFL games promoting the show. In addition, the Diaz brothers always bring an intrigue and excitement to a big fight.
Probably a big reason this fight is on FOX is the on-paper excitement factor. Henderson has had two fights that have won a number of Fight of the Year awards. His 2009 WEC lightweight title win over Donald Cerrone put him on the map as a star. His 2010 loss to Anthony Pettis took him out of the running for a UFC title fight. His 2011 win over Clay Guida finished high in a lot of balloting, as did his 2012 UFC lightweight title win over Frankie Edgar.
Melendez hasn't won any fight of the year awards, but his 2006 fight with Clay Guida would have gotten a lot of talk if it wasn't just an arena fight that didn't air television. His three-fight series with Josh Thomson is arguably the most exciting three-match program in U.S. MMA history.
Henderson cites the first of his two wins over Cerrone as his favorite.
"That was just a great fight, a real good fight to be a part of," he said. "What I really love more than anything else is if you're the champion, to be pushed and tested and show that you're the champion. Like when Anderson Silva was down four-and-a-half rounds and got the triangle. That showed his heart. The first Cerrone fight, I had to be carried out. I didn't hold anything back. It amazes me that horses can run so hard till they burst their own heart. As a fighter, I appreciate that. I get what it is, not holding back anything. I didn't hold anything back, because if I did, I probably would have lost the fight. If I had lost, my career path could have changed. I might not be here now. I'm thankful I was able to open up my heart, not to hold anything back. That's what I liked to be. That's what the fans like to see in UFC, football games, basketball games, people like to see the athlete give everything they have."
Henderson expects the Melendez fight to be added to his "best of" list, noting they both like to move forward, and those are the fighters who are his best opponents. He noted when you get two wrestlers who can strike, you often have a stand-up war. But he still feels the wrestling will be a pretty big factor in this fight.
But Henderson has also been sharpening up his jiu-jitsu skills, to the point that just one week ago, he competed in the IBJJF Pan Am tournament, where he was eliminated in his third match. He said he loves competition, and in jiu-jitsu, he sees it as both fun and a learning experience. He notes he can lose and it doesn't mean anything, but in MMA as world champion, losing isn't an option.
Last week's tournament garnered a lot of attention, both because a UFC world champion was competing, and doing so just four weeks before a title defense. While UFC doesn't like its fighters participating in dangerous activities at any time, let alone close to fight time, they had no problems with this. Henderson noted he's actually done jiu-jitsu tournaments regularly the last three years in almost anonymity, but this being the Pan Ams, it became a bigger deal.
"I've been doing jiu-jitsu tournaments for a long time," he said. "I like doing them. I like to compete. It's like MMA. But MMA is pure and the most uncompromised form of competition. In jiu-jitsu, you can do this, you can't do this, you can grab the gi here, but you can't grab the gi here. I like to be able to go out there and compete and not have the weight of the world on my shoulders. If I lose, so what? But I learned and grew from the loss and got better as a martial artist. I just learned a cool armlock that I'm not going to get caught in again."
Unlike Henderson, who doesn't seem to care as much about it, Melendez is the type of fighter who avenging defeats is a big deal, noting many times how he thanked Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker for getting him second matches with Mitsuhiro Ishida and Josh Thomson. At this point, a Henderson vs. Pettis rematch may be a long ways away. Pettis asked to face Jose Aldo for the featherweight title in August instead of waiting for April 20 to get what was almost a guaranteed lightweight title shot at the winner. If Pettis wins, Dana White has said he wants him to defend the title a few times before they'd put a champion vs. champion fight together. If Pettis loses, given that lightweight is the deepest division when it comes to talent in UFC, he's not likely to get a title shot for a while.
There's an obvious storyline in this fight. Melendez and Nate Diaz have been training partners ever since Nate followed his brother into the sport. In addition, Melendez will be the big crowd favorite, since San Jose is near his San Francisco home, and this will be his ninth fight inside the HP Pavilion, the former Strikeforce home base.
More than 10,000 tickets have been sold for the fight, and UFC officials expect the largest actual gate in the history of a building that has housed some of the best fights of the past seven years.
"For Gilbert and Nate, they're boys, so each time one of your boys gets beat, you want to avenge them," said Henderson. "Maybe they'll have something behind it, but they're professionals, so maybe not. For me, no, it doesn't matter. I don't care where the fight takes place. All that stuff is just add on. It's just hoopla to hype up a fight. I've been through it, the first time in UFC, the first time on pay-per-view, the first time in a main event and first time in a main event in my hometown. Hometown, not hometown, I'm going to put as much into my preparations if the fight is in the back of a 7-11 or at Cowboys Stadium before 100,000 people in he largest crowd in UFC history. I was already in the largest crowd ever in Toronto."