Benson's Lab

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

GLENDALE, AZ -- Amid the sprawl of uptown Glendale, across the street from Sears and a block away from the Total Wine, Benson Henderson settles into his chair under the shade of a dark green umbrella at a corner Starbucks. The desert air is stiflingly hot, it always is, but a cool breeze offers passersby one last excuse to drag out their winter jackets. Henderson leans forward and rests one arm on the table, casually taking a bite out of his breakfast muffin.

Less than a 30-second walk away sits a nondescript, beige walled building, a bold white "H" stamped on its side. To an uninitiated stranger, there's little to distinguish it from the neighboring "G" and "I" office spaces, each identical to the next, except for a handful of decorated windows and one small, pyramid shaped sign fastened above the entrance. The same insignia is branded across Henderson's beat-up, red Ford Bronco, and he sports it proudly: The Lab, Mixed Martial Arts Training Center. Although from where Henderson sits, nonchalantly sipping his morning coffee alongside retirees and bustling office workers, it may as well be a world away.

Henderson is something of a novelty here. The cagefighting world champion who doubles as the most polite man in the room, tossing out sirs and ma'ams like candy on Halloween night. In a way, not much has changed.

It was years ago, nearly midnight, when Henderson sat in his small Nebraska apartment nursing the unfamiliar sting of defeat, mired in a week-long depression. The feeling didn't sit well. So on a whim, under the cover of darkness, Henderson simply packed his life into his car and took off, leaving behind multiple offers in law enforcement to chase a new dream in Denver, and eventually Arizona. Fear of the unknown is common, and large scale impulsivity is terrifying, but Henderson simply remembers being unafraid.

"Some of my friend say I have Ataraxia," Henderson muses. "What movie's that from? The movie, Josh Harnett and Lucy Liu? Lucky Number Slevin. Says he has Ataraxia, a freedom of worry. I guess one of my friends says I have that. Because you do something big, life changing: ‘I'm going to try moving down to Denver.' I didn't even have an apartment to live in. I knew one person in the entire state of Colorado. But I wasn't really worried.

"A lot of people are so preoccupied with worrying about, ‘What if this happens? What if that happens? What if I can't find a place to live at? Blah, blah, blah.' I was always just like, eh, let's go with the flow. Moving out here to Arizona was a pretty big deal too. But eh, let's go for it. See how it works out. It worked out well."

Henderson owns the Lab now. He didn't used to. His days as the gym's janitor, mopping floors and cleaning toilets between training sessions, are just bizarre footnotes in an increasingly impressive timeline. Back then Henderson and the gym were joined at the hip, each rarely away from the other, both still finding their way. It certainly wasn't like it is now.

Look towards the front desk and a shimmering, golden UFC belt sits on full display. Glance towards the mats on any given day and you're likely to see a gaggle of current or former UFC fighters grinding away. Miesha Tate to Jamie Varner, Alex Caceres to John Moraga; in some way or another, they're all here because of Henderson.

The Lab's head trainer, John Crouch, has been here all along. He helped found the gym in 2007. He's also the man who sold Henderson on the move to Arizona. Ask Crouch, and he's frank: none of this is surprising. Henderson's potential was clear to him from day one. But Crouch also will be the first to remind you, potential means nothing without a stable head. That's the part about Henderson that amazes him the most.

"He taught jiu-jitsu class last night," Crouch marvels at the silliness of the statement. A UFC champion taught a room full of newbies the basics of breaking a closed guard?

"Yeah, we got a guy who had an eye cut so I went to see about that, and then somebody else called about an interview and I went to see about that, and all of a sudden we were 30 minutes into class and I'm still running around. And he's in there, just teaching the white belt class.

"Ben, there's no jobs that are too small for him. Like, he doesn't have that. He's just the same guy. He's a really good guy. He just wants to be the best at this."

Star-divide

Two weeks before Henderson dismantled Nate Diaz in front of 5.7 million people on live national television, Crouch phoned an old friend. The man was a videographer who'd worked with Crouch back when UFC washout Alvin "The Kid" Robinson was The Lab's claim to fame. This time around, Crouch wanted to film a new commercial for the gym.

"I reconnected with him, and when I did, he was like, ‘Hey I found some stuff that I think you'll like,' I was like, ‘Cool, bring it by.' He brought it by," Crouch recalls. "I got chills when I saw it."

The footage proved eerily prophetic.

In 2008, Crouch commissioned a documentary to be made for Robinson prior to his UFC bout against, ironically, Diaz. The camera crew had just wrapped up filming an afternoon sparring session. Sweaty and tired, Crouch forgot he was still mic'ed up. As Robinson and others casually ambled out of the room, unwrapping their hand wraps and chatting about the successes of their session, Crouch called out to a 25-year-old Henderson.

"You're going to be a superstar in this sport," Crouch told Henderson, then just a 4-1 prospect struggling to make it up the ranks. "Remember, I was the first one that said that."

Crouch walked towards the door, then turned back. "Hey, I mean it. I think you're going to be phenomenal. You're going to be a household name if you want to be."

January 5, 2008: Crouch to Henderson.

Memorabilia of Henderson's myriad accomplishments now litter Crouch's office walls. The coach gazes towards the mats as he remembers the moment like it was yesterday. "The kid, I just wanted him to know how I felt. I felt like he could be as good as he wanted to be.

"I didn't plan on it being inspirational. It's just honest. I thought he could be great. But it's him that took control of the bus. He drove it there. His effort, his determination did it. There's lots of people that have potential, and then they never make it back to the gym. But that kid decided that he wanted to do something, and he's done it."

Crouch held onto the footage in secret for weeks, finally releasing it three days after Henderson's triumph at UFC on FOX 5. He didn't want it to be a distraction. Instead, it became one more reminder of just how far Henderson had come in a remarkably short length of time.

"It's one of those things you don't really think about too much as you're going through it," Henderson admits. "But every once in a while you do interviews and stuff, and when you say it out loud, the way it sounds when you talk about it, when you really start thinking about it -- oh, wow.

"What I personally enjoy the most, is that we haven't sold our soul for that success," the champion continues. "We've stayed the same way."

The gym's busier these days, as is Henderson's unyielding travel schedule, but Crouch echoes a similar sentiment. In many ways The Lab has a communal feel. Henderson likes it that way. Fighters bring in their sons and daughters and let them run loose without worry. Good vibrations are a common theme. "There's no Terry Toughnuts. There's no Billy Badasses walking around with their shirts off and super flexing," Henderson jokes.

Crouch hesitates to make wild comparisons with the other eight UFC champions and their gyms, but he knows he has something special here.

"I don't know those other guys," Crouch says. "But I know Ben, and he's a different kind of human being."

As the wins and warm stories pile up, it's getting harder to argue.

In 2012, just seven days after wresting the UFC lightweight title away from Frankie Edgar in a grueling, 25-minute war in Japan, Henderson entered his name into the 7th Arizona International Open, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu tournament halfway across the world. Henderson took gold in his division but ultimately lost in the Absolute (open weight) class.

This year Henderson did the same, competing, and falling short, in the 2013 IBJJF Pan-American Championship -- North America's largest jiu-jitsu tournament -- less than four weeks out from the biggest fight of his life, an upcoming title defense against longtime Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez at UFC on FOX 7.

Henderson doesn't understand, it seems. UFC champions don't do this type of thing.

"I'm like, eh, people are going to be aiming for you," Crouch explains. "It's different now. Like, they don't care that you're a fighter. Their whole claim to fame is if they can last five minutes with you with a gi on, which they spend doing seven days a week. You spend barely any time doing it.

"There's going to be a lot of attention paid to it. We go and do badly, people are going to get crazy. He's like, ‘Oh, I don't care.' I don't know if he's different from all the other guys, but he's different from most people. That's for sure."

Henderson's mother, Song, still lives and works near Tacoma, WA, the area where Henderson grew up. A Korean immigrant, Song owns and manages a small grocery store named Peter's Grocery. For ages she'd open Peter's at seven in the morning, work all day, then close it at midnight. 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year.

Song is doing better now. The economy picked up enough for her to hire an extra employee, so now she only works from seven in the morning to four in the afternoon. But in the days after her son emerged from a grueling training camp to fight through another exhausting battle at UFC on FOX 5, she didn't have to work at all. Henderson donned the uniform and did it for her.

"If I'm going to be home, I'm not going to let my mom work. Period," Henderson smiles as he remembers. "She's going to go home, relax, go to the Korean spa or whatever. She works those hours every single day, Sunday through Sunday. So if I'm home the least I can do is give her a little bit of time off."

By all accounts, the replacement manager at Peter's with the long curly hair and penchant for disassembling some of the world's most dangerous men was a perfect gentleman.

Star-divide

A middle-aged woman, no younger than 50, sets down her latte, her head perking up from her iPhone.

"Excuse me. Sorry to interrupt," the sheepish murmur comes from across the table. Her hair is faded grey, speckled with streaks of blonde, her brown shawl is frayed around the edges, but her eyes are lit up like a kid's on Christmas morning.

"I really hate to bother you. I really don't mean to. You're Ben, aren't you?"

"Yes ma'am."

"Can I take a picture of you and I together so I can show it to my son! My son, he loves you."

"Of course."

Henderson grins broadly as the stranger snaps the picture. It takes two attempts, the first try blurred by the shaking of schoolgirl giddiness.

This is normal for Henderson now, especially within the strip mall around The Lab. Of course it didn't used to be. Back in the WEC days, when 40-something-year-old soccer moms would stop Henderson in the middle of the grocery store, confident they had seen him on television but unsure where, that was weird. Now, he's just used to it.

The ‘males age 18-34' demographic is the UFC's bread and butter, but Henderson seems to attract a different brand of fight fan to the party. It's a rare quality, though it's one UFC President Dana White and Zuffa co-owner Lorenzo Fertitta identified when they awarded Henderson a lucrative new eight-fight deal in early 2013. It's also, at least partly, the reason Henderson is headlining a nationally televised event for the second time in a row.

"They want me to be a representative, not only represent the UFC, but represent MMA well," Henderson explains. "If someone's flipping through the channels, a 68-year-old grandma flipping through the channels, never seen MMA before, and they happen to come across me, [White and Fertitta think] I'll be a good representative, a good first impression into MMA. I like that."

Henderson's sophomore effort on FOX is oddly similar to his debut. He's again fighting a highly regarded member of the Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu fight team, only this time Diaz is replaced by his training partner, Melendez. A staple of top-5 rankings for years who finally clawed to freedom upon Strikeforce's demise, Melendez has appeared vulnerable of late, hardly impressing in decision wins over Jorge Masvidal and Josh Thomson. However Henderson knows it'd be foolish to overlook him.

Every fight is important, but in many ways this is the first opportunity Henderson has to begin building his legacy. After a controversial pair of wars with former UFC champion Frankie Edgar, the Diaz victory legitimized Henderson's title in the eyes of more than a few fans. Five years from now, beating Melendez at UFC on FOX 7 with another few million pairs of eyes watching, may be the moment pundits point to as the beginning of an era.

Henderson tries not to consider it, sometimes falling back on clichés when asked. But even still, it's clear he's put some thought into the idea.

"I think people, as a part of life, they always need to put things in order. They always need to give it some sort of, like, ranking. And I guess I'm the same way," Henderson admits. "I do it for everything. When I think of Michael Jordan, I think of the same thing. ‘Oh, Michael Jordan really started in this year, when he started to take over. Blah, blah, blah.' So I do the same thing. But for me, I think of it as, a fight is a fight. I really don't care. Whether it's your fourth title defense, whether it's your first in the UFC, last fight in the WEC, doesn't matter. You have to win. UFC promises you a title shot, but then you lose your next one, doesn't matter. You have to win."

Henderson speaks often of UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva, who with his 10 straight title defenses is the gold standard. Since his WEC days, Henderson has repeated a mantra of wanting to fight the best guys, one by one, line ‘em up. In his eyes, Melendez is just next up to bat. No. 4 on a list that shows no sign of slowing.

"I don’t know those other guys," Crouch says. "But I know Ben, and he’s a different kind of human being."

But Henderson is always looking up, even when he's trying to stay within the moment. Perhaps it's a character flaw for some, but not for him, considering where it's taken Henderson so far. His goals reach broader than just tightening his grasp atop the lightweight rankings, and it doesn't take much prodding to hear them.

"Some people think (Georges) St-Pierre, some people think Jon Jones. But it's super clear cut," Henderson says, narrowing his eyes. "Best fighter on the planet right now is Anderson Silva, pound for pound. I would like to be that guy one day. A lot of heart and a lot of dedication is required to get there, but I'm not scared of hard work, so it's cool."

Crouch just smiles and sighs. He knows talk like this is distracting, but he also knows Henderson is stubborn enough to believe what he says.

"Every day, he will be at practice. Doesn't matter what day it is, rain or shine, he's going to be there. And that's not true of everybody," Crouch concludes. "People don't work like that in our world anymore. They're not willing to bust their ass to get what they want. They want it handed to them, and he didn't care about that. He'd just come in. He didn't need me to say it.

"He'd be the champion today, it didn't matter where he was, because he's got that in him. He's got determination, he's got heart, no quit, he always shows up. And if you just do that, that's 90-percent of life. Just show up. Come in tomorrow, we'll work on it. ‘Well what about this?' Come in tomorrow, we'll answer that one. And pretty soon tomorrows pile on tomorrows, and all of a sudden you have a legacy."

It's still early. Melendez is a dangerous man, in an absurdly talent rich division. The laundry list of indestructible champions to meet a premature demise is miles long. But as the afternoon creeps in, and Henderson throws on a worn old parka, a day's work just beginning, it's hard to doubt his conviction.

The champion piles into his beat-up red Ford Bronco, pyramid shaped decals adorning its side, shifts gears and pulls away towards The Lab. Back to work. He wouldn't have it any other way.

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