Benson Henderson ready to start climb back to the top -- and hopefully Anthony Pettis is the man there waiting

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

GLENDALE, AZ -- The first time Benson Henderson felt like this, he spent a month living as a hermit. It was late 2010, just before Christmas, and like a bandit in the night, Anthony Pettis had seized Henderson's holiday bounty -- his prized golden belt and the promise of one just a bit shinier -- and left nothing in its stead but tiny lumps of regret, each one as hard and black as the coal that lines the stockings of bad little boys and girls each year.

That particular holiday season wasn't so festive. By his own admission, Henderson didn't go anywhere. He didn't answer or return any phone calls, his e-mail inbox flooded with unchecked concerns and well wishes each morning. And still Henderson sat, heartbroken. Feeling sorry for himself at first, then after a while feeling sorry for himself for still feeling sorry for himself.

Of course, as far as rebounds are concerned, Henderson did alright. Within four months' time, he'd battered poor Mark Bocek up, down and across the Octagon, and kicked off a run of seven straight conquests that would eventually link his name to that of division pioneer B.J. Penn, tied for the greatest statistical championship reign in UFC lightweight history.

Yet for such a merry chapter to come to an end so abruptly, so anticlimactically... in a small way, it must have felt like déjà vu. Harley Hometown Throwdown emblems scattered throughout the arena. Pettis, once more the hungry and slighted challenger. UFC 164 had all the makings of a classic sequel, a Godfather II or Empire Strikes Back of face-punching.

Instead, it was a rout.

That Henderson's record-tying reign penned its own conclusion in just four and a half minutes -- by submission, no less -- is a result few could have anticipated. But truly, is a last-second miracle kick in the closing moments of a championship round any less of a deus ex machina? Either way, for Henderson, the internal pain still felt the same. That much is certain.

So if the lessons of WEC 53 and that lost hermit Christmas taught Henderson anything for this second go-round, it's that the sooner one gets back on the horse that trampled them, the sooner one can start stacking bodies and going about making things right.

"Actually, that was the easy part," Henderson says, easing back into his seat as the Arizona afternoon sun streaks through the lobby of The MMA Lab. "I can be sad about it for a month. I can be sad about it for six months. I can be sad about it for three years. But at some point in time, I have to just man up and move on. There's a lot more horrific life-changing things that happen to people everyday -- a lot worse than losing a UFC title.

"I think it took me a couple days, then I was like, eff it. I lost. I'm sad, but at some point in time I have to get over it. Might as well be now. Might as well be early so I don't waste that week, so I don't waste that six months. I might as well do it as soon as possible so that I could get back and work on making those mistakes, those holes, smaller."

Make no mistake, Henderson knows exactly where things went wrong.

The puzzle piece that finished Henderson-Pettis II never seemed to fit right. But then again, in MMA it rarely does. No one expected Pettis, the young striking savant, to submit the competition black belt who rolls through jiu-jitsu tournaments for fun; the unsubmittable Gumby who may bend and twist, but before UFC 164, never, never broke. Especially not in the first round, and especially not with an armbar from inside his own guard.

How could it happen? Well, Henderson will explain it in admirably thorough detail if you ask. But really, it comes down to one thing: a simple "momentary lapse."

"I didn't have the good posture that I like inside someone's guard," Henderson says, admitting, not surprisingly, that he's replayed the moment back in his head a few times. "Normally I have pretty good posture to where, for them to even go for an armlock is hard.

"I made a mistake. I hung down too low, allowed [Pettis] to go for the armlock. He went for the armlock, I went for one of my favorite defenses, which is to trap my own arm, to not give him this arm. I trapped it, not allowing it to be given to him, and he did a great adjustment, turning it into a shoulder lock -- trying to turn the angle.

"I didn't want to tap to that, so I moved my arm and gave him the straight armlock on my elbow," Henderson continues. "It was a great, technical armlock on Anthony's part. He did a really good job of going from the armlock, switching to the shoulder -- slight adjustment of his body, the angle of his squeeze going to my shoulder -- and then when I protected my shoulder, he switched right away and went for the elbow.

"I made mistakes against Frankie Edgar. I made mistakes against Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez. Just so happens, Anthony Pettis was the first guy to really capitalize on my mistakes and to end the fight."

Star-divide

Earlier in the afternoon, a cameraman from a local Arizona news station props Henderson up against a white wall of the gym, hits record, and slowly works his way through a generic list of questions -- easy stuff meant to appeal to non-MMA types. How's camp? How's married life? You want your belt back? Henderson soldiers along, laughing at a few points and generally attempting to give non-cliché answers at others, all while ignoring the sounds of the Barrett-Jackson car auction droning quietly from TVs in the lobby.

Though one question in particular seems to come from nowhere. So you're the No. 1 contender, huh? What's that like?

It's true, Henderson is the No. 1 ranked lightweight on the official UFC rankings. For someone unaccustomed to the strange world we live in, it'd be an easy mistake to make, to think that the No. 1 ranked guy would be the next in line. But in MMA, one plus one doesn't always equal two. All No. 1's are not created equal, and Henderson is less Alexander Gustafsson, more Chad Mendes circa-2012.

"For whatever the UFC rankings are worth -- we know how much those rankings are worth -- yes, I am No. 1 on the UFC rankings," Henderson tells me later, acknowledging that the number doesn't really mean much. When I ask about the cameraman's question, though, Henderson answers as casually as he did a half-hour before.

"I am the No. 1 contender. I am the ex-champ, I had the belt last. So yes, I am the No. 1 contender."

It's an interesting thought to ponder, even if the reality isn't so black and white. Truthfully, just like former heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos, Henderson right now is caught in the Franklin void. He still holds wins over the No. 2, No. 5, No. 8 (x2) and No. 9 ranked lightweights. He was supposed to fight the No. 3 guy until a concussion cast the No. 3 guy into no-man's land, and now he's readying to fight the No. 4 guy in a few days. Throw in a pair of wins over the No. 3 featherweight, plus a win over the No. 9 featherweight (also the last man to beat Pettis), and Henderson's case gets pretty compelling.

Even so, No. 1 doesn't mean much when you've already lost twice to the guy who happens to hold the belt. That's not how this kind of stuff works. UFC President Dana White said as much after UFC 164, and Henderson acknowledges that he could have a long road ahead of him.

"That's totally, 100 percent up to Dana White, Sean Shelby, Joe Silva, those guys," he says. "We all know, some guys have gotten title shots, and we were surprised at their selection of who's getting a title shot. That's the way this sport goes. So really, I have no idea. Could be one fight, could be seven fights, could be 10 fights."

For flyweight contender Joseph Benavidez, it took three impressive wins to get the title rematch he coveted. For Urijah Faber, four. For Mendes, it's taken five to even re-enter the conversation. History says Henderson will likely need a similar stretch of dominance to achieve his own goals, especially if Pettis' continued injury woes keep his title defenses few and far between. But the precedent is still there, and Henderson is nothing if not patient.

And so Henderson returns to the familiar home of his title run, network giant FOX, to take down the first man on his list, Josh Thomson. If Henderson was looking for an easy out, promotion matchmakers did him no favors for UFC on FOX 10.

In Thomson, Henderson meets a man who's seen and done it all.

"He's one of the most true veterans," Henderson says. "He's been everywhere, he's seen everything. Not just with who's he's fought -- he's fought all over the world, he's fought a ton of different guys -- but also, who he trains with. People don't realize, it's who you train with. He's seen all these new tricks, all these different tricks. Oh yeah, you've got a new trick? I saw that 10 years ago. Kawajiri tried to do that against me. There's not going to be anything that surprises him.

"He's been in big wars, big fights. Title fights with Gilbert Melendez. He's been on the winning side of some decisions, he's been on the losing side of some close decisions. But he's just one of those guys, man, a true veteran. He's always going to be prepared, always going to be ready. He's like that career back-up quarterback. Never plays, never plays, never plays. Starting quarterback gets hurt and he gets in the game in the fourth quarter, and he does just fine, because he's a veteran. He's been there before. He's not shaken up. He's ready to go."

An impressive win over a respected name like Thomson's would unquestionably pay dividends in bolstering Henderson's claim. From there though, with Pettis out until at least the summer, and a long line of contenders cannibalizing each other seemingly every week, things grow far more uncertain.

Then again, uncertainty seems to be a running theme given Henderson's current predicament. And really, if the former champ is sure of anything, it's that once the time comes, he won't mind if an old friend is there to greet him by the penthouse gates.

"When I get my belt back, I hope the man who has the belt still is Anthony Pettis," Henderson says thickly. "We'll see. I have no idea, but I'm getting my belt back. And if he's the one I'm taking it from, fine by me."

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