On his way to what he believes will be a star turn during Oct. 10's WEC interim lightweight title matchup with old friend Donald Cerrone, Ben Henderson is intent on staying humble.
During the first time he starts referring to himself in third-person in an interview, Henderson abruptly stops, apologizes and gives his permission to offer him a dirty look at any repeat. (It never comes.) At a table in a hotel eatery, he politely answers questions as the minutes tick by, well aware that he has missed his airport shuttle, but never letting on. So when he states his grand intentions, it's no surprise he qualifies them with tinges of modesty.
"I'm not the fastest, the biggest or the strongest. I'm a mediocre-sized 155-pounder," he said. "I don't think I have any God-given abilities that put me above and beyond anyone else. I'm just highly motivated. I want to be the best, and I will be the best. That's it."
Things that would sound boastful coming from others somehow leave his mouth disarmed of any ego. He tells you he's "a bit of a dork," that he likes to read sci-fi books, that he doesn't drink, smoke or party. But one thing he can do is fight, and when it comes to his ambition, he is not the least bit bashful. Without hesitation or pretense, he says will be the best fighter in the world. Not in the coversation, but No. 1.
The road starts Saturday night (the event airs on Versus at 10 pm), and it goes through Cerrone. He and Henderson (9-1) have known each for several years, consider each other friends and exchange texts often.
Because Cerrone is known as a Muay Thai specialist and Henderson has a distinguished wrestling background, the fight is being billed as a striker vs. grappler matchup. But Henderson points out that nine of Cerrone's 10 wins are by submission, and believes the matchup to be well contested in every area.
"Its not like if I take it to the ground, I win," he said. "That's not the case at all. And conversely, if people want to think I have no standup game or striking, that's fine by me. Let them think that but they'll see otherwise."
Facing off against a friend, Henderson says he has little scouting to do. He knows Cerrone well, and the opposite also holds true. And despite their friendship, the soft-spoken Henderson has no problems putting their bond aside for the duration of the bout to do business.
"As a pro I don't have to hate my opponent," he said. "It could be my best buddy that I love to death, but if we're getting paid money and you think you could beat me and you step into the ring with me, I'll kick the crap out of you. I'll still love you to death afterward, but it's all part of being a professional. Donald's a pro, so am I and we're going to conduct ourselves as such."
Henderson's unlikely journey to the cage began with a personal setback. After failing to make the Decatur High School basketball team in his Federal Way, Washington hometown, he was looking for another athletic outlet. He says he "wandered" into the wrestling room and quickly fell in love with the sport.
After a successful run in high school, he continued wrestling at Dana College in Blair, Neb., where he was a two-time NAIA All-American. His interest in MMA had already been lit by then, and upon graduating with a double major in criminal justice and sociology, he had a decision to make.
Henderson took the test for both the Omaha, Neb., and Denver police departments, and was offered jobs by both. Instead of taking the security of a full-time position in his chosen field, his success in passing both exams pushed him in another direction. If he'd passed the tests once, he reasoned, he could certainly pass again in the future if things didn't work out. So he decided to follow the calling into MMA.
"My mom was not happy at all," he said. "She said, 'Let me get this straight. You have two jobs ready for you in Denver and Omaha with good money, and you want to fight?' She was not happy at all."
Somewhere along the line, however, it was his mom, Song, who had helped plant the seeds of his love for martial arts. When Ben was around 12, she had insisted that he and his brother take Tae Kwon Do lessons. Henderson earned a black belt in the discipline but stopped soon after.
"She's Korean, I'm half-Korean, and it's the traditional Korean martial art, so she wanted us to do that to get a little bit of the culture and tradition," he said.
Still, his mom struggled with his decision to be a full-time fighter until his sixth fight. He won the MFC bout against Mike Maestas with a third-round submission. But the victory isn't what started to win her over on his career choice.
"Before the fight, I told her, 'Mom, I'm fighting on TV," he said. "She didn't understand that. She thought I was still on rinky-dink cards. It was the first time I fought on TV, and I think because of that, she gave it a little bit of her OK. The more I fight on TV, the more she's sold on it."
After, Oct. 10, mom might lose any last bits of remaining doubt. Henderson has big plans for that night and beyond. He may speak softly and refuse to refer to himself in third-person, but he still dreams big.
"My goal in MMA, I will be the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world. I will become that," he said. "Whether I have an interim WEC belt around my waist or whatever, it matters more to me what is in people's heads, and that they have respect for what I do. When Georges St. Pierre or Anderson Silva walks around, they say, 'Hey, he's a bad dude.' It doesn't matter what belt is around his waist."