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Loss to Anthony Pettis Might Have Been the Best, Most Painful Thing to Happen to Ben Henderson

Ben Henderson, Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting
Ben Henderson, Photo by Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Ben Henderson isn’t sure how many times he’s seen the same highlight clip replayed over and over. "Hundreds and thousands," he estimates, and that doesn’t even count all the time spent talking about it in interviews. It was just a few seconds of his life lifted from a rare losing effort inside the cage, and a part of him knows that he’ll never fully escape it.

"I’m still not over it. I won’t lie to you," Henderson said. "I still get teary-eyed thinking about it. It affects me deeply to this day. It will affect me for the rest of my fighting career, for a long, long time. I’m very upset about it still. I can put it behind me, but am I totally over it, never think about it? No."

Even if he wanted to forget, the sport wouldn’t let him. The clip of Anthony Pettis launching himself off the cage and into a jumping kick that floored Henderson quickly found its way onto ESPN and into MMA lore. It also changed both men’s lives, though not in the ways they might have expected as they stood in the cage that night in Glendale, Ariz., waiting for the judges’ scores to be read aloud.

Pettis claimed the victory, the fame, and the promise of a UFC title shot that night, though it ultimately came at a price. Henderson ended up sitting at the post-fight press conference, visibly struggling to suppress the tears that came up in waves whenever he thought about what had just happened.

"It was heart-wrenching," he said. "I was sad, and I’m still sad. It was heart-breaking. ...Every time I’m out there, I give you guys everything. I open up my heart and soul. I hold nothing back. To come up short, and to come up short in that manner, that hurt. But I’ll never let that happen again."

That same night, Henderson said, he promised himself that he would not be defined by this one loss, this one kick. He would use it to make himself better, so that when people looked back on his career it would be little more than a footnote. After all, he told himself, didn’t Georges St. Pierre have to see clips of himself getting TKO’d by Matt Serra over and over again? Didn’t it only make him stronger in the end?

"It’s the same thing for me. I’ve had to see that kick hundreds and thousands of times. I have to talk about it over and over and over. But I’m using it. I’m using it to make myself better."

And he has. Even former foes like Pettis -- who will be forced to watch from the UFC 144 undercard this weekend as Henderson gets a crack at UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in Tokyo -- can admit that.

"After our fight, he changed as a fighter," Pettis said. "He’s hungry. You can see it on his face, he’s ready to win this fight."

Henderson will tell you now that, despite the heartbreak of the moment, in the long run the loss was "absolutely beneficial to my career." He didn’t overreact the way some fighters do after a painful defeat, dumping all their coaches and making cosmetic changes in an attempt to fix a problem they haven’t even truly diagnosed yet.

"But I think what I did change was my approach during the fight," he said. "I think against Pettis, the biggest thing I took away was that I was not aggressive enough. I didn’t have enough ring control. I think I did fine in the fight, landed more strikes, all that. But the problem was, I think I was backing up too much."

If anything, the loss made him more aggressive. While he still insists he hates decisions -- "absolutely hate them" -- he resolved to make any fight that does go to the distance into an easy call for the judges and the fans.

"I can’t leave any doubt. There’s going to be no doubt in anyone’s mind after they watch one of my fights as to who won the fight."

That seems problematic against Edgar, a champion who’s never been finished in his MMA career, and who has yet to lose a five-round fight. His indefatigable style and his ability to bounce back from even the most punishing blows make him seem nearly impossible to put him away. Henderson, not surprisingly, doesn’t quite see it that way.

"If you make a mistake, you leave your neck out there for half a second too long, you leave your arm out there, you give me your knee, I will end the fight. If you leave your chin out there? Man, let me touch your chin. I will end the fight. It’s just a matter of a guy making a small mistake and giving me the opportunity."

As for Pettis, the man who gave him this renewed sense of purpose and this extra drive, it’s nice for Henderson to know that his former nemesis is picking him to win this one. And sure, he knows there might be some ulterior motives involved. Pettis could well be hoping that a Henderson win would make a rematch more likely, this time with a bigger title on the line. Henderson doesn’t necessarily disagree with the notion.

"Maybe my second or third title defense, I could see fighting him again. I’d have no problem with that."

After all, Pettis did stick him in that interminable highlight reel hell. It sure would be nice to return the favor. Sooner or later, Henderson said, he feels certain he’ll get the chance.

"I will say this: before I retire, before I leave this earth, I will see Anthony Pettis again in the cage."

It just won’t be this weekend, when Pettis will have to content himself with watching on a monitor backstage while Henderson steps in the Octagon for the title shot he’s had to earn the hard way.

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