Benson Henderson arrived at the doors of Viacom earlier this year with a more decorated pedigree than nearly any major Bellator free agent signed before him. Over seven years in the WEC and UFC, Henderson ran roughshod over a litany of big names en route to a record-tying reign atop the UFC lightweight division, bagging top-flight scalps like the Cerrones and Edgars and Diazs of the world while stacking his trophy case high with gold.
It was a given that all of that success would translate to the Bellator cage; after all, Henderson was only 32 years old and his departure from the UFC was done coming off two straight wins over larger men.
But the fight game is a volatile mistress. Rather than fulfilling the goal of becoming two-weight world champion that he set for himself at the start of his Bellator journey, Henderson has struggled to recapture his former magic in the circular cage. And with a lightweight title shot at Bellator 165 looming, Henderson understands the reality of the situation he faces.
"Come Saturday night, I'm going to have a great performance. I'm making sure I'm going to have a great performance," Henderson vowed this week on a Bellator 165 media conference call. "I worked my butt off, and it's time to have a great night. It's time to have a great performance. I haven't had a great performance in Bellator yet, and come Saturday night, I'm going to make sure I have my first great performance for Bellator."
To do so, Henderson will have to get past Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler at the SAP Center in San Jose, CA. A win would make Henderson the first fighter in mixed martial arts history to have held all three of the UFC, WEC, and Bellator titles, but after debuting in Bellator with a pair of disappointing performances, which included a failed bid against Andrei Koreshkov for the welterweight strap, Henderson is more focused than ever on showing that he is still among the world's best.
"Adding the Bellator title the list, it means a lot to me because having a belt is a statement," Henderson said. "It is verification that you are the best. And then having a belt in three different organizations means you were the best in three different organizations, so it does mean a lot to me. I don't try to think about it too much right now. I know at maybe (age) 55 or 40, I will look and think, ‘oh man, that was really amazing,' or that was really cool to do this.
"Later on, I know that I'll give it it's scope. I'll give it it's due time to mull on it, to think it over, to reflect on it. But yeah, it's a historic thing I'm going after. It's not easy. I work my ass off to make sure I'm able to follow through with it too."
For both Henderson and Chandler, the match-up also carries with it a unique intrigue born of both fighters having watched one another for years from afar.
Henderson's reign as UFC champion began just two months after Chandler captured the Bellator lightweight belt in 2011, and the two ruled concurrently atop their respective divisions until both dropped their titles within months of each other in late-2013. So while Bellator 165 marks the first time that Henderson and Chandler will actually meet in battle, a strange sense of familiarity already exists between the two men.
"As a fan of MMA, I'm a fan of mixed martial arts, I saw a lot of Chandler's earlier fights in his career and whatnot, just from watching MMA," Henderson said. "I always thought he was pretty impressive, pretty good. He's a true champion at heart. He's won his belt, he's defended his belt, he has a lot of experience. He's been hurt, rocked in a lot of these fights. He gets hit early on, but battles back and battles through and comes out on top. Everyone loves that kind of a story.
"But I always thought there was a few holes in his game, gameplan-wise. Maybe not skillset-wise, but gameplan-wise there are a few holes in his game. But I know he's a true champion and a true competitor and he's always trying to work on his holes, work on his game, and get better here, get better there. My job is to make sure on Saturday night I capitalize and take advantage of those holes in his game."
While his accomplishments are already secure, a victory at Bellator 165 would go a long way in cementing Henderson as one of the unquestioned best lightweights of his era, extended his legacy even farther beyond what he did in the WEC and UFC. It also would be a nice cherry atop a career that appears to be winding down, as Henderson, who turned 33 years old on Wednesday, reiterated his desire to retire in the coming years and enlist in military service before he crosses the allowable age limit for Americans to serve.
"It's looking that way," Henderson said. "We'll see how it all plays out, but I do want to retire when I'm somewhat younger, be able to speak coherently to my grandchildren and all of that sort of stuff. And then the other thing was enlisting into the military of some sort, whether it's the United States Army or the United States Marines or the United States Air Force, and their cut-off dates for enlisting. Their cut-off dates, the ages for the different branches vary a little bit, so I have a little bit of wiggle room. It doesn't have to be 33 (years old) if I go to a different branch.
"I just would like to serve my country," Henderson added. "I think serving is a lost art, giving back to the country. Not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country. I think that seriously, we are lost today. Our society, our country, something is wrong with us. We are jacked up in head. We place our priorities extremely ass backwards. We celebrate freaking morons who are just solely focused on social media and this and that.
"When I raise my kids, I like to express to them the importance of doing real stuff, giving back to your country, doing good, being a good person. So that would be me going out of my way to do something to give back to my country so that I can raise my kids and say, ‘hey, look at this, this is something I did for this country.'"