That Benson Henderson defected from the UFC to Bellator as a free agent may or may not go down as a groundbreaking movement to inspire others to test their worth. But it certainly is in keeping with Henderson’s tendency to march to the beat of an entirely different drum circle.
Henderson has been doing his own damn thang for years. He was the first to show up to every public occasion wearing a scarf and a Rasta hat, even on humid summer days. His hair drove people crazy for a while there, as he was constantly sweeping a curly bang behind an ear before setting up his next combo. He fought with a toothpick in his mouth, as if his opponent was part of the overall meal he was digesting. Soon commissions were inspecting his mouth down to the uvula to make sure he wasn’t hiding anything before he stepped in the cage. One time, when he beat Gilbert Melendez on national television, he proposed to his then-girlfriend in the Octagon (she accepted). Another time he agreed to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov, only to later find out it was Rustam Khabilov. He shrugged his shoulders. Did we mention he’s a teetotaler? He’s never been tempted into the cups, not even in college.
And if you don’t know by now, Benson Henderson’s best friend was born in a manger. He’s never been shy about his more celestial affiliations.
In some ways, Henderson’s signing with Bellator was just kind of par for the course. And as he was sitting with his new Spike affiliates in New York City in mid-February, taking in the new sets of suits, "Bendo" was adapting to his latest bold decisions on the fly.
"I would think so," he told MMA Fighting, when asked if this was just the latest in his acts of overall autonomy. "I would agree [that I’m doing my own thing]. Not drinking, not smoking, not doing any of that sort of thing growing up. It was definitely not the norm for high school kids, for college kids, to not do that kind of stuff. In that sense I can sort of understand.
"I guess that, yeah, it would apply too in my career path, too, my career choice, deciding to exit out of the UFC and not sign a contract extension and signing with Bellator, I think that is another big step. Obviously it’s the best thing for my family. I think a lot of the other fighters will start to see, start to recognize, you’ve got to do what’s best for your family."
Henderson, who was with his baby boy in Manhattan as he began cutting promos for his upcoming title fight with Andrey Koreshkov, said this particular decision came down to the bills he foresees mounting in the future.
"How much does a college education cost nowadays?" he said. "I had my first son six months ago. So I was like, trying to think how much a college education costs and times that by 18 times of inflation, and I was like, oh man, I better start saving up now. We’re going to have a couple of other kids, so I got to pay for them too.
"You got to do what’s best for your family. I think that the more fighters that understand that, that realize that, you could possibly see the same thing from a lot of other fighters."
(Esther Lin, MMA Fighting)
"Smooth" debuts in the Bellator cage on April 22 at Bellator 153 at the Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. Koreshkov won the title in Uncasville the last time through, defeating Douglas Lima via unanimous decision at Bellator 140. He’s currently riding a five-fight winning streak, within which he won the Season 10 welterweight tourney.
Still, this will be the first big spotlight fight for the Russian. Not too many really know who he is or what he’s capable of. With Henderson standing opposite him, it becomes a bigger deal to find out. And Bendo concedes that part of what he brings to the Bellator table is "raising the stocks" of the guys at the top.
And Koreshkov, he says, just happens to be the first. The man they call "The Spartan" was the first title fight that Henderson was offered, and he didn’t hesitate to take it.
"It was the first one they had available," he said. "I told [exec] Mike Kogan, [matchmaker] Rich Chou and [Bellator president] Scott Coker, I told those guys I wanted to get in there right away as soon as possible. They said when do you want to fight? I said tomorrow. Let’s do it. I’m at the gym all the time, I’m always ready to go. You want five rounds, I’ll give you five rounds, three rounds I’ll give you three rounds.
"So they said, you can fight for the lightweight title but you’ll have to wait for a little while probably. Or you can fight for the welterweight title, and we can have you fight a little bit sooner. I said I want to fight as soon as possible, so they scheduled the welterweight on."
That’s another thing that Henderson lives by that can be classified as falling under the beat of his own drum. He likes to fight often, and doesn’t require a ton of notice.
One of the most endearing feats he performed while in the UFC didn’t come during his run as the lightweight champion, though he had his moments there too. It came when welterweight Brandon Thatch needed an opponent to step up in a main event — at elevation, in Thatch’s home state of Colorado — at UFC Fight Night 60, after Stephen Thompson fell out. Henderson, fresh off a narrow decision loss against Donald Cerrone a couple of weeks earlier — his second loss in a row — raised his gonzo hand.
He was fighting up a weight class, against a rising beast in the welters who was defending his own turf, on short notice. It felt like an absurd thing to do. Yet Henderson went out to Broomfield and coolly made the fight his own, taking it into championship rounds where he choked out Thatch in the fourth.
That lone fight epitomized Henderson’s attitude.
"We have a lot of guys at [The MMA Lab], and we all say the same thing, anytime, anyone, anywhere," he said. "And not just talking the talk, but walking it. Backing it. I’ve always been someone who’s willing to do that, and not just talk about it. And the UFC finally presented an opportunity and I ran with it. I was like, heck yeah, I’m not just going to talk it and not back it up. There’s a lot of fighters out there who brag about, ‘oh, I’m in the gym all the time, I’m training, look I posted 75 pictures in the hour I was working out.’ I’m like, really? You had the time to post 75 pictures while you were working out? That’s a great workout you must have had.
"I was thankful for the opportunity and I thank god for the way it played out."
If there’s one blueprint that Henderson may be following, it’s that of Conor McGregor, who is attempting to become the first fighter in UFC history to hold two belts concurrently. Henderson is in a position to try and accomplish that very thing in his new promotion, as well.
Beginning with Koreshkov in April, it’s feasible that by the end of 2016 there could fighters in both promotions holding two belts. That was another driving factor for Henderson, who didn’t have a clear path to a title at 155 or 170 in the UFC.
"That was one of the great intangibles that Bellator brought to the table, was that they were open too and willing to talk about going in two different divisions," he said. "I want to focus on what’s in front of me, first thing’s first, and that’s Andrey and the welterweight belt. But for sure, down the line, you’ll potentially see me fighting at the lightweight in Bellator and I’d imagine that would be for a belt also."
One way or another, the next time Henderson appears it’ll be accompanied by pyrotechnics, on Spike TV, in the Bellator gloves. Even though he blazed the path, he says he’s not sure just how different it’ll all feel.
"That is actually the one thing I am most interested in finding out," he said. "I had a pretty good formula for success with the UFC, and I had things down to a pretty good science. I like this on Monday, I knew I had to do this on Tuesday, I knew I had to do this on Wednesday, yadda yadda yadda, so I’m interested in how I’ll respond to the differences here at Bellator, how they do things, how they operate.
"Normally I’m pretty laid back. I can go with the flow. I’m not too picky of an individual. I’m always late everywhere I go, but beside that I’m not too picky of a diva or anything. But I’m interested in how I respond to the difference behind the scenes and all that stuff."