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Benson Henderson talks fighters association, state of sponsorships in Bellator

Benson Henderson is in a unique position these days. The former UFC lightweight champion is one of the few fighters to have experienced all sides of the aisle, having competed in the UFC under the pre- and post-Reebok eras, as well as for Bellator MMA, the promotion he now calls home.

That experience gives Henderson a perspective few fighters have on the business of the fight game, and Henderson shared a little of that perspective Monday on The MMA Hour, revealing how the post-Reebok sponsorship landscape treated him for his Bellator debut in April.

"For my last Bellator fight, I had one sponsor, and with that one sponsor, just one, I made just shy of what I made for the Reebok sponsorship," Henderson said Monday on The MMA Hour. "But I am aware, I do know, that it's going to take a while to build up those sponsors again. Sponsors in the UFC were at one point a very high dollar amount. You got paid quite a bit of money. After the Reebok thing took over, and all of the companies kind of heard about that, the value went down a lot.

"I'll have to build back up to that, and I'm a patient man. I know my worth. I'm not going to sell myself short. If the Ritz Carlton has 100 rooms, and then 75 of the rooms are empty, do they rent out the rooms for any cheaper? Do they rent out the rooms for only $100 instead of that $700-$800 range that they normally rent out the rooms for one night? No. They know what the value of those rooms are. They know what their worth is. They hold to their worth, $700-$800 a night. I'm not going to sell myself short, I know what my value is."

As a veteran with 20 combined fights in the UFC and WEC, Henderson earned $15,000 in Reebok sponsorships for his final UFC fight against Jorge Masvidal in Nov. 2015.

The number is a far cry from the figures high-level veterans like Henderson earned before the UFC's exclusive deal with Reebok reshaped the sponsorship landscape in MMA, however Henderson is encouraged by the potential opportunities Bellator's freedom provides him moving forward.

"Some sponsors are still wary of dropping the same amount of money they were dropping before, and that's my job to convince them that I am worth it," Henderson said. "Like, ‘no, I understand you guys are hesitant about sponsoring an athlete for this much money, but when you see the numbers, when you see freaking Spike TV pulling a 1.1 million peak rating, and there was [an NBA] playoff game that night -- a playoff game that went into overtime, I think it was the (Oklahoma City) Thunder versus the (Golden State) Warriors, so that game definitely hit my target audience, males 18 to whatever the age is, that kind of hurt us on the viewership -- but when they start seeing viewership, they start seeing the Neilson Ratings, 1.1, 1.2, 1.5, then they start changing their mind a little bit.

"So it's my job to prove that I am worth it. I am worth this number, I am worth that number. But it's a process. It's not going to be easy, but I never was looking for the easy way out either."

Henderson returns to action later this month at Bellator 160, where he'll take on former featherweight champion Patricio Freire in a lightweight affair. When asked if he was happy so far with his decision to sign with Bellator, Henderson said he was, then laughed and added, "look at some of the past 155-pound champions from the UFC, from Zuffa, look how much they're getting (paid) compared to how much I'm getting. I am not complaining, man."

The fight against Freire will be Henderson's first at lightweight since Jan. 2015, although it is not lost on "Smooth" that Bellator has a chance to snag another big name at welterweight with UFC free agent Rory MacDonald. Henderson said he has not personally spoken to MacDonald about navigating free agency, but he hopes the Canadian contender will take his time and capitalize on the rare chance to legitimately discover his worth.

"He has to do what's best for him and he has to do what's best for his family," Henderson said. "You have to take stock, you have to truly look at the numbers, break it down, and he's a smart kid. He'll do what's best for himself. Hopefully he does what's best for himself, whether it's stay with the UFC, come over the Bellator. Right now, as a free agent, the world is his oyster. He needs to enjoy this and take advantage of this small opportunity that we're afforded to do what's best for him and his family."

The world of MMA has seen its fair share of controversies and craziness since the last time Henderson fought, but no event had a more resounding impact than the aftermath of UFC 200, between the UFC selling to WME-IMG for $4 billion, the drug testing failures of Jon Jones and Brock Lesnar, and Mark Hunt's subsequent crusade against Lesnar and the UFC.

In Hunt, MMA fighters now have one of the loudest voices yet campaigning for the creation of an fighters association, and when it comes to banding together, Henderson is a supporter of what Hunt is preaching.

"I have talked to Mark Hunt's people," Henderson said. "I have talked to Cung Le and Jon Fitch's people. Both want the same idea, the same thing: a fighters union, a fighters association. Looking at different models to follow, whether it's the tennis model or the international football model, soccer model, whether it's the basketball model -- we are in individual sport so we can't exactly follow the NFL model, we can't exactly follow the NBA model. But because we are an individual sport, it won't necessarily be just a UFC fighters association, it won't just a Bellator fighters association. It will be a fighter association, fighters union, of all fighters everywhere.

"Anybody trying to separate the fighters, they're doing it for a reason. They're trying to separate to make our voice smaller, to make our pull, our demands smaller. So it would be very bad and detrimental to the fighters to separate at all. We need to stay strong. We need to stay smart about it. We need to hire smart people to work for us. We've got to hire smart lawyers and intelligent people who will help guide us in the formation of this fighters association."

Henderson is turning 33 years old in November and has long indicated that he wants to retire from the fight game early, so the while the goal of getting a fighters association established may not be competed by the time he hangs up his gloves, he is more confident than ever that an association is an inevitability, rather than a pipe dream.

"I know a lot of guys have already been working on it for a couple years now," Henderson said. "I'm still looking to retire in not too long, so I'm not sure if it'll get done in my time period. But definitely if not while I'm fighting, I would say (it'll get done) probably a couple years after that."

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