“Pitbull" has competed under the Bellator banner since 2011, facing most of the biggest names on its lightweight roster, and now he is excited by the opportunity of taking down another popular fighter that signed with the promotion after leaving its rival company, the UFC.
"He’s the biggest challenge for me,” Freire told MMA Fighting. "I considered Josh Thomson my biggest challenge so far, and I knocked him out without barely getting punched in the fight, and now he is my biggest opponent.”
The 31-year-old Brazilian handed Thomson his first loss since leaving the UFC with a second-round knockout this past February in the main event of Bellator 172. With a 3-0 record against UFC veterans — including a knockout of Ryan Couture and a decision over Edimilson Souza in 2016 — Freire aims to prove a point against Henderson.
"Josh Thomson also wasn't knocked out in 10 years when we fought, so I see myself as the ex-UFC killer,” Freire said. "This is the fourth ex-UFC fighter I’m fighting, and I already consider myself a ex-UFC killer.
"Every time a UFC veteran signs with Bellator I’m the first to call him out. Melvin Guillard signed with Bellator, and I called him out right away, but I don’t know if they were protecting him so he ended up leaving the company before I beat him, so he got lucky.
"I’m facing this fight as my biggest challenge. I trained really hard, always looking for the win and for the knockout.”
Ahead of what he considers the biggest fight of his life, Freire has trained harder than ever — and he admits that sometimes he felt his body was paying the price.
"My body is already asking me to stop, but I won’t,” Freire said 20 days before the fight. "I’ll continue training hard until the day of the fight so I feel strong, explosive and fast, ready for a quick victory."
“Pitbull" explains that his body was feeling like that for two reasons: he was originally slated to face Derek Campos in July, but was rescheduled to face Henderson on Sept. 23; and he’s training harder simply because this fight is just too big.
"I focused on my cardio, that’s why I’m more tired, but I’m not complaining,” Freire said. "That’s what my body felt. I don’t know if I trained too much, but that’s how I work to be ready. I feel I’ve done enough for such an important fight.
"He’s the biggest name inside the organization,” he continued. "He’s a warrior for doing three big fights, two title fights, including one at 170, with an injured knee. I had that same injury before and couldn't do anything, and he’s fighting two five-round fights. If he did that with an injured knee, imagine when he’s healthy. I prepared myself for the best Ben Henderson possible so I can beat the best possible, not someone injured."
A former UFC lightweight champion, “Smooth" is 1-2 since signing with Bellator. His only victory came against Patricky’s brother, Patricio Freire, who fractured his leg in the second round. Henderson’s defeats came in five-round decision defeats to then-lightweight and welterweight champions Michael Chandler and Andrey Koreshkov, respectively, in 2016.
Even though Henderson has lost a pair of decisions inside the Bellator cage, Freire believes his opponent has a history of getting the nod in controversial calls over the past few years in the UFC.
"He’s lucky to win decisions,” Freire said. "He has this style that scores points and judges tend to give him the win in decisions, but I won’t let that happen. I want to impose my game and win this fight. I won’t let him score points and go the distance."
The Brazilian admits that beating a man that holds a victory over his brother "will have a special taste,” but he won’t make it personal. Freire just wants to enter the cage and become the second fighter to knock “Smooth" out in MMA.
"He has issues against explosive fighters,” he said. "Rafael dos Anjos knocked him out. Frankie Edgar is fast and explosive and [Henderson] lost, even though he won (the decision). Most of the people who watched the fight knows he lost. It was the same thing against my brother."
Wins over popular names like Thomson and Henderson could immediately put Freire in a position to once again challenge the lightweight titleholder, but the bizarre finish in Michael Chandler vs. Brent Primus and the lack of definition of what happens next in the division could mean no title shot for the Brazilian.
"MMA is unpredictable. I believe both scenarios are possible,” “Pitbull" said. "It would be great for me to fight Brent Primus because I think he’s a good match-up for me. I think he’s too slow and technically limited standing. He appears to me physically strong, but no big deal. He tends to get tired as well after the second round, so he’s someone I’d love to beat up and take the belt from."