The last time Benson Henderson had to sit on the sideline for 10 months between fights was…well, never. It’s never happened in his decade of competing as a pro MMA fighter. From the time he was fighting regional cats in lonesome places like North Platte and Council Bluffs all the way through his title run in the UFC, “Bendo” has consistently stayed active. Yet after losing a split decision to Michael Chandler on a neglected bum knee, he finally stepped aside to have his ACL surgically repaired.
That meant unplugging himself from his manic norm of filling his schedule with a fight. And the time away made him a little stir crazy.
“For me that’s been one of the toughest things, that time off,” Henderson told MMA Fighting, just days before his return fight with Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire at Bellator 183. “Not being able to do things that I want to do, not being able to train as hard as I want to train. It’s definitely been a tough battle for me.”
In some ways, Saturday night’s version of Henderson in the Bellator cage is the one people have been expecting since he came over from the UFC. That is, the healthy version, fighting at his natural weight class of 155 pounds — the division he ruled in the UFC from 2011-2013. Between defeating Jorge Masvidal as a welterweight in his last fight with the UFC and his Bellator debut against the then-reigning 170-pound champ Andrey Koreshkov, Henderson tore his ACL and MCL in his knee. Rather than address the problem directly, he simply carried on by altering a few movements in training, and gradually modifying his instincts.
“For me the thing was, I never went into a fight not feeling 100 percent,” he says. “It was more about adjusting. Something as simple as getting back up — I could get up just as fast as I did before I tore my ACL, but I had to get up differently. I had to adjust how I got up, how I did certain things, how I moved, how I reacted — but, I felt I was just as fast, just as good, just as strong even.”
Henderson calls his recovery period “tedious,” and refers to the process as “painful” and “annoying.” The doctor originally said he would be out up to a year, which for Henderson was like seeing his estimated time of arrival on his GPS before a big trip. All he saw was a time to beat. Ten months later, he is back in action, ready to fight another Freire. As in, Patricky, Patricio’s brother. Last August Henderson scored a TKO victory over Patricio, after a leg injury forced “Pitbull” out. That fight — his lone victory in Bellator thus far — was a title eliminator, setting up his clash with Chandler.
“I thought it was a good fight,” Henderson says, remembering the back-and-forth battle that he’s replayed in his mind during his time away. “I started slow as I always do. Chandler had a big slam in the first round and that was pretty much it. Just the big slam won him the round, but I thought I won the rest of the round for sure.”
That fight — and the lack of action since then, redemptive or otherwise — has given Henderson a case of the fidgets.
“Looking back, I love to win,” he says. “I don’t care how. I don’t care if it’s a close decision. So I don’t take a whole lot of solace in the fact that after the fight Chandler looked like he got beat up, and I looked just fine.
“But I will say, I realize I have won close decisions. If you’re going to win close decisions, you’ve got to be able to lose close decisions too.”
So what has Henderson been up to? Family life, mostly. Now a part of two money leagues, he has become quite a nice Fantasy Football player, and dishes advice on who to start on his Twitter feed. Before the hiatus he insisted he was truncating his fight career to join the military, to give back to his country. Yet in his spare time he collected some intel, which has expanded his competitive timeline a bit.
“I thought the cut off for signing up for reserve duty was 34, but I was mistaken,” he said, still vowing to join the reserves at some point in the not-so-distant future. “Every branch has different cut-off ages, and I found out it’s 42.”
Still, Henderson’s revised idea on how he wants the rest of his career to play out is based on essence. Now 33 years old, he knows he has a short window to accomplish whatever is left for him to do in the sport, and that window is forever inching downward.
“I don’t want to fight forever,” he says.” I don’t want to fight to where I’m past the point where people are saying, ‘oh man, he should be done.’ I don’t want to get anywhere close to that point. I have probably a year, maybe two years left of fighting. I want those two years to be as action-packed as possible, man. I want to fight every other month. In most my fights, I never take too much damage. I never get too beat up too badly on my fights, so for these next two years I want to get after it.”
It starts in his main event Saturday night in San Jose, at the same arena that Chandler thwarted his attempt to snatch the title. The way Henderson looks at it, the fight with Patricky Freire will kick off a Bendo Bonanza, where he fights as frequently as matchmakers and state commissions will allow, at lightweight, welterweight or some catchweight in between.
Why? Because of the parallels between beauty and fighting.
“My wife the other day, she was using the analogy of those Instagram models and why women feel the need to take so many pictures,” he says. “It’s because they are aware that beauty is fleeting, and they’re not always going to be beautiful and stuff, so they take a ton of pictures to capture the fleeting thing before it goes. I’m kind of the same way. I know my fight career is fleeting. The shorter time I get, the more aware of it I am. So I want to jam-pack it full of fights. I want to jam-pack my last two years, and fight every other month. Let’s do it.”
It’s now been nearly two years since Henderson came over to Bellator as a free agent from the UFC, riding back-to-back victories over Brandon Thatch and Masvidal. He was not only on a high note at the time, he was on a renegade quest to rule two weight classes. That part of his remains intact, even if he was flung around in his last showing as a welterweight against Koreshkov.
The thing that drives Henderson is outside doubt. When people say he’s undersized to fight at 170, he starts to dance a bit. He hears a challenge. And as a former champion with a refined sense of his own career objectives, Henderson likes the idea of doing the improbably, such as he did in that fight with the up-and-comer Thatch on extremely short notice, just as the chorus was kicking up that it was a fool’s errand he was on.
“Me at 155, that’s my natural, right weight class,” he says. “It’s where I should be at. I think that 170 is definitely a lot easier for me, and yet I think that 70 is also a bigger challenge. I love challenges. I won’t say there aren’t any challenges or me at 55, there are plenty of challenges at 55. But I like the big challenge of 170 — bigger guys, bigger underdog, ‘oh my god, he’s so big, yadda yadda,’ I dig that. I think it’s cool. I like being the underdog, and people thinking ‘oh, he’s going to lose.’ I enjoy that aspect. I actually relish it. I think it’s cool.
“So with that being said, I’m not done at 170. So if Bellator can get me in there on short notice at 170, and they’ve got another card at the beginning of October. If they have a short notice fight, where someone gets hurt at 170, and they need me to step in? No problem, let’s do it. I’ll step in no problem.”
As for Patricky, Henderson sees both a finish line and a jumping off point. On the one hand, he’s ending a prolonged stint out of the cage, and now he’s healthy. On the other, Patricky is the first domino in what he hopes will be a long line. Even though Henderson’s only victory came against Patricio in a bizarre manner — a leg injury kept Patricio from continuing — Henderson says he’ll take a victory whether it’s a fluke accident, a split decision or a resounding KO.
“I will take a ‘W’ any way I can get it,” he says. “If the guy slips on a banana peel and injures his leg, I’ll take it. It’s hard to get a ‘W’ inside the Bellator cage. It’s hard to get a ‘W’ inside the UFC cage. Inside any cage, it’s hard to win. So I’ll take it anyway I can get it.
“This second Pitbull fight, the Pitbull brother fight, however it plays out, I’ll take a ‘W’ anyway I can get it.”
As for the Bellator Flying Cage, which will be on display Saturday night for the first time in the United States? Henderson likes it, and he sees it as a precursor — a suggestion of how best to use him in the future for these kickboxing/MMA hybrid events, in which bigger and more ridiculous challenges can play out for the man who calls himself “Smooth.”
“I think it’s cool, I’m definitely on board with it,” he says. “It’s a cool idea, it’s fun. It’ll be interesting for the crowd to see that. Anything to make it more fun for the fans, for the experience. People go to concerts for the show, for the spectacle. No different with this.
“And that’s what I’m trying to do next. I’m trying to talk to [Bellator president] Scott Coker and Mike Kogan to let me have an MMA fight, and then in the same night, do a kickboxing fight later on. That’s what I want. I would love that challenge.”