Throughout a professional career that has spanned well over a decade and runs a through line straight into the teeth of the most competitive divisions in the WEC, UFC and Bellator, Benson Henderson has gotten fairly used to having his hand raised. It is as much a part of his identity as his signature flowing locks and omnipresent toothpick. But recent days have at least threatened his reputation as an inveterate winner. Since arriving in Bellator as a lauded free-agent signee, Henderson has suffered some uncharacteristic struggles, losing three out of four, including two straight split-decisions.
It was a desire to put those hard times behind him while moving back toward title contention that led Henderson to accepting an impromptu matchup with Roger Huerta, and pushing for it as a lightweight pairing. The duo will scrap as the main event of Bellator 196 on April 6, in what Henderson hopes is the start of a massive course-correction. Always the realist, Henderson didn’t mince words when asked to characterize his time in the organization thus far.
“Anti-climatic. Not as advertised,” he said during Monday’s edition of The MMA Hour. “I know I’m a big name still for Bellator, but I haven’t brought the goods, so it’s on me. it’s squarely on my shoulders to back it up, to bring the goods.”
Henderson’s struggles were likely impacted by a serious knee injury that went untreated through the first three fights of his Bellator run. Despite a torn ACL, MCL and meniscus, Henderson soldiered on, hoping to put off surgery until after retirement, but slowly, the impact of the problem wore on him. When he came to the realization he could not come close to replicating the explosion necessary to blast a takedown or get up from the bottom position, he finally acknowledged it was time to go under the knife.
Now fully healed, the former UFC champion has bided his time since his last fight by working on his Brazilian jiu-jitsu by entering competitions in hopes of sharpening his fight-finishing skills. All in the hopes of avoiding the heartbreak he’s endured in each of the last two fights. It’s a development that is equally as ironic as it is frustrating for him. During his UFC run, Henderson (24-8) participated in four bouts that went to split-decision; he won all four. In Bellator, he’s had two and dropped both.
“We all know how MMA judging goes,” he said. “Sometimes [you’re] on the good side and sometimes [you’re] on the bad side of it. I’ve been on the bad side of it in Bellator so far. It feels like it’s not just me and other person in there. It’s me and three other judges and the other person. If that’s the case, and that’s what it is, I have to battle myself, I have to battle my opponent and the judges. If I have to keep it out of their hands, so be it. No problem, it’s just another challenge I have to accept and overcome.”
He makes it sound simple, but even objectively, he is battling yet another force: time. Henderson once stated he would retire at age 33. He’s now 34 and on Monday, reiterated that he is still intent on chasing Bellator’s lightweight championship. The offer to fight Huerta (24-9-1, 1 no contest) came as a bit of a surprise, if only due to Huerta’s relative inactivity over the last five years. Since the start of 2013, he has fought just five times, and while he’s gone 3-2, it hasn’t come against elite competition. And so while it’s not a fight that is likely to push Henderson to the very top of the Bellator contenders’ list, it’s a fight that still serves a purpose for him. And that is, when it comes to a title shot, he wants to do it the old-fashioned way: by earning it.
“I pushed for 155,” he said. “They offered a catch weight at first, but I know I didn’t have the best showing at 155, and I want to fight for titles. I want to fight for belts, and that’s why I do what I do. Knowing that, I didn’t want people to say, ‘Henderson’s last fight, he looked good and he won. He got the finish but it was 165, it wasn’t at 155 so is he really deserving?’
“I want to take away as many excuses as possible,” he continued. “I want to get another title shot. I need to get impressive victories. I need to go out there and win, get my hand raised, and I need it to be at 155, not 160, not 165, not 170.”
If Henderson’s willingness to get in the trenches and scrap for everything he wants makes him a bit of a throwback in a sport that has emphasized style over substance in recent years, that’s no accident. Henderson said that as he’s made his way through the sport and seen the politics of it, he’s soured on watching the in-cage action. To him, it’s often too tainted by everything that came before it.
As a rule, he’s always tried to conduct himself with style and class, and he’s not about to change anything about his approach now, even as time begins to work against him. To him, everything is still within his control. Be professional, be great, and rock amazing hair, and the world can’t deny you. That road starts anew with Huerta and wherever it ends—another championship or not—Henderson will do it his way.
“Whenever it is I am done with this sport, I want it to be on my terms,” he said. “Whenever that point is, making sure it’s me on top, walking away with my held high.”