PHOENIX — At age 38, Benson Henderson doesn’t know how many nights like Saturday night he has left in his mixed martial arts career.
The former UFC lightweight champion scored a thrilling upset over Islam Mamedov in Bellator 273’s co-main event, snapping the Russian’s 19-fight unbeaten streak with a hard-fought decision win in front of a raucous hometown crowd at Phoenix’s Footprint Center. It was a special moment for Henderson, a chance to exorcise the demons of last October after losing to Brent Primus in this same arena, but also the opportunity to fight in front of his two oldest sons for the first time of his career — and do so in vintage fashion.
For Henderson, it may also have been the last ride of an Arizona legend.
“I wanted to soak it all in,” Henderson told MMA Fighting at Bellator 273’s post-fight press conference.
“I’m not sure if this will be my last fight or not, so I wanted to enjoy it. I wanted to enjoy the ‘W,’ enjoy getting my hand raised. I might keep going, I might not. We’ll find out.”
Henderson (29-11) revealed that Saturday night marked the final fight of his Bellator contract. The MMA Lab co-owner first inked a deal with Bellator in 2016 following a Hall of Fame worthy run in the WEC and UFC, which saw Henderson defeat a who’s who of A-list fighters — Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar (x2), Jorge Masvidal, Gilbert Melendez, Donald Cerrone (x2), and more — while capturing the lightweight title in both promotions.
Henderson’s Bellator run since has been a bit more uneven. Following Bellator 273, Henderson holds a 6-6 record over his 12 promotional appearances, with wins over the likes of Patricio Freire and Mamedov but losses in both of his attempts at a Bellator belt.
“They paid me a lot of money — I might have under-fought my contract, so going into the re-negotiations, I’m not sure how they’re going to treat me,” Henderson said. “We’ll see, we’ll find out. But I do know that if this is the last one, this was a great way to go out.”
Henderson acknowledged that walking away from the game entirely has been an idea he has toyed with in recent months. He isn’t ready to make an official decision about his next step, but said there is a chance that Bellator 273 ultimately serves as his MMA swan song.
“I don’t know,” Henderson admitted. “I do know that I would like to continue fighting, but other things have to line up. My wife [Maria Henderson] is going to go pro [in MMA] pretty soon. We’ve got four babies. You’ve got to be home to take care of those babies. Four kids, you know one’s always sick — so one of us, her or I, one of us always has to be home with the sick kid or the kid who has to stay home and do this and that.
“Man, four kids is a lot of work, so if I have to become a stay-at-home dad, that might be the case, and mommy’s going to go take over and bring home the bread.”
When asked about Henderson’s future on Saturday, Bellator president Scott Coker echoed many of the former UFC champion’s sentiments. Coker acknowledged that he has heard rumblings of Henderson potentially mulling retirement as well, but noted that Bellator is open to bringing “Smooth” back if he chooses to continue competing.
“It’s really going to be up to him,” Coker said regarding Henderson. “But to me, he’s already done it all. He’s been fighting a long time, and he’s been a great ambassador for the sport. If he decides to hang it up, I think he’s done everything there is to do, and we would wish him well. But if he wants to fight, we’ll have a conversation.”
Henderson also shared a post-fight moment on Saturday with fellow ex-UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, who was in town to corner Mamedov. Nurmagomedov’s new MMA promotion, Eagle Fighting Championship, made its U.S. debut on Friday and has signed several well-known free agents in recent months. Henderson hinted that a conversation with Nurmagomedov could also be in the cards if he decides to continue fighting, though obviously plenty needs to be figured out before that becomes an actual possibility.
If Henderson does choose to hang up his gloves, he’ll do so with his legacy intact as a former world champion and one of the best lightweight fighters of his era.
But if Henderson does end up re-signing with Bellator to continue his pursuit of the promotion’s 155-pound belt, he expects to return straight into the thick of the title picture.
“I would certainly hope so,” Henderson said. “Mamedov, the amazing, great fighter that he is, he just beat the guy who beat me [Brent Primus]. [He’d won] 19 fights in a row. No one else wanted to fight him. They asked the Brazilian guys, they didn’t want to fight him. They asked the Irish guys, they didn’t want to fight him. They said, ‘Hey, we can’t find anybody to fight this guy. We need somebody to fight him. Will you step up? Will you do it?’ I said I’m a company man — sure, of course. But you know him being on a 19-fight win streak, him having not necessarily a big name, no one in the division wants to fight him.
“I want the fight that’s going to take me to the title shot right away. I wanted the quickest shot possible — and they said Mamedov, so I said yes. I bet on myself. Like I’ve done so many times in my career, I put all the chips on myself, I worked my butt off and bet on myself, and this bet paid off — I got my hand raised.”