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UFC Lightweight Champ Ben Henderson Defies Convention in Octagon and Out

Ben Henderson Frankie Edgar
Ben Henderson Frankie Edgar

UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson is a tough man to pin down. Literally and figuratively.

Inside the cage, Henderson is MMA's rubber man, who has displayed an unparalleled ability to escape deep submission attempts.

Henderson's elusiveness inside the Octagon mirrors his ability to defy labels in his day-to-day life. Henderson, who defends his title in a rematch against former champion Frankie Edgar in the main event of UFC 150 on Saturday night in Denver, doesn't fit many conventional molds.

The 28-year old native of Colorado Springs, who trains with The MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz. doesn't smoke, drink, or use drugs. This makes him unique in an MMA subculture in which fighters at his level have often been sidetracked by the temptations that go with fame.

The champion is a devout Christian who makes frequent references to the strength he derives from his faith. Yet he's also an outspoken supporter of same-sex marriage, a nuanced view that doesn't find an easy fit in America's "us vs. them" culture wars.

The way Henderson sees it, drawing on his values has helped him get to the top of his chosen profession.

"I am what I am," Henderson said Wednesday in a one-on-one phone interview. "I've always done my thing and I've always stood up for what I believe in. I've gotten as far as I have by staying true to myself."

Perhaps nowhere has Henderson bucked conventional wisdom more than on the subject of the definition of marriage. The champion made waves on Twitter in recent weeks as the controversy over the fast-food chain Chick-Fil-A swirled in the media, tweeting frequently that Christian values and support of marriage equality aren't mutually exclusive.

"Being a Christian doesn't mean pushing your views on others," said Henderson. "It means going out and living your life according to the teachings of Christ. If someone doesn't believe in gay marriage, I respect their personal views. But for some 83-year old to come out and try to enforce their views on everyone else, and tell them that they can't live a life equal to other people, that, to me, is not what God's word is about.

"I'm not a theologian, there are plenty of people out there who are more learned about the Bible than I am. But when you go and pick certain passages out to try to demonize people, I mean, sin is sin and all people have sin. It's not for us to pass judgement."

Henderson, of course, is about to put aside his spiritual beliefs in order to tangle once again with Edgar, whom Henderson took the title from at UFC 144 in a 25-minute, Fight of the Year-candidate tangle.

Or is he? Henderson says he doesn't leave his beliefes behind when he enters the Octagon, and uses the example of his ability to escape precarious situations.

Just ask Donald Cerrone, who couldn't put Henderson away despite working into position for numerous chokes in their WEC interim lightweight title fight in 2009. Or Jim Miller, whose seven-fight win streak came to a halt when his arsenal of arm triangles, Kimuras and leg locks couldn't get the job done.

"I look at it like, you're doing your homework," You're a kid in high school, and you've got your test coming up. If you do your homework, if you study, if you know the material, then you walk into the test and you're calm, you don't panic, you know what you're facing, and you ace the test.

"Now what if you didn't do your homework? What happens when you know you you're not ready? You panic and you probably fail the test. I know it might sound a little crazy comparing having someone choke you to taking a test in school, but that's all it is, man. If you prepared for the situation, you stay calm and you pass your test."

Henderson aced the test against Edgar the first time around, earning 49-46 "grades" from two judges and 48-47 on the third card. But Edgar has a track record of doing his homework as well, particularly when it's time for a re-take. Edgar has three career rematches going into Saturday. After beating B.J. Penn to win the lightweight title, he granted the former champion another bout and took 50-45 scores from all three judges. And after losing to Gray Maynard in their first clash; he went to a thrilling split draw in the rematch and earned the KO victory in their trilogy fight.

But Henderson's done his homework too, and he knows Edgar is going to step it up, so the cycle continues.

"You know what Frankie Edgar brings to the table," said Henderson. "You know on one hand he's going to make the adjustments he needs to make, because he's shown his ability to do that in every rematch he's had in his career. But you also know who he is as a fighter and you don't expect to see anything drastically different, either. And you know who I am as a fighter, too. There's really no secrets there. So it's all going to come down to who can execute their game plans better. I did the first time and I hope to do it again on Saturday night."

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