Last April, then-UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson successfully defended his belt against Gilbert Melendez by way of controversial split-decision. Over the course of his nine-fight UFC career, Henderson has made something of a habit out of winning controversial split decisions—first in his rematch with former champion Frankie Edgar, then against Melendez, and most recently against Josh Thomson—and those controversies, along with the fact that Henderson hasn’t finished a single fight during his 8-1 UFC run, haven’t endeared him to MMA fans or the UFC brass. And at no point was this fact more evident than that April night in San Jose, when Melendez’s hometown fans rained boos down on Henderson after the decision was announced and UFC President Dana White let his resigned disenchantment be known. “It’s a Ben Henderson fight,” he said. “All his fights go to decisions --- and controversial decisions.”
Whether Henderson was hoping to get himself back in the good graces of the UFC and their fans that night, or whether he honestly felt he had found the perfect venue to declare his undying love for his girlfriend, the champion ignored the boos, got down on one knee as soon as Joe Rogan had put the mic in his face, pulled out a ring, and asked his shocked girlfriend to marry him, right there in the center of the Octagon. For a moment, the move paid off. The fans cheered; for once they were on Henderson’s side. But fairy tales can only last so long, and soon enough the crowd remembered themselves and their true feelings about Ben Henderson, and once again the boos came.
Maybe Henderson’s idea was right but his execution was off. Rather than hogging the spotlight for himself, he should have taken a page from the world of amateur British boxing and conspired with Melendez, thereby taking the moment out of the realm of the merely self-indulgent and into the world of collective experience.
This past Friday, amateur boxers Adrian Firkins and Ricky Welsby fought in a hotel ballroom in Brierley Hill, West Midland as part of a charity boxing event, and after the three-round fight was over (the judges scored it a draw), the event’s promoter called the two men’s respective girlfriends into the ring, at which point Firkins and Welsby, still half-naked and covered in their own and the other’s sweat, got down on their knees and proposed. The two women said yes, ticker tape fell from the rafters, bouquets of flowers were produced, and all was right in the universe. I wasn’t there, and I haven’t seen any footage from the event, but I’d be willing to bet there were no boos to be heard that night in Brierley Hill.
Of course the situations were different. Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez were enemies when they fought, vying for their sport’s top prize in front of a huge, partisan crowd, while Firkins and Welsby were just two blokes beating each other senseless for a good cause in front of a small crowd that had no particular investment in the outcome. As well, the Henderson/Melendez fight ended in a hotly contested decision that left one of those fighters (and his fans) angry, disenchanted, and not at all in the mood to celebrate the love and happiness of the other, while the Firkins/Welsby clash ended in a draw, which ensured a mood of emotional equilibrium in the venue. Both men might have been disappointed, but they were equally disappointed, which matters when you’re seeking out the good wishes of the other. Plus, as several cranky, but clever, UFC fans rightly pointed out at the time, there’s something inelegant, aesthetically, about a public in-cage marriage proposal that follows an unconvincing win. That kind of flamboyance demands a knockout.
But fundamentally the issue came down to simple graciousness and camaraderie. The best way for a chronically maligned fighter like Benson Henderson to win the affection of UFC fans (aside from finishing a fight from time to time) is to make them believe he’s a welcoming soul, more interested in the collective good and the joy of the many than he is his own particular happiness (a happiness many feel he's secured over and over through safe, unconvincing wins). And the best way for him to do that would have been to call up Melendez beforehand and arrange a post-fight dual proposal, à la Firkins/Welsby. No matter that Melendez was already engaged at the time--some things are bigger than our individual wants, desires, and circumstances, and these are the things that connect us to the whole, that tie us to the main, that make us feel our interconnectedness. Adrian Firkins and Ricky Welsby realized this. Henderson would have been wise to do the same. Maybe next time.
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