Former UFC lightweight champion Ben Henderson is one of the bravest men in the UFC. When the UFC recently announced that Henderson would step up to welterweight on short notice to take on Brandon Thatch for a Valentine’s day Fight Night in Colorado, Bendo’s reputation as a ballsy specimen jumped to the next level.
One of the bigger fighters at 155 pounds, Henderson has been flirting with the idea of jumping up to 170 for quite some time, it’s just that no one expected it to come less than a month after his contentious loss to Cowboy Cerrone, a fighter who, at the time, was making his own quick turnaround.
But after dropping three of his last five contests, including a first-round submission loss to champion Anthony Pettis, to whom Henderson has now lost twice, the move up to welterweight may just be a very necessary catalyst to jumpstart his stalling career.
Henderson has always been an exceptional mixed martial artist. A Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt under John Crouch, Bendo is one of the stronger, more physically dominant lightweights, a fighter able to out-grind and out-wrestle almost anyone at 155. He also mixes in heavy leg kicks and awkward knee punches to his fully loaded arsenal. It was with these techniques that he captured the UFC title from Frankie Edgar in 2012, and defended the belt three more times, against Edgar, Nate Diaz, and Gilbert Melendez.
And then along came Pettis.
Having previously lost the WEC title to Pettis in 2010, Henderson was given his shot at revenge and redemption in at UFC 164. For years, Bendo was forced to watch one of MMA’s most infamous highlights, a reel ending with Pettis jumping off the cage pillar and landing a foot to his cheek, the knockdown ensuing.
UFC 164, which was held in Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee, would be Henderson’s chance to clear the slate after years of torment. But it was no meant to be. In less than five minutes, Bendo verbally tapped. His reign at the top would end there.
With two losses to the champion already on the books, many speculated that it would be near impossible for Henderson to earn another crack at UFC gold. And while he made a valid attempt to re-enter the title picture, topping Josh Thomson and Rustam Khabilov, Henderson’s run at the belt would end in August 2014, when he was knocked out by Rafael dos Anjos.
Bumped further down the lightweight ladder, Henderson accepted a matchup against Eddie Alvarez, who withdrew from the fight just a few weeks prior to the opening bell. Stepping up in his place would be Bendo’s friend and former foe Donald Cerrone, who stole one on the judges’ scorecards.
The loss to Cerrone, while contentious, solidified that Henderson would not soon fight for a title, with Cowboy, Rafael dos Anjos, and Khabib Nurmagomedov all likely to earn their shots first. But the loss did open the door for Henderson take interesting and uncharacteristic contests, giving him the ability to, in this case, play savior and build his reputation with a growing fanbase.
For starters, Henderson was born in Colorado Springs, just 85 miles from the site of his upcoming fight with Thatch. Having only fought in his home state (he currently resides in Arizona and grew up in Washington) once before—his first title defense against Edgar—Henderson has the chance to play up the hometown hero angle, while doing battle with a fighter, Thatch, who has long been touted as a hot prospect.
Henderson also joins the gladiator clan of Cerrone and Chris Leben, guys who have fought in the UFC twice in less than a month, forgoing the traditional 8-10 week training camp. He’s stepping up on grit and heart, and if that doesn’t resonate with the fans, than what will?
Also playing into Henderson’s hand is the fact that he’s heading into uncharted welterweight waters. Much like Nick Diaz recently fought Anderson Silva at middleweight, Vitor Belfort took on Jon Jones at 205, or Fabio Maldonado stepped up to heavyweight for a 2014 bout against Stipe Miocic, Henderson has already won before he steps into the cage on Valentine’s day. He’s a David to Thatch’s goliath, a smaller man who has everything to gain just by being there and, quite frankly, saving a card that lost more than one main event.
February 14 will mark the beginning of a second life for Benson Henderson. And while his first run included titles in the UFC and WEC, this second act could prove to be the start of a more fan-friendly Bendo, an athlete who will stay active, take tough fights no matter what division, and save events in an injury-riddled age when the UFC occasionally needs a little help from its competitors.
If nothing else, this proves Bendo's one of the toughest athletes in the UFC.
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