Former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson “Smooth” Henderson has long stated his intentions of retiring from mixed martial arts at age 33. But, with his newly-inked deal with Bellator signed at the tender age of 32 after defecting from the UFC, it appeared Smooth had put a stop to those plans of hastily hanging up his gloves during most athletes’ peak years.
However, despite the number of times Henderson reiterated his stance on walking away from the sport intact and free of any real, long-lasting injury at that particular year, it would appear his attitude has changed. Good timing, given he makes his Bellator debut this Friday night as he takes on the promotion’s welterweight champion in Russian Andrey Koreshkov.
33 has always seemed an odd number to set your retirement aspirations on. But, speaking to Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour show, Henderson finally confessed as to why he wished to retire at such an age.
"The real reason, to be frank with you, is that I will end up joining the military ranks. I’ve always held a pretty strong civic duty. Us as Americans, we need to do a better job period.
"Kids always say for the longest time: ‘oh I was going to join the Marines, oh I was going to join the Army, this or that’. Every 22-year-old says that. It’s something that I always felt. When I’m older, when I’m 50, I want to be able to tell my kids, I want to tell my grandkids, hey, you have a civic duty to your country. To serve, to give back. What have you done for your country besides eating the food and using the electricity? What have you done for your country?”
The cut-off age for enlisting and being recruited into the army is 33 and the Washington native was dead set on sticking to that deadline. But, after talking to recruiters, it seems like Smooth is set to feature both in the cage and in the army while acting as a reserve instead. "It was something I felt pretty strongly about and I’m finding out there are other ways to go about doing it, but I can do it while still having an MMA career."
Despite the undoubted success he has enjoyed in MMA so far, Henderson is simply following a life-long ambition of his. But, Smooth has long been a figure who has fiercely stayed true to his convictions. Despite earning the ire of MMA fans throughout his title reign for some close decision victories over the popular pair of Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez—proposing to his long-time girlfriend in the middle of the Octagon to a chorus of boos following the latter victory—Henderson seemed unmoved by the somewhat harsh feedback he received from the crowd and online forums. Hell, even turning his back on the UFC for pastures new in Bellator proved he has the minerals to make big decisions that favour himself and his family. That’s not mentioning his pure perseverance in fighting with a toothpick in his mouth despite multiple warnings not to.
Unhappy with the UFC’s lightweight landscape , Henderson opted to move up in weightclass to welterweight—where he faced off against divisional giant Brandon Thatch. Clearly outsized and outmuscled in the opening two stanzas, Henderson weathered the storm of Thatch to earn a stirring submission victory over his significantly larger opponent. He later ended his time with the UFC with a split decision victory over Jorge Masvidal on late notice after original opponent Thiago Alves pulled out through injury.
Now, Henderson is continuing his run at welterweight and is hoping the first man to hold belts in the UFC, Bellator and the now-defunct WEC when he fights for Bellator’s welterweight championship in Connecticut on Friday. His obstacle, Koreshkov, has an impressive 18-1 record—riding a five-fight winning streak following his first loss to then-champion Ben Askren—and won his belt from Brazilian Douglas Lima last summer. A former lightweight champion of MMA’s premier organisation, it’s expected that Henderson is also interested in a fight with present titleholder Will Brooks eventually—with the potential to become one of MMA’s few two-weight champions at the upper echelons of the sport.
Check out these related stories:
The Mixed Martial Arts of Victorian London
Before BJJ, there was Bartitsu.
Jonathan Maicelo: The Last Inca
Peru's up-and-coming boxing star.
Kron Gracie on Jiu-Jitsu, Skateboarding, Older Brothers, and Famous Fathers
The ties that bind are strong.
Joel Tudor on the Art of Surfing, Fighting, and Style
A surf icon helps MMA keep its sense of tradition.
Japan's Karate Kid: Kyoji Horiguchi
Japan's brightest MMA prospect.