I did something I regret this weekend. It happened sometime after midnight Eastern Standard Time on Saturday (technically, Sunday) during the TUF Brazil Finale. Two of my friends brought up the scenario that just won’t go away: Who would win in a street fight, Ronda Rousey or Floyd Mayweather? In one breath, I said I wouldn’t talk about it. In the next, I explained why I was on Team Rousey, and the conversation went downhill from there. I hashed out whatever semblance of an argument I had for a scenario so poorly defined (a life spent grappling beats a life spent throwing hands, and what does “street fight” mean anyway?). But looking back, I still feel self-loathing for wasting so many words for something so inherently dumb.
Now, after last weekend’s two-card binge, we can look forward to the hair of the dog at the upcoming UFC Fight Night 42. The card has many subplots—the near inversion of Patrick Cummins from co-main event to curtain jerker, Yves Edwards making a career that’s as long as they come a little longer, and the main-event arrival of Rustam Khabilov, part of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s literal Caucasian invasion. But opposite Khabilov is Benson Henderson, a former lightweight champion with a mane to his waist, a toothpick in his cheek, and a sunny disposition who somehow became a source of controversy even more reliable than Rousey versus Mayweather. That’s because in the likely event that this fight goes 25 minutes, in the tense moments between the end of the fifth round and the rendering of the judges’ decision, we’ll all be asking ourselves the same question: If Henderson wins another close one, how much will everyone freak out?
Henderson knows people criticize the razor-thin victories he’s been registering lately, and a sound bite in a commercial for this weekend’s match-up with Khabilov is an oblique response: “I don’t fight to win rounds,” Henderson says. “I go in there to beat the guy up, and to end fights.” But while you can argue Henderson’s intent, you can’t argue the results: It’s been 10 fights, four years, and one shift in promotions since he choked out Donald Cerrone, the last time he finished a bout in his favor before the final horn.
In that same span, he’s won eight contests—all by decision, but rarely decisively. After he wrested the title from Frankie Edgar, he won a rematch that was even less conclusive. After dominating Nate Diaz, he split hairs with Gilbert Melendez. To bounce back from losing the title to Anthony Pettis, Henderson fought to another split decision in January that incensed Josh Thomson so much he flirted with retirement. If we in the audience can’t relate to Thomson’s degree of frustration, we can pound away on our keyboards over the outcomes, and we can long for the guy who railed off stoppage after stoppage in the WEC. Those outcomes were simple, and we didn’t have to do as much math.
But while you can say that Henderson shouldn’t have won every decision—I certainly didn’t have him winning the Melendez fight, and I’m still not sure what to make of the fight with Thomson—you can’t say he didn’t always make a compelling case that he deserved what he received. Henderson’s late takedowns, pressure, and comfort in making five rounds look like five laps around the track are tailored to a judge’s sense of aesthetics. It’s a style that’s not always elegant, but it’s sophisticated in the way a finish-fights-or-die-trying approach isn’t. (It also carries its own risks: If this weekend’s fight is a close one, who’s to say the cheers for the Dagestani who rests his head in Albuquerque might be a little louder than those for the guy who lives over the border in Arizona, and that they might swing a crucial score in a crucial round?)
More importantly, the close decisions attached to Henderson’s name are as dignified a source of argument as you’ll find in MMA. Message boards and comment threads are clogged with disputes over hypotheticals: pound-for-pound rankings, how well an in-his-prime Mike Tyson would do in MMA, or how two Olympians of different pedigrees and different genders would fare against one another in a setting that has virtually nothing to do with MMA. They’re fun for idle chatter, but they don’t further our enjoyment or understanding of the sport in any meaningful way.
Meanwhile, Henderson’s fights force discourse—and a reckoning with what we value in combative sports when what we’re watching is open to interpretation. If we accept that MMA is a zero-sum game, we have to look at Henderson’s recent fights under a microscope to find the moments that tip the balance. Are late takedowns expressions of athletic advantage, or cloying gestures? Can they be both? Why? As fight fans, we have a right to disagree with judges’ decisions, but it’s our obligation to examine and understand the sources of those disagreements. It’s fine to prefer fights that end in black and white, with frantic taps or a nap on the canvas, but we should know about the nuances in the grey, too.
And as a practical matter, unlike imaginary battles between boxers and judoka, Henderson’s fights have clear parameters, and that’s a better springboard for conversation. Here’s what happened in the span of 25 minutes, here’s what the judges thought, what do you think? Personally, I think it’s better to talk about the past instead of a future that will never happen.
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