Last Saturday, former lightweight champion Benson Henderson took on Jorge Masvidal in the main event of South Korea’s UFC Fight Night 79. The welterweight bout marked the final obligation on Henderson’s current UFC contract and, according to several pre-fight comments from the fighter and his camp, would be followed by a test of his free agency.
It was a risky move. Win, and Henderson would enter the market as a hot commodity on a streak; a big-ticket competitor at both welterweight and lightweight. Lose, however, and he would stick a pin in his bargaining power, both in dealings with the UFC, and any other interested promotions. In 2013, Roy Nelson entered a bout with Stipe Miocic in the same situation and famously came up short, greatly reducing his leverage in the process.
Luckily, Henderson left Seoul with a win—a close win, but a win all the same, and ultimately, that’s what matters. In an act that clearly symbolized the possibility of his leaving the organization, Henderson removed his UFC gloves in the Octagon, immediately becoming the fight game’s most eligible bachelor in the process. And while he did later clarify on social media that he hoped to end his career in the UFC, other organizations have already begun to express interest in his employment in the meantime.
The first and most notable Henderson suitor thus far has been South Korea’s ROAD FC, who are clearly eager to capitalize not just on his status as one of the world’s top fighters, but also on his Korean heritage. Company president Mark Lee wasted no time in putting his money where his mouth is.
In an email to MMAjunkie.com, Lee stated: “ROAD FC is aware he would like to test his upcoming free agency. We are interested in discussing a contract with Mr. Henderson for $200,000.” And while it remains unclear as to whether Henderson would be paid this amount per fight, or if this would be the sum value of the contract, that’s still a serious stack of cash by MMA standards. Certainly a far-cry from the $48,000 he pocketed for a 2014 loss to Rafael Dos Anjos in his last disclosed payday.
Of course, ROAD FC was merely the first organization to express interest in Henderson. In the days since the Korean organization threw their money on the table, MMA’s second biggest promotion, Bellator, has also communicated their eagerness to give Henderson a new home.
In an email exchange with Sherdog.com, Bellator boss Scott Coker acknowledged that once his team was sure Henderson was actually up for grabs, they would be opening the door to him.
“I think that my guys have reached out just to see if he is actually a free agent because sometimes they have an exclusive negotiation period, so we’re going to wait and see what his contract status is,” Coker told Sherdog. “If he is free, then yeah, we’re going to start talking to him.”
Cleary eager to avoid another UFC vs. Bellator legal scuffle of the Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Eddie Alvarez variety, Coker is easing into negotiations with Henderson. All the same, the interest is irrefutably there, and Henderson’s taking a trip to Spike TV is certainly an interesting thought. At welterweight, he could look forward to a title fight with Russian destroyer Andrey Koreshkov, or a high-stakes promotional welcome courtesy of Michael “Venom” Page or Douglas Lima. At lightweight, he could mix it up with Michael Chandler, or jump right into a title fight with surging Bellator lightweight champ Will Brooks—whose recent tweets convey real interest in that notion.
And that’s not where the options for Henderson end. Though Twitter interactions are only worth so much, Victor Cui, the top-dog of Singapore’s ONE Championship, seems to have put his promotion’s name in the hat by retweeting a fans call to “bring Benson Henderson to the home of martial arts”—meaning Asia, where ONE currently dominates the market. Just like the thought of Henderson’s heading to Bellator, the idea of his moving to ONE is very intriguing. At welterweight, he could mix it up with divisional champ Ben Askren, who has long stood out as one of the best fighters outside the UFC. At lightweight, he could be the man to give Japanese legend Shinya Aoki his first big test in years.
These are merely the developments that have occurred in the first few days since Henderson entered free agency. Considering his accolades, we can expect many more organizations to raise their hands in the coming weeks, from Japanese Pride-revival Rizin FF to the Ray Sefo helmed World Series of Fighting, where fights with the likes of Jake Shields and Justin Gaethje could await.
The thing to remember, of course, is that the UFC has the right to match any offer thrown Henderson’s way—they also have the fattest wallet. And given that Henderson is now ranked at both welterweight and lightweight, it’s unlikely that they’ll let him go easily. The most likely outcome, then, is that the former lightweight king will get his wish, sign a cushy, new contract with the UFC, and fight out the rest of his career on the sport’s biggest stage.
In the meantime, however, all that’s certain is that things are getting interesting for MMA’s most sought-after free agent. Other organizations are beginning to open their checkbooks. If the UFC wants to keep Benson Henderson, they’re going to have to make it worth his while.
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