In November of 2015, former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson closed out his UFC contract with a win over Jorge Masvidal and plunged head-first into free agency. While Henderson assured that he harbored no ill-will toward the UFC, he made no secret of the fact that he planned on fielding offers from other organizations, and that the highest bidder would win his services.
Yesterday, Henderson took to his official website to announce the results of this test of free agency: a move to Viacom-owned Bellator MMA.
“I'd like to officially announce my move over to Bellator MMA,” Henderson said in the statement. “I'm beyond excited for this next phase of my career, it's a big move, like any move when switching employers or jobs after having worked somewhere for such a long time.”
Naturally, this is a significant development in the context of the larger fight game. Another elite fighter has left the UFC in favor of another organization, showing that while the UFC is irrefutably MMA’s major league, it is certainly not the only viable option out there for today’s top fighters. Yet for all the reverberations caused by Henderson’s trans-promotional jump, the simplest and most compelling aspect of his move to Bellator is that it opens the door to a plethora of exciting matchups for the former lightweight king.
Of course, Henderson’s options in Bellator are going to depend on what weight class he decides to compete in. While he realized his greatest success as a lightweight, his two most recent contests—both victories—have unfolded at welterweight. Luckily for him, Bellator’s welterweight and lightweight divisions are two of its strongest. That means that no matter what weight class Henderson decides on, he’s got some exciting scraps to look forward to.
Whether he opts for a continued welterweight run, or a return to lightweight, the most obvious choice for Henderson is a Bellator title shot. At welterweight, that would mean a bout with 25-year-old Russian Andrey Koreshkov, the 18-1 dynamo who stole the division’s title from Douglas Lima back in July. At lightweight, an immediate title shot would mean Henderson’s getting in there with Will Brooks, who is quickly emerging as one of Bellator’s brightest stars.
As exciting as these options are, however, history shows that though Bellator often picks up former UFC talent, it doesn’t generally rush that talent into title fights.
Cheick Kongo, for example, who was picked up by the organization back in 2013, had to win two Bellator bouts before the organization finally coughed up a heavyweight title shot. Tito Ortiz, similarly, defeated Alexander Shlemenko and Stephan Bonnar before earning his recent title shot against Bellator light heavyweight king Liam McGeary. Phil Davis, who resides among Bellator’s finest talents, was given a place in a one-night light heavyweight tournament rather than an immediate light heavyweight title shot. And finally, Josh Thomson and Melvin Guillard, both of whom spent many years in the UFC lightweight division, are still mixing it up with other Bellator lightweight contenders on the road to a title shot.
So, while Henderson is inarguably the most accomplished fighter among Bellator’s current crop of UFC-outcasts, its not unlikely that he’s given a warmup fight or two before he’s given a title shot—be it at welterweight or lightweight. Luckily, the former UFC champ has plenty of exciting possibilities in both divisions.
At welterweight, for example, he might mix it up with former Bellator king Douglas Lima. He might also get in there with Paul Daley or Michael “Venom” Page—both brick-fisted British strikers capable of turning the lights out on pretty much anyone. Henderson might even find himself in the Bellator cage with Josh Koscheck, another UFC veteran recently picked up by the organization.
At lightweight, his options are just as numerous. He might, for example, be pencilled in for a date with former champion Michael Chandler, who has long stood out as one of the world’s premier lightweights. He might also be scheduled for a rematch with Josh Thomson, who he defeated in a razor-close 2014 bout in the UFC. And finally, there are Bellator’s other top lightweights—fighters like Marcin Held, David Rickels, Patricky Freire and Ryan Couture. Any of these men would make a suitable welcoming committee for a debuting Henderson, even if they’d represent a marginal step down from the sort of competition he’s used to.
Whatever Henderson’s newly-announced Bellator career brings, his status as a former UFC and WEC champion means he’ll enter the organization with a target on his back—arguably a bigger target than any of Bellator’s current champs wear. The organization’s very best lightweights and welterweights are all likely to be hungry for a chance to make a name off him, which means he’ll have plenty of eager suitors for as long as his Bellator career lasts.
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