Benson Henderson’s recent career trajectory should act as a cautionary tale to all UFC champions and contenders who assume the grass is greener and the competition weaker in Bellator MMA.
Henderson has disproved that myth (especially in the welterweight and lightweight divisions). The former UFC lightweight champion is 1-2 since joining Bellator in early-2016 and his only win to date, a second round stoppage of Patrício Freire, was a result of his opponent pulling up injured having checked a leg-kick. So much for a new lease of life, then. So much for a career resurgence.
Admittedly, though, this form owes more to the competition than any regression in Henderson. The defeats, first to Andrey Koreshkov and then Michael Chandler, both went the distance; Henderson simply met his match. The opposition was better than he was told it would be; better than UFC devotees suggested it would be.
Bellator imagined Henderson as their welterweight champion initially, but he couldn’t get close to beating Koreshkov. They then pictured him as their lightweight champion, only for Chandler to scupper those plans last November.
So now we’re here, days away from Henderson’s fourth Bellator appearance; this time against Patricky Freire; this time with no title on the line.
“I’m at the beginning of the tail end of my career,” Henderson told Fighters Only’s Gareth A. Davies. “I’m 33 now and I don’t intend on fighting when I’m 38. Now I want to take care of this part of my career and make it as action-packed as possible. I’m lucky and blessed that I don’t get too injured and don’t take a whole lot of damage in my fights. I can normally fight again the weekend afterwards and I often do jiu-jitsu tournaments the week after my fights. That being said, I have a certain period of time left and in that time I’m looking to make as many big fights, titles or not, and take short-notice fights. Sign me up, hit me up Mike Kogan, Rich Chou (the Bellator match-makers). I’m up for that.”
What’s left? Some would already argue Henderson’s given up on winning titles and is instead looking to simply make interesting matches and get paid. (He’s well within his rights to do so, of course.) But we must also consider the fact the Colorado man has yet to turn 34 years of age, so is young in MMA terms, and remains an incredibly talented and experienced campaigner at both lightweight and welterweight. He will also, for as long as he remains Benson Henderson, have options on account of his reputation and exciting style of fighting. Which is why a fight with newly-minted Bellator lightweight champion Brent Primus could very soon be on the horizon.
“Brent shocked the world and proved everybody wrong,” Henderson said. “He went out there and had a great game plan against Chandler. He beat his leg up, to where he wasn’t able to fight any more. That’s your goal. That’s our aim. Our aim is to hurt someone so badly so that they can’t continue. And Brent did a really good job of that. Great game plan: won the fight in the first round.
“A lot of people were sleeping on Brent and when I fight him for the belt I will not be sleeping on him. For me, it’s a case of being prepared to get that belt around my waist. That fight is not confirmed yet, but I would like to fight Brent. You have to want to fight the top of the ladder. Right now he has the belt, so my goal is to beat his butt.”
Henderson is already talking as though he’s got the next shot. Perhaps he has been told this will be the case. But first he must focus on the task ahead of him. Henderson, more than anyone, knows the importance of focusing on the here and now. Moreover, a third defeat in four, for a man as accomplished as Henderson, would be catastrophic at this stage.
Patricky Freire, his opponent, has enough motivation to give Henderson problems, that’s for sure. The Brazilian is the older brother of Patrício Freire, the only man to so far succumb to Henderson in a Bellator cage.
“It’s in the back of my mind and something I’m aware of,” said Henderson. “I beat the younger brother, now I’m fighting the bigger brother. I know if you mess with family members, if they’d beaten my brother, I’d be getting down and ready for that in my head. So I know ‘Pitbull’ is a more angry, audacious character as a fighter and it will be a challenge.”
They’re all challenges around these parts. Benson Henderson knows that now.