Ben Henderson is ready for the bright lights of primetime. By dispatching Jim Miller at UFC on Versus 5 in spectacular fashion, the Phoenix-native earned a shot against Clay Guida at the UFC's November 12th network debut on Fox to determine the next challenger for the lightweight title. The stage will undoubtedly be the largest in the sport's history and it took a stunning upset to get there. "I'm proud of that performance," Henderson said to The MMA Hour after the win. "I definitely want to get better, but I'll take it as a coming out party."
Henderson, of course, was just being modest, as is his modus operandi. All the 27-year-old did that night was completely and thoroughly dismantle an undisputed number-one contender who hadn't been challenged in seven straight fights. By battering his opponent en route to a lopsided unanimous decision victory, the man known as "Smooth" displayed a savage array of skills that undoubtedly put the division on notice. "I think it comes with a comfortablilty [sic]," he leisurely mulled. "Being comfortable expressing myself a little bit more, and just feeding off the crowd.
"Now I'm finally kind of hitting my stride to where I'm used to it. It's not such a frightening aspect to me."
It seems odd to grasp, but this sudden and dramatic run in the UFC's deepest division wasn't ever supposed to happen. Not long ago Henderson entered the organization mired in his lowest moment. Even now his blood rises at the memory. "Not only losing that fight, but the manner that I lost it," he mutters indignantly.
It was supposed to be a homecoming. A final sendoff before breaking into the big leagues for a shot at the belt. Spearheaded by Henderson, Phoenix beat out 30 other cities in a countrywide fan-vote last winter to host World Extreme Cagefighting's (WEC) farewell event -- WEC 53. And it was to be magnificent. Two title fights, a card filled top-to-bottom with brutal finishes, and the night's capper -- Henderson vs. flashy up-and-comer Anthony Pettis for the final WEC lightweight crown and, most importantly, the next shot at the UFC's 155-pound belt.
With the hometown crowd at his back, and the momentum of a ten-fight win streak at his wings, Henderson entered the cage as an overwhelming favorite. Yet something strange happened that night. The young man from Wisconsin had come to fight. Pettis attacked ferociously from every angle, locking Henderson into a firefight none had expected. Entering the last minute of the fifth and final round, the belt was wildly up for grabs. Then the amazing happened. In a series that no one could have predicted, Pettis leaped off the side of the cage, faked with his left, and launched a right head kick straight into Henderson's temple. "Smooth" dropped. While he would survive to the bell, the damage had already been done. Stunned by what they just witnessed, the ringside judges awarded Pettis the round, the victory, and the belt, ensuring Henderson an eternal spot in highlight-reel hell. "I was on ESPN's top-ten plays for the entire year. Me getting kicked in the face," he bitterly recollects. "I still am very upset about that. I will never live that down."
As he reluctantly sat at the post-fight press conference that night, Henderson was a heart-wrenching sight. On the verge of tears, the fighter was forced to continually relive the kick while Pettis teetered in utter bliss just feet away. Yet, in a strange twist of fate, the moment has now become somewhat cathartic for Henderson. "That will always be deep down in my heart," he explains. "That definitely had an impact on me as fighter for the rest of my career. You're not going to see that guy again."
"I want to fight everybody, literally. I want to beat everybody on the 155-pound roster in the UFC." Henderson steadily continues, "I'm not too concerned about the money. I'm not going to be a millionaire and my goal isn't to be a millionaire. I want to be the best mixed martial artist on the planet." Suddenly a goal that once seemed far-fetched no longer appears that improbable. But first he must focus on Clay Guida and the task ahead.
As for all the critics and doubters who wrote him off, Henderson bears no grudges, but instead poses a simple request. "Just give me time," he firmly declares. "You're entitled to your opinion. You don't think I'm that highly ranked, that's okay. Wait another two or three fights and then say that."
By then there may not be much to doubt.