GLENDALE, Ariz. — A lot of people would call UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson a walking contradiction, and he’s OK with that.
Where many expect MMA fighters to be loud and in-your-face intense, Henderson is reserved and focused. As some worry about their image and marketability, Henderson devotes his energy entirely to winning. He’s a different sort, but so far his sort has had no trouble succeeding.
While taking a break this week from his preparations for his third title defense in Saturday’s UFC on FOX 7 in San Jose, Calif., Henderson opened up to FOXSportsArizona.com about his image and how it fits in the context of the MMA community. He also dished on his opponent, Gilbert Melendez, who makes his UFC debut after the dissolution of Strikeforce, where Melendez was the lightweight champion.
The following are excerpts from the interview with Henderson just prior to his team’s departure for San Jose.
FSAZ: First things first, what challenges does Gilbert Melendez present for you in Saturday’s fight?
Henderson: Every fighter presents his own unique challenges. No two fighters are exactly the same. … Melendez’s biggest thing, I think, is how tough he is. He’s a tough guy. He’s fought the best in the world for a long, long time, and he’s been considered in the top two or three for a long time. So just his toughness will be a huge factor in the fight.
FSAZ: You’ve often used your stamina as a means to just kind of outlast your opponents and push the pace. Melendez is a little like that, too, so how does that change the dynamic of this fight? How do you adjust?
Henderson: Melendez is known for his cardio and his stamina. He’s got great cardio, and we knew that going in, so we wanted to prepare the same. He seemed to fade a couple times in his fights with Josh Thomson (last May and in December 2009), so we’re going to see if we can use that to our advantage. We want to push the pace. He’s really good at cardio of a certain sort. Like some guys can wrestle all day long but they can’t box. Some guys can box all day long but they can’t wrestle. So we want to go at him everywhere, see where he gets tired and take the fight in that direction.
FSAZ: He was the last lightweight champion in Strikeforce and he’s ranked now as the No. 1 contender for your UFC lightweight champion title. There couldn’t be much truer title fight than this, could there?
Henderson: Not at all. If you want to be the best you have to literally beat the best. I’ve always said I want to be the best fighter on the planet, and that means I have to fight the best guys. Gilbert is that guy. He is the next guy, No. 2. So if I want to stay, if I want to make my claim, I’ve got to back it up.
FSAZ: Do you have to be extra wary of a guy like Melendez, who is making his UFC debut and also maybe trying to prove himself on this stage?
Henderson: To a certain extent I think so, yeah. You have to watch out. You never know with a guy in his first time in the UFC octagon. He might have some pretty big jitters — a lot of guys do. Some guys show up really well and they’re ready for it. They don’t fade or falter. Being at that top level brings out their best. We are definitely anticipating Gilbert to be at his best. He’s a true veteran, he’s been everywhere, and he’s fought everywhere. So I wouldn’t expect him to have a bad fight on this stage. I think it will bring out the best in him.
FSAZ: Does anything feel different heading into this title defense than the last couple?
Henderson: I wouldn’t say anything is different. There’s always going to be new elements, new challenges like first pro fight or first time in the UFC, first time on TV. There’s always new stuff, but basically it all boils down to winning your fight. All that stuff is just extra stuff. All that matters is winning your fight. … A fight is a fight. I don’t care where it’s at, how many people are watching or anything.
FSAZ: We’ve talked a little before about your image. What do you believe your image in this sport is now, or what do you want it to be?
Henderson: I don’t really know. I’ll let people make up their own mind what my image is like. I’m just going to be who I am. I’m not going to give too much thought to ‘Oh, I have to act like this or say this.’ I really try to purposely not think like that at all. I try to stay away from that and be myself, be who I am all my flaws included. That said, hopefully I’ll leave a legacy and all that stuff. In the long run how I wouldn’t mind being remembered is as a guy who worked hard. A hard worker, a guy who busted his butt, a guy who loved his family and was blessed by the Lord.
FSAZ: You’re not really a loud, aggressive kind of guy, and you’re not into the party scene at all. You’re more clean-cut, quiet and devoted to your religious beliefs. Do you think that’s different than what a lot of people expect from MMA fighters?
Henderson: I’d say maybe a little bit, yeah, for sure. I think a lot of times people have preconceived notions of what a fighter is supposed to be like or how they’re supposed to act. But really our fighters are pretty varied. Some guys are computer dorks and don’t really do a whole lot. Some guys are your stereotypical fighter guys — rambunctious and full of testosterone and that sort of stuff. Then some guys are like me. I’d rather go to Barnes and Noble than anywhere else. I’m pretty laid back. I think a lot of times those preconceived notions are pretty stereotypical. They’re not too correct.
FSAZ: I know that’s the image you want for yourself, but do you get some added satisfaction knowing you’re providing a clean-cut, humble alternative role model for young MMA fans?
Henderson: I’m OK with it, that’s for sure. I’m not against it. I think it’s a good look. I’m definitely not trying to act one way or portray myself a certain way. I’m just being myself, and if that’s how I come across, I’m good with it. That’s me. That’s who I am.