Benson Henderson is stuck in no man's land
JAN 24, 2014 7:10p ET
As critics will gladly point out, there are many quirks to the UFC’s divisional ranking system that just don’t jive with matchmaking realities. Among them is the situation facing lightweight Benson Henderson, who squares off against Josh Thomson in Saturday’s UFC on FOX main event. Henderson is a former champion who currently stands at No. 1 on that list, yet he has almost no chance of forcing a UFC title bout rematch with Anthony Pettis as long as “Showtime” remains champion.
Even if Henderson wins three or four straight, if Pettis remains atop the lightweight throne, another fight between them will be a tough sell. Why? Well, the biggest hurdle facing him is that he’s fought Pettis twice and has lost both times. Few trilogies are made, or even necessary, when one of the parties is up 2-0.
There are a couple of notable exceptions: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson finally got his revenge over Wanderlei Silva after coming to the UFC, but few American fans had seen their first two fights, which occurred in Japan. Tito Ortiz roughed up Ken Shamrock three times, but the final fight came only after a controversial finish in the second where Shamrock protested what he believed to be an early stoppage. And the fight was also put on a free television to draw a big rating, which it did.
This is a different time, in a much more competitive division, and the UFC will have to be convinced that there is no better option in order to make that fight. UFC president Dana White said so shortly after Henderson-Pettis II, when he said another fight wasn’t necessary since Pettis won so decisively.
“He’s on record saying a bunch of stuff that he’s reversed course on. He’s able to have his mind be changed. So my job is to convince him, not with my words but with my actions.”
And so Henderson is faced with a situation where he is forced to essentially tread water, to hold his place in the division and hope that something breaks his way.
“I’ve never really thought about that in that way,” Henderson said during a recent interview with FOX Sports. “It’s totally up to Dana White and [matchmakers] Sean Shelby and Joe Silva.
Then he stopped and thought some more.
“Dana White is on record having said, ‘Women in MMA will never fight in the UFC,’” he continued. “Well, we know that it didn’t exactly work out that way. He’s on record saying a bunch of stuff that he’s reversed course on. He’s able to have his mind be changed. So my job is to convince him, not with my words but with my actions.”
This isn’t an issue in any other sport. In tennis, Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer have played 33 times in nine years, yet the sports world pays attention to nearly every meeting. In the NFL, it’s possible for teams to play three times in one season. With his hands and feet, Henderson will have to craft an undeniable case for another date with Pettis. Defeating Thomson will be a positive step in that direction. White was wowed by Thomson’s April octagon return, in which he became the first fighter ever to stop Nate Diaz on strikes, and Thomson has been promised a title match if he beats Henderson.
If Henderson wins? It appears that if that happens, Gilbert Melendez could be bumped ahead of him. Despite the fact that Henderson beat Melendez head-to-head -- albeit in a close split-decision -- Melendez vs. Pettis would be a fresh matchup. And Melendez, slotted at No. 2, is also coming off a 2013 Fight of the Year nominee, in which he defeated Diego Sanchez.
Right now though, Melendez is still working out the parameters of a new contract. A recent meeting between him and White went well, and the UFC expects to have a deal done shortly.
When that happens, the UFC will have Pettis’ likely return fight covered. Either Thomson wins and gets him, or if Thomson loses, Melendez can step in. And somewhere out there, T.J. Grant is waiting in the wings in hopes of reclaiming a No. 1 contender spot he once held. Somewhere behind those three is Henderson, the once king, now deposed and nearly exiled.
“There are terrible things in life but you have to man up and move on,” he said. “So this doesn’t register that way. You can be mad for six months or a year or 10 years, but at some point in time, for you to move forward, you have to man up and move on. After two days, I said, ‘This sucks, I’m sad, but I can be sad for months or move forward as soon as possible.’ I got back in the gym to make sure I didn’t make the same mistakes again.”
The same mistakes as he made against Pettis, a name that helps define his career, but not in the way he wants it. A name that is right now above his. A name that to him, right now is untouchable. A win, after all, just keeps him stuck in neutral, and a loss is a major blow. In a way, what Pettis does matters more than what he does. There’s no comfortable way to digest that, and there’s no other way to say it: right now, Benson Henderson is in no man’s land.