What might be the biggest contrast in public image and fighting style in UFC history will be on display this weekend, when a gentlemanly Mama’s Boy from Seattle defends his lightweight title against the Bad Boy from Stockton, Calif.
OK, Nate Diaz isn’t really all that bad of a dude. It’s an image thing that he can’t really get over and honestly doesn’t care about. (“Whatever,” he shrugged at a Thursday press conference for this weekend’s UFC on FOX fight. “It’s more something people try to stick on me than anything I do.”)
People — and when I say people, I mean the media, myself included, who enjoy an athlete who takes media responsibilities seriously, but scoff when an athlete seems put out when he talks with reporters — think of him as the man of few words who spends his press-conference time texting instead of paying attention to questions. More than being the thug portrayed in his public image, the 27-year-old Diaz is simply a born fighter, obsessed with training, committed to a raw, vegan diet and utterly unconcerned about how people view him.
But Benson Henderson? He’s the current lightweight champ after two impossibly close decision victories in a row over Frankie Edgar and, as the UFC moves into the mainstream and softens its image, a marketer’s dream. He’s a vocal Christian whose walkout songs are gospel music. He likes to quote scripture. He’s a kind, soft-spoken mama’s boy. (After winning the lightweight title at UFC 144 in Japan last year, Henderson gave his tiny mother the UFC belt and draped his arm over her). He’s the ethnically ambiguous son of a Korean mother and an African-American father. He has long, curly black hair that’s reminiscent of Troy Polamalu and ought to net him his own Head & Shoulders commercial someday.
At the stare-down for the cameras at the pre-fight presser, the contrast couldn’t have been more stark. Diaz, wearing a hoodie, a buzz cut and an icy glare, leaned forward, stared directly at Henderson and put his two fists up in Henderson’s mug. Meanwhile, Henderson, sporting a smart charcoal suit, a sky-blue shirt and a navy tie, put his hands in his pockets and shrugged at the ground, refusing to be intimidated by the typical Diaz antics.
All of which makes a UFC fan wonder: Why in the world does Benson Henderson, who’d be a perfect face for the UFC’s lightweight division, never seem to get the respect a champion deserves?
Part of the reason must be because of the way Henderson has won his fights. His average fight has lasted 19 minutes, according to FightMetric, and that’s the longest average fight time in UFC history. He has won his last five fights by decision. That’s not a formula for popularity in the UFC, where fans prefer a crushing knockout or a dominating submission over a tactical, decision victory that values endurance over flash.
All of that being said, Henderson’s stamina and toughness are never in doubt. He’s never been knocked out. He has lost once by submission and once by a decision. He has been awfully close to submitting in fights against Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller but avoided tapping out in both and went on to win.
“I don’t think he has had his due yet,” UFC president Dana White said of Henderson. “He’s had some tough fights, some close fights, with some people saying Frankie (Edgar) might have won. (But) this is the fight for him right here. Nate Diaz is mean and nasty and finishes people by knockout or submission. I think this is the fight for him. (If) Ben Henderson wins this fight decisively — or wins by decision — he should finally start getting the respect that Ben Henderson is the guy.”
Yet even at the press conference for the nationally televised fight on the biggest stage Henderson has ever fought on, the ultimate good guy was upstaged by not just one piece of news, but two. First was White’s announcement of the creation of the UFC’s first women’s division, the bestowing of the first women’s championship belt upon former Olympic medalist Ronda Rousey and the announcement of Rousey’s first UFC fight on Feb. 23. Then there was White telling reporters that UFC legend Georges St-Pierre returned from his post-UFC 154 vacation and told White he wanted to fight Nick Diaz, dashing fans’ hopes for a GSP-Anderson Silva superfight in early 2013.
Henderson was even overshadowed by the obvious antipathy between BJ Penn and Rory MacDonald, who kept throwing verbal jabs at each other throughout the press conference.
Nice guys fly under the radar. That’d be the biggest mistake Diaz could make leading into his Saturday night title fight: Not taking Henderson seriously. It ought to make for a scintillating fight from different schools of fighting, where Diaz will try to finish Henderson with his superior boxing and submission skills while Henderson will try to keep coming back from Diaz’s attacks with his relentless, keep-coming-at-you manner.
“We go about it in different ways,” Henderson said. “But once we get inside that Octagon, it’s going to be fun.”
Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com