SEATTLE — For Benson Henderson, Saturday night’s UFC on FOX fight was a battle for respect as much as it was a battle to keep his lightweight title. His two prior wins to capture and retain the belt — both over Frankie Edgar — were razor-thin decision victories. Even though he was the champion, he came into the bout with the tenacious Nate Diaz as a fighter who had something to prove.
Which is exactly what Henderson did in a dominating, five-round, unanimous-decision victory. Again and again, he kept taking Diaz to the ground. He knocked him back with elbows and swelled Diaz’s right eye shut. He bounced around the Octagon with as much energy in the final round as he did in the first, and against an opponent who was no slouch and who kept coming at him.
Henderson proved something Saturday night: He’s no longer the guy who barely earned his UFC belt and, if judges had voted otherwise, could have had to work his way back up. He’s the champ. No doubt about it.
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“You are the king of arguably the most talent-rich division in the UFC,” ringside commentator Joe Rogan told a smiling Henderson afterward.
Yet Henderson didn’t use the big FOX stage to gloat about being the best. Humble as always, the 29-year-old Seattle native who trains in Arizona instead spoke about his love for Jesus Christ and about a couple of friends who’ve been battling bigger life problems — cancer and a death in the family — than anything that could happen inside an Octagon.
“Fighting’s cool. I love this, guys,” Henderson said. “But fighting is just a small part. There’s a lot more to life.”
The two UFC on FOX fights leading up to the main event saw youth overcome legends.
Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, the Brazilian who used to be the UFC light heavyweight champion, kept coming at the towering Alexander Gustafsson with heavy fists, but it was the Swede who impressed most in his unanimous decision victory. The win vaulted Gustafsson, 25, into prime position to be the next in line for the lightweight belt. Current light heavyweight champion Jon Jones is scheduled to take on Chael Sonnen in April.
In Saturday’s fight, both Gustafsson and Rua came out strong. Thirty seconds in, Gustafsson took Rua to the ground. Then Rua landed a big hook less than a minute later. Rua landed plenty of those types of bombs throughout the fight, but Gustafsson weathered them all with an iron chin. And then in the second round, he took full control of the fight by landing nearly a half-dozen knees on Rua. By the third round, it was all a bloodied and heavy-breathing Rua could do to last until the end.
“It was an awesome fight, and it was such an honor to fight a legend like Shogun,” Gustafsson said. “I want the belt. I want to fight whoever has it.”
Rory MacDonald proved why UFC insiders believe the 23-year-old is a future star in this sport. Against former UFC lightweight and welterweight champ BJ Penn, MacDonald came into the fight calm and collected, pacing himself for the full 15 minutes. Penn came out aggressively in the first round, pecking at MacDonald with jabs, but MacDonald staggered him with an elbow toward the end of the first round.
From then on, the fight was all about the Canadian understudy of Georges St-Pierre. He landed flurries of elbows and jabs in the second round. A bruise popped up under Penn’s left eye. Penn, 33, looked gassed in the second round, but MacDonald stayed spry.
MacDonald even showed off with a little strut and a shuffle and a jig in both the second and third rounds. It was a direct affront to the former champion, a statement of MacDonald’s confidence and a perfect exclamation point to the most emotion-filled fight of the night. The two fighters had sniped at each other for months leading up to the fight. Penn intimated MacDonald could be on performance-enhancing drugs; MacDonald teased Penn for getting fat.
The Seattle crowd took the side of the Hawaiian over the Canadian, booing MacDonald during his jig and then during his post-fight interview.
After the fight, MacDonald called out who he wants his next opponent to be — and even tossed out a time and a place: Carlos Condit, in March, in MacDonald’s adopted hometown of Montreal.
“I have something to say,” MacDonald said to quiet the booing crowd. “I want my revenge. Carlos Condit. I want a rematch. Accept my challenge . . . I’m going to get my revenge.”
The win was only the second of MacDonald’s five UFC wins that have gone to decision, but may have been one of the most impressive wins of his young career.
“With all the things we said to each other hyping the fight, I just want to say that it has been a huge honor fighting BJ,” MacDonald said. “I’m disappointed that I couldn’t get the finish, but not everything can go according to plan.”
In the first fight on the FOX portion of the card, Matt Brown controlled his welterweight bout with Mike Swick from the opening bell. Brown controlled the entire first round, holding Swick in a guillotine choke for nearly a full minute, then getting him caught up in a triangle. In the middle of the second round, a three-punch combination by the 31-year-old Brown had Swick’s eyes rolling to the back of his head before the referee jumped in to end the fight.
The win gave Brown a four-fight winning streak in the UFC.
“I thought I had him on both of those submission attempts,” Brown said afterward. “I thought it was extremely tight but he gutted it out and was able to push through. Glad I was able to connect with the shot and get the finish.”
The preliminary card on FX packed plenty of punches as well. In the second round of his lightweight fight, Daron Cruickshank dispatched Henry Martinez with a stunning head kick that flattened Martinez and brought the referee rushing in to end the fight.
“I saw in his previous fights that he was susceptible to body kicks, and I thought if I landed them that I’d be able to stop him,” Cruickshank said. “My favorite fights are the ones where guys come right at me, and that’s what Martinez did. He’s a super tough guy, and he was able to endure a lot.”
Yves Edwards floored Jeremy Stephens less than two minutes into their lightweight bout. The two went for right hooks at the exact same moment. Stephens missed, but Edwards connected, jarring Stephens’ face and sending him to the canvas. It was the first time Stephens has ever been knocked out.
The fight had been a long time coming. Stephens had been arrested the day of their scheduled October bout in Minneapolis from a charge in his home state of Iowa. That fight was then put on Saturday’s preliminary card.
“It’s a great feeling to go out there and get a win after all the issues and changes in opponents,” Edwards said. “I’m just glad that the guy I trained really hard for originally is the one that stepped in there tonight. … He’s a really tough guy, and I’m glad I was able to get the finish.”
But there was no doubt that the story of the night was Benson Henderson.
Afterward, he walked by press row, his tiny Korean mother, Song, trailing him. Both mother and son were beaming.
“I’m coming for, Anderson!” Henderson yelled. “Anderson Silva, where are you? Anderson Silva, are you in the building?”
He was joking, but hey, after Saturday night, why not?