GLENDALE, Ariz. — Five months ago, as he prepared to fight lightweight champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in Japan, Benson Henderson was a man with nothing to lose.
His victory over Edgar changed all that. Henderson has plenty to lose as he prepares for a rematch with Edgar on Aug. 11 at UFC 150 in Denver.
But don’t think that going from the hunter to the hunted has dramatically altered Henderson, or his approach, as he prepares for a second fight against Edgar.
“Once you have that belt, there’s a bull’s-eye on your back,” said Henderson, who hadn’t held a title since late 2010 with World Extreme Cagefighting. “When you have that bull’s-eye on your back, it’s a scary feeling, but it’s a good feeling, too. It’s something you need, something you need to use to drive and motivate you.”
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Henderson, who makes his training home at the MMA Lab in Glendale, said he knows a title belt can change fighters. They can become hesitant or nervous, too conscious of their status as a champion. Instead of fighting to win, they fight not to lose.
But Henderson insists that’s not him. He knows his status as a champion means nothing inside the Octagon.
“In theory, yeah, you go from challenger to challenged,” Henderson said. “But in actual practicality it only matters what happens inside the Octagon. I’m going to fight the same way I did as a challenger as a champion.”
To be sure, the championship has made for a few differences in Henderson’s day-to-day existence. He’s recognized in public more frequently, and there are more requests on his time. Henderson prefers to keep a low profile, but the increased celebrity comes with the territory.
“I’m trying to take it all in stride, trying not to be overwhelmed by it,” he said. “It is a little bit different. I’m not exactly used to it.”
Henderson’s lightweight belt hangs prominently on display at the MMA Lab, a reminder of what it takes to become a champion.
“Once you get there, it’s double the work to keep that belt around your waist,” Henderson said. “I had a belt before (in the WEC), I lost it, and I don’t plan on losing this one for a long, long time. I’ll lose it eventually; everyone does. You can’t be champ forever, but I want it to be a while before I lose that belt.”
UFC president Dana White, who said in February that he thought Edgar had beaten Henderson, initially resisted giving Edgar a chance to reclaim the title before relenting. Altough the rematch dynamic undoubtedly adds intrigue to the fight, both fighters have downplayed that angle.
“Title on the line or no title on the line, I want to win my fight,” Edgar said at a June news conference to announce the event.
Henderson expressed a similar sentiment this month: “Whether it’s a rematch or whether it’s your first time fighting somebody, whether it’s your first time fighting in UFC or the WEC . . . whatever the case may be or your ranking may be, a fight’s a fight.”
Henderson said he and Edgar should be better prepared the second time around, since they are familiar with each other’s style.
“We’ll see who comes back stronger, comes back better,” Henderson said. “Once you spend time in a cage with somebody dancing, once you kind of know their dance steps, the second time you dance, hopefully, you’re smart enough to be better from it.”
Henderson’s coach and MMA Lab instructor John Crouch believes the two fighters’ styles negate each other’s strengths.
“I think they’re kind of the same, honestly,” Crouch said. “Frankie’s goal is to take advantage of people with his quickness, and Ben’s fairly quick. So I think we shut that down a little bit. That speed advantage that Frankie has on everybody else, he doesn’t have to that great of an extent against us.”
Henderson trains three to four times each day during what he calls the “training camp” phase of his fight preparation but scales back his training two weeks before a fight to recharge.
That routine won’t change a bit, Crouch says, although Henderson does plan to incorporate some training in Flagstaff to prepare for the altitude in Denver. But no matter the location, opponent or stakes, the preparation remains consistent.
“It’s been a source of pride for us the way we prepare for fights,” Crouch said. “If we have to fight somebody in back of a 7-Eleven, we’d prepare the same way we would for a world championship fight.”
The UFC 150 event will be something of a homecoming for Henderson and Crouch. Henderson founded and ran a Jiu-Jitsu Academy in Denver, and it was there that Henderson began his training as an MMA fighter.
“I had a lot of growing pains out there,” Henderson recalled. “I got beat up by a lot of guys out there.
“It’s nice to go back somewhere when you’ve had success in your life since then and they’re able to see how successful you’ve become.”