On the biggest stage the sport has ever had, at the final show of the UFC’s inaugural year on FOX, after a dominating five-round victory to keep his lightweight belt, Benson Henderson grabbed the microphone in the middle of the Octagon and said this: “Seattle! Key Arena! I can do all things through Christ!”
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It was just as powerful of a statement as Henderson’s relentless victory over fellow 155-pounder Nate Diaz that solidified Henderson’s spot as the king of the UFC’s deepest division. Again and again, Henderson kept taking the normally elusive Diaz to the ground. He knocked him back with elbows and landed a first-round punch to Diaz’s right eye that blurred Diaz’s vision for the rest of the fight. He bounced around the Octagon with as much energy in the final round as he did in the first, his Troy Polamalu-esque hair getting in his eyes and a toothpick — a toothpick! — lodged inside his mouth.
This was a moment for gloating. Benson Henderson would have been excused if he took the microphone and told the world he was the greatest. We all would have understood if he sniped at the doubters who weren’t impressed with his past two fights, razor-thin decision victories over Frankie Edgar. We would have looked past it if Henderson ripped on Diaz, who had flipped Henderson the bird twice in the middle of the fight.
But Benson Henderson did none of those things. Instead, he pointed at the crowd and spread his arms, displaying the giant angel-wing tattoo on his back. He looked toward his tiny Korean mother in the front row and bowed at her. He spoke about how he was fighting with a heavy heart, because his best friend’s mother was just diagnosed with lymphoma and a business partner’s 17-year-old son had just died in a hiking accident.
What Benson Henderson did after retaining his lightweight belt was just as impressive as what he did against Nate Diaz. He was himself. He was a humble, God-fearing, polite young man. And he showed the national television audience that this sport, once derided as human cockfighting, has undergone an image shift that shows its fighters as human beings — good, kind, respectful human beings – not barbarians.
At a time when mixed martial arts has become the fastest-growing sport in the world and the UFC has moved into the mainstream, having champions like Benson Henderson is exactly what the UFC needs.
“It makes you realize — I love fighting, but there’s a lot more important stuff than fighting, guys,” Henderson said of the recent tragedies for his two friends. “I just wanted to take the time and reiterate that and tell the world. Show some love. Hug up on (your kids). Cherish the time you have. You never know. His son was 17 years old. It hit him hard. It hit me hard.”
It was real. It was heartwarming. And the amazing part is that if you look at the state of the UFC right now, you’ll see plenty of prominent fighters who are just like Henderson: Incredible athletes, and kind, pleasant, likable people. The light-heavyweight champ, Jon Jones, is a soft-spoken son of a preacher who has a Bible verse tattooed on his chest. You would be hard-pressed to find a more respectful, polite man than welterweight champ Georges St-Pierre. Light-heavyweight contender Vitor Belfort is one of the sport’s most vocal Christians.
As the UFC keeps growing, it does so through winning over people who never thought they could become a UFC fan. Fighters such as Benson Henderson — not Nate Diaz, with his prominent middle fingers — are what the sport needs at the top.
Just before the Henderson fight began, the wife of my college roommate — a big sports fan who has always said she despises the brutality of the UFC — posted about the sport on Facebook.
“Just realized I’ve spent the last two hours watching UFC fighting,” she wrote. “I am strangely drawn to it.”
It was with the same sort of surprise that I had my own UFC conversion a year ago. I’d avoided watching the UFC because I thought of it as cage-fighting: Some brutal and uncivilized activity that seemed better paired with the testosterone-fueled soap operas of “pro” wrestling than with a real sport, like football. The first fight I saw was Jon Jones’ light-heavyweight title defense over Rampage Jackson last year. I was mesmerized by the beauty of the sport, especially as practiced by a true artist such as Jones. Yes, it’s violent. But I was more struck by the humility and the respect the fighters often show, a nod to the sport’s roots in Eastern martial arts.
Soon, I no longer called it cage-fighting. I called it mixed martial arts, a ballet-like sport of beauty and endurance. I thought of the UFC as an organization where more and more of the best athletes on earth are gravitating toward, the truest test of who is the toughest man.
There is no getting over the fact that, as Henderson sat on the stage at the post-fight news conference, B.J. Penn, who’d lost to up-and-coming Rory MacDonald in a beat down earlier in the night, was at a local hospital for observation. There’s no way of getting around the violence and the primal feelings that a combat sport generates. But there’s also something powerful about the UFC lifting up its champions as not just amazing athletes but admirable, not to mention marketable, people.
“For me it’s more a daily walk,” Henderson said of his faith. “It’s what I do every day, not putting on a show. It’s more about your daily walk with the Lord. I’m not afraid to wear it on my sleeve.”
Henderson shrugged. His walkout song was a gospel song title “Awesome God,” by R-Swift. Some people find the mix of combat sports and Christian faith to be odd. Henderson does not.
“Some guys need death metal music,” he said. “Some guys need gospel music.”
And that, metaphorically speaking, is exactly what the UFC needs: More gospel music.