The last we saw of Benson Henderson, he was in a bad position. He was on top of Anthony Pettis on the mat, which history would have suggested was about the safest place one could be in while inside a cage with the flashy standup striker known for kicks as devastating as they are creative. But at this moment during their August bout in Milwaukee, Pettis was using his legs for a different purpose, wrapping them around Henderson’s left shoulder while he locked down his right arm and began hyperextending the elbow.
Henderson surrendered. Pettis let go. Henderson’s position only worsened.
This had little to do with the elbow pain, which instantly subsided as Pettis released the armbar, or even the ache to the psyche that naturally comes with a defeat. It also was not simply about Henderson having to give up the UFC lightweight championship belt he’d defended three times during an 18-month reign. The worst of it was that this loss, while just his second in six and a half years, was Benson’s second to Pettis. In the UFC, you don’t want to be 0–2 against the champion, even if you’re viewed as no worse than second-best in the weight division.
Why not? Because you end up having to hear words like these from Dana White, spoken on Thursday when the UFC president was asked about the stakes for Saturday night’s main event in Chicago between Henderson and Josh Thomson (8 p.m. ET, Fox): “Here’s the reality: If Thomson wins, he’s the next in line. Obviously, Ben Henderson just lost very decisively in his last fight with [Pettis]. And should Benson Henderson win, yeah, we’ll see what’s up with Gil.”
That would be Gilbert Melendez, the №2 contender in the UFC’s official media-voted lightweight rankings. That puts him behind №1-ranked Henderson, who beat Melendez just last April. Yet even if Benson wins this weekend, he’ll have to wait in line behind Gil.
UFC math can seem arbitrary, but matchmaking is a bottom-line business and it’s a challenge to sell the fans on a contest between fighters who’ve met twice before with the same result. Look at Junior dos Santos, who owns a knockout win over heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez and is far and away the №2 man in the big-boy division. He’s going to have a hard time getting another shot after being thoroughly pummeled the last two times he’s been caged with Cain. Do we really want to see that again? Why not give someone new a shot?
Henderson understands the dynamic, and if he has an opinion about it, he’s keeping it to himself … because he understands the dynamic. “It doesn’t matter one iota what I think or how I feel,” he said Wednesday evening when reached by phone. “The only things that matter are Dana White’s opinion and Sean Shelby’s opinion and Joe Silva’s opinion. They’re the UFC’s matchmakers, and they’re the ones who get to say what happens.”
These words were spoken not resignedly, and for good reason. In the UFC, particularly in the unremitting dance known as matchmaking, words are just words, subject to change at a moment’s notice.
Consider what White had to say on Thursday after revealing that middleweight champ Chris Weidman will defend against Vitor Belfort on one of the promotion’s holiday weekend cards in Las Vegas, either Memorial Day or Fourth of July. “Oh my God,” White said of Weidman, who is coming off a pair of wins over seemingly invincible Anderson Silva, “how’s he not pound-for-pound №1 in the world if he beats Vitor Belfort?” Fair enough, but just eight days earlier, Dana was talking with reporters about the Feb. 1 bantamweight title bout in New Jersey and said, “If [Renan] Barão goes out and stops [Urijah] Faber, he’s probably the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world.”
So within a week the UFC poobah touted two fighters as the sport’s pound-for-pound best. And neither of them was light heavyweight Jon Jones, who many months ago took up residency atop the UFC’s official pound-for-pound ranking. Neither of White’s latest shining lights was №2-ranked José Aldo, either, despite the fact that he defends his featherweight belt on the same Super Bowl weekend card on which Barão fights. Neither was Velasquez, who sits at №3, or even fourth-ranked Demetrious Johnson.
Now, it’s fine for White to have an opinion that differs from the media rankings. But to hear him go to the heights of hyperbole on two fighters within eight days makes you wonder what he’ll say if Jones ends Glover Teixeira’s 20-fight winning streak this spring. I think we can assume that his opinion of who’s №1 will change yet again.
As Benson Henderson sees it, his job is not to proclaim his own opinion but to change the opinions of others. And the opinions he cares about are not those of the people who vote on the UFC rankings. “I think we all know how much weight they carry,” he said. “Guys have fought for the belt when they were not the №1 contender. So rankings don’t matter at all. All that matters is what the UFC guys think is a good matchup. My job isn’t to talk about it. My job is to do my talking inside the octagon, let my actions speak for me. If I make the case inside the octagon where you cannot deny me a title shot, then I’m doing my job.”
That’s an opinion of Henderson’s that holds water. In the UFC, fates are fluid. The world’s leading MMA promotion is not a meritocracy, where winning unfailingly moves you forward. It’s not anarchy or a crapshoot, either, but deeds and accomplishments are weighed on a scale that also holds other factors, some less tangible than others. Dana White is fond of saying, “We give the fans the fights they want,” and while there’s no such thing as pleasing everyone, the promotion generally makes the fights that matter. The hype-heavy system, as maddening as it can be at times, usually works. Hey, even Bellator’s “toughest tournament in sports” is getting an asterisk to allow for more creative matchmaking.
So Henderson (19–3) is not exactly a nowhere man. An impressive victory over Thomson (20–5, 1 NC) — maybe a finish, something he hasn’t had in nine fights over nearly four years? — sure wouldn’t hurt the cause of the ex-champion. And then the 30-year-old newlywed would get to sit back and swallow hard as he watched the man who’s beaten him twice defend the belt against someone he’s beaten. Or maybe Melendez wouldn’t get the title bout after all. Maybe T.J. Grant heals from his concussion and comes back to claim the championship challenge he was awarded nearly a year ago. Or maybe Nate Diaz, despite being 1–2 in his last three bouts — including a thrashing by Henderson — unleashes his mad logic and talks his way into the title fight.
Who knows? No one knows, not Benson Henderson, not even Dana White. The promoter will continue to toss out opinions, which conveniently help hype the product, and the fighter will continue to control what he can control — his performance inside the octagon — and ignore everything else. That’s a mature outlook, perhaps the silver lining from his two losses to Pettis. After the first, a tight decision in the final WEC title match back in December 2010, Henderson did not react well. “I was a bit of a hermit,” he said. “I didn’t want to talk to nobody. I didn’t answer my phone calls or e-mails. It took me a long while to get over it.”
Last summer’s defeat was different. Henderson recognized the mistake he’d made, knew he had to work at bettering his game, and made a conscious decision to not delay the process again. “I understood right away that at some point in time you have to man up and move on,” he said. “There are a lot of worse things in life than losing a fight and losing the world title — real life troubles, like losing your house or losing your job. Losing the fight made me very, very sad, of course, but I thought, I can be sad about it for two weeks or I can be sad about it for two months, or why not get over it right now? I told myself, let’s not waste two months or two weeks or even two days.”
It’s a cliché to say the future starts now, but at this point that’s all that Benson Henderson can hope for.