Let’s Get Real

Benson Henderson is on his way to Japan with a mission—fight the perfect fight, take Frankie Edgar’s belt, and make sure it doesn’t leave his waist until 2016.

“Can you do a Matrix kick off the fence on this?” Henderson asks. He’s staring at his doppelganger on a flat-screen television, trying to figure out how to make him do things like pass from half-guard to mount, clinch, and simply toss a jab. “We tried to,” says THQ producer Neven Dravinski, who for the last 18 months has been working on the UFC Undisputed 3 videogame that Henderson is figuring out on the fly. “But we couldn’t work that out.”

Everybody has a laugh.

Benson HendersonIn this case, everybody is a small group of people in a little room in the Air Canada Centre that’s usually reserved for family of the Toronto Maple Leafs. Frankie Edgar is on the other control, and he too is trying to learn how to maneuver himself via manic button mashing and body English. The champion and the challenger are taking crash-course lessons, playing the video game in private before playing it in front of thousands of people on a big screen at weigh-ins for UFC 140 as a teaser to the real thing at UFC 144. You can almost hear the neurons in play, but that’s about it. They are nothing but civil with each other, terse, respectful, and barely caring of their proximity. Edgar, in his Rutgers hat, might be an ambassador of New Jersey. Henderson, in a bulky red scarf to withstand Ontario’s winter bite, looks like a sipper of royal tea.

These do not look like the contents of a war.

Dravinski tutors on the controls, explaining how to kick, stuff a takedown, posture up, and come forward with a flying knee. It’s a blanket relearning of everything they know. And it’s a unique thing to watch subjects go at each other via their animated likeness. What a strange life it is to be a fighter in 2012. Half a century ago, fighters cut promos under smoky chandeliers.

After Henderson beats Edgar, the two begin a second game using Pride rules. Henderson sees the famous catwalk that Pride fighters made their way down at the Saitama Super Arena in Japan, and he wonders how his walkout will look. “I can’t dance in real life,” Edgar says, “Am I able to here?” He’s happy to learn that his gameself does have a certain swagger, but it’d be a stretch to call it dancing—cocksure, maybe strutty. They begin fighting again through their controls. Soccer kicks are allowed and encouraged and attempted. Halfway through the first round, Edgar says, “Oh, this a 10-minute round, isn’t it?” “Yeah, why?” Dravinski asks. “Because I’m already tired.” This is an even better joke, as everybody knows the real life Edgar doesn’t tire. Seconds after Bas Rutten praises a liver kick in the commentary, Henderson wins again.

The game they are playing is as real as it gets in a promotion that uses that very slogan on itself. Real keeps getting realer, to the point that there’s a fleeting sense of reality. And these two guys, using metaphors for a February battle in Japan, are the very real No. 1 and No. 2 lightweights in the world. Even knowing it’s a simulation, sitting in these silences makes their actual battle that much more unknowable, which, of course, means that much more fun.

Here’s what we do know. Ben Henderson would prefer to be called Benson henceforth in the media. The name that’s on his birth certificate is Ben, but his Korean mom—a Buddhist—called him Benson for reasons beyond his understanding throughout his childhood in Washington. At Dana College in Nebraska, he was always just Ben. Now, he’s back to Benson, which, as his PR man John Fuller happily points out, “is a cooler fight name anyway.”

That scarf that Benson’s wearing without a coat is because 80 percent of body heat escapes through the head and neck, he says. It’s giving him all the warmth he requires. And that Matrix kick he was wondering about, in reference to the one that Anthony Pettis landed on him deep in the fifth round of the WEC’s farewell fight? It’s funny, isn’t it—two dudes went their separate ways that night. Fifty-one weeks after Pettis turned Henderson into a highlight-of-the-year victim on ESPN, you’d think it’d be “Showtime” making media appearances ahead of a lightweight title fight with Edgar.

But, you’d be wrong. There’s a reason they call Henderson “Smooth.”

“The Lord works in mysterious ways,” he says. “Who would’ve guessed?”

And there are other reasons that he’s called Smooth.

Smooth’ came from my coach John Crouch, my jiu-jitsu instructor,” Henderson says. “Wrestling’s all about being aggressive. Attack, attack, attack, 100 miles an hour, nonstop. Not jiujitsu— jiu-jitsu’s kind of the exact opposite. Relax. Go nice and easy. Don’t break a sweat. Why are you sweating? So, a lot of times wrestlers have a hard time doing jiu-jitsu. But for whatever reason, when I started doing jiu-jitsu, I took to it naturally. I was able to be nice and fluid. Nice flow. So I would do an armlock and Crouch would say, ‘Oh yeah, good job, Henderson, really smooth,’ so ‘Smooth’ kind of stuck.”

If you’ve watched Henderson fight over the years, you know what he’s getting at is dead-on. Henderson’s wrestling and jiujitsu are all part of the same controlled tempest, one that he can operate at a ridiculous pace for five rounds if needed (remember the Pettis fight and his first battle with Donald Cerrone). His taekwondo— the original art that drew him in—shows up, too, in a sport that has come to treat it as something of a novelty. And, if his awesomely underserved Facebook battle with Clay Guida at UFC on Fox 1 was any indication, the southpaw’s boxing is catching up to the rest of him. That all should read like the scaffolding of a very accomplished, very well-rounded fighter.

Benson Henderson“‘But there’s another thing you should know about the former WEC Lightweight Champion. He’s an unshakable perfectionist.

“It was fine,” he says of his fight with Guida. “Sometimes, I’m too harsh on myself. I wasn’t very happy or very satisfied with my performance that night.”

Why? It was a fight with everything—didn’t he show the whole of his versatility? His flexibility (he did a full split to avoid a takedown)? The ability to drop somebody while swinging from the feet, and the thing he does best—that of sapping another man’s will while dictating a furious tempo?

“Why?” he says. “Because I know I can do better. Every fight I’ve had besides Clay Guida, I’ve been pretty satisfied with my performance. Whether I won or lost, I went out there and I did my best. Against Guida, I just didn’t perform very well. I was happy I won, I’m thankful. Hats off to Clay Guida, he did a great job of making me fight his fight. But I wanted the fight to go another way. He made me fight a certain way.”

What went wrong in a bout that everybody else thought looked so right? What exactly didn’t Henderson do? “Go in there and beat him up,” he says.

Notice how he shortchanges any notion of dominance. He dominated Jim Miller before that, and Jim Miller never gets worked. And the same went for Mark Bocek on his last trip to Toronto at UFC 129. It’s possible that Henderson is one of those rare types who can’t feel good about the extraordinary things he does until the breadth of his work becomes hindsight.

* * * * *

Henderson trains at MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona. He trains endlessly, seven hours a day, most days of the week. Recently—as in the very day of the interview in Toronto—Henderson and longtime coach Crouch, along with an investor, bought the gym. “The papers are signed,” he says. “Now, it’s really my gym.” It turns out this is one of his few splurges. For instance, since his roommate moved out, he doesn’t have a television, but he plans on getting one in February when they go on sale.

Being a gym rat affords him the ability to eat like a fiend, because he burns thousands of calories in a workday. We’re eating at Real Sports, the famed Toronto sports bar that has a movie theater screen to shame all other big screens in North America. “Michael Phelps eats 8,000 calories a day,” he says, chewing a sweet potato fry. Henderson doesn’t put away quite that many calories, but he likes to eat. He inquires about the dessert menu, but stops short of ordering anything after lunch. He’s watching the UFC 140 weigh-ins live on the massive
screen, and he has another weight-related item on his mind.

“I love how all these guys come into the UFC and they’re all chubby, and then they lose, and they’re like, ‘I’m going to take it seriously now, I’m going to drop a weight class,’” he says. “Why not take it seriously from the beginning?”

Is it a peeve or an observation? Or is this Henderson talking in Zen circularity while eating fries? The answer is yes, yes, and probably.

“I felt I was a little bit too laid back,” the 28-year-old Benson says of his Pettis fight, his one and only loss as a lightweight (15-2 overall—his other loss was at 170 pounds to Rocky Johnson). “My personality, I’m a laid back guy. Sometimes in my fights, I’m too take-it-as-it-goes, you know? I think I’m a better fighter—more successful—when I’m aggressive and go out there and push the pace. I let the showcase get to me. I wanted to show my stand-up skills. I stayed standing with a National Champion Kickboxer for five rounds. I felt I did okay, but what if I’d have taken him down and laid on him like Guida did to him? Sometimes those hiccups in your career make you better. I went outside my comfort zone and it made me a better fighter. I use it for motivation, just being on SportsCenter’s Top 10 highlights of the year. Pettis was dead tired, and for him to put it all on the line like that in the fifth round…he went big. Hats off to Pettis. At some time in your career, you’re going to be a highlight reel, but it’s about how you come back from that. Five years down the line, will people remember that kick? Yeah, they will, but they’ll also remember me defending my belt 17 times.”

He is completely sincere in saying this. Henderson has a plan to win the belt on Feb. 26 in Japan, and then defend it roughly 16 or 17 times, until approximately 2016.

“I want to retire when I’m 32 or 33 years old,” he says. And after that?

“I’ll always be involved in wrestling. If I have more time, I’d like to coach high school or college. I want to be involved in MMA. As far as a second career, there are a few things I’d be interested in doing. I want to go back to school and get my Masters in Social Responsibility/Social Justice and see where that takes me.”

This would actually be a return to his first career, the one that never got going. Henderson was hired by the Denver Police Department before jumping into an MMA competition on a whim back in the day. His friends dared him to fight on a card in Omaha right after college. Without training, he took the dare, beat a guy named Corey Clinebell, who had been training, and fell in love with the feeling of having his hand raised. “Before that, I always used words to solve my problems,” he says.

This reiterates his diversity. Today, he’s got more problemsolving options.

Benson Henderson

By now, you probably know about Henderson’s faith. He is a devout Christian, who uses his platform when possible to express himself—usually after victories, when gratitude is foremost on a fighter’s mind. This polarizes some fans, and, to hear him talk about it, he doesn’t care. After all, atheists have the same right to express themselves, and often do—often to him.

“I’ve looked up a lot of other different religions,” he says. “You are supposed to question stuff. You’re supposed to find out more about it. If you take everything at face value, I think that’s probably not the best way to do things. I’ve looked into Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism, Rastafarianism. I just looked it up and read about it.”

With his father not around, his Buddhist mother raised him and his older brother as Christians, and his belief system has only grown stronger in adulthood. Though he doesn’t make a production of it, Henderson’s never consumed alcohol, never smoked, and never dabbled in drugs. His only vices, if such things can be called that, are reading science fiction and collecting comic books. Otherwise, he trains compulsively.

However, as a spreader of The Word, it’s impossible not to get his views on Denver Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow—the godfather of religious polarization in sports.

“I’m a big fan of Tim Tebow,” he says. “I think he’s awesome, and what he’s doing is awesome. How he’s bringing attention to the Lord is great. It might be different than how I’m doing it. He might be a little bit more in your face about it. But it’s fine. I’m okay with that. It’s not my style. I don’t want to be in front of everybody saying that you have to believe what I believe, you have to think how I think. I’m not into that at all. The way I’m doing it, I think is okay. I want to thank God, who has blessed me in what I have done, what I’ve accomplished, in what I’ve been able to do with my life with what He’s given me. I want to thank Him. I want the praise to go to Him. The Lord has put us in a good position to be out there for a lot of people to be watching us, and for that, every time we get a chance—every time I get a chance, every time he gets a chance—we want to show our gratitude, our love for God.”

As for the divide it creates among fans who see it as over the top?

“Some people really don’t like that,” he says. “I think the reason why is that for some reason they believe that what I’m telling them—or what Tim Tebow is telling them is—‘You have to believe in Jesus Christ.’ I’m not in any way, shape, or form trying to tell somebody that they have to believe this. If in some way, they happen to become a Christian, I’m all for that. But I’m not telling anyone they have to believe anything.”

On a more basic level, Henderson would rather foster your belief that he’s becoming the best lightweight in the world. He’s a competitor, and the competitor will never stray far from the faith that drives him. It’s a package deal.

* * * * *

In mid-2011, there were no fewer than four guys in front of Henderson in the title chase. They were Jim Miller, Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis, and Clay Guida, with whisperings of Gilbert Melendez’s crossover to the UFC. In the time it took Gray Maynard to sort out his rematch with Edgar at UFC 136, Henderson beat two of them (Miller and Guida), and the other two stumbled on their own (Pettis to Guida, and Guillard to Joe Lauzon). Out of nowhere to some, Henderson came hurdling toward his title shot.

But if you were a fan of the blue cage, you remember the battles with Donald Cerrone—who has beaten just about everybody not named Benson Henderson—and the choke of Jamie Varner that solidified the 155-pound strap. His chance for a UFC belt might have seemed inevitable to those connoisseurs of the Versus cards, who saw a dynamo each time out—the one with the Troy Polamalu hair and the sheer, freakish athleticism.

That’s what makes a fight against Edgar—a perpetual underdog with the better set of intangibles—such a compelling event.

Benson Henderson“He’s tough, tough as heck,” Henderson says. “Great fighter. Great chin. Great heart. Heart of a real champion battling back after those fights. But, what we have to realize is he left those openings in the first place. He left an opening to get rocked—in both his fights with Maynard, especially in the second fight. He leaves openings. It’s a matter of me taking advantage of those openings. I have to be good enough to take advantage of that—to capitalize on it and put him away.”

Henderson believes he will, because it’s been his sole purpose in the gym to evolve as a fighter from the one that choked out Anthony Njokuani in his first WEC fight.

“I want to get better,” he says. “I truly believe I have just scratched the surface. I have a long way to go in my boxing, in my wrestling, in my jiu-jitsu, in my Muay Thai…everywhere. If you just go from training camp to training camp, you never get any better. All you’re doing is fine-tuning your skills that you currently have for one specific fighter. My coach John Crouch is adamant about this, that we should be actually getting better in between fights. I want to be a better fighter. We’ve shown that in my fights in the UFC because we’ve stuck with that.”

And that’s where we are. A man of humility, faith, and confidence— a polarizing figure to some, cocky to others—who finds himself in a great position to realize the first part of a far-fetched goal. For those who skipped to the end, here it is: Benson Henderson wants to rewrite the UFC record books. He wants to shatter them.

“Anderson Silva is at 11 title defenses and riding a 14-fight win streak,” he says, looking on in dead sincerity. “I’m beating all of those.”

Just like Chuck Liddell and Quinton Jackson did with an earlier version of UFC Undisputed, Henderson and Edgar come out to contest each other vicariously through a video game in front of a crowd before the UFC 140 weigh-ins. Each man comes out to his walkout music, Bendo first and then Edgar. Once on stage, they grab the controls and it’s a battle of memory and dexterity. Henderson versus Edgar, the first public feud between them.

And wouldn’t you know it, Edgar—after getting crushed a couple of times backstage in warm-up sessions—beats Henderson when it counts. A resounding TKO. The crowd goes wild. As real as the graphics are, the whole thing’s figurative, of course, just fun. The literal confrontation looms down the line in Japan. That’s the “real” real. And it’s when Henderson will vie for the perfect fight, a dangling carrot always out of reach. He’ll settle for a win, and he’ll like what the belt represents—the best lightweight in the world.

And that’s as real as it gets.

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