Ben Henderson: “This is just another fight.”
You would certainly understand if Ben Henderson was equal parts excited and anxious heading about his plans for Thursday night.
On the same night that the final chapter in the story of the WEC will be written, the reigning and defending lightweight champion will come face-to-face with the chance to get one step closer to achieving his dream. Not only that, Henderson will be walking to the cage in front of friends and family in his adopted hometown of Glendale, Arizona.
With everything at stake and pressure of fighting in his own backyard, the 27-year-old champion has every reason to be a little more nervous than normal, but don’t tell that to him.
“I look at this as just another fight,” suggested Henderson when he spoke with Heavy.com earlier in the week. “At some point in everyone’s career, there is always big status to it and that’s the goal. When you’re starting out, you get the chance to start fighting for bigger and better things, but to me, I want to win regardless. This is the next stage in my career. Yeah it’s a big deal, but I still have to win, so I’ll just take care of business like I always do.”
Henderson’s simplistic view of the fight is understandable, as the implications of the bout and the opportunities that may follow are all rendered moot without a win. To the victor go the spoils, and in this case, the spoils are plentiful.
Not only will Henderson face challenger Anthony Pettis for his lightweight title in the final bout of the wildly entertaining company’s history, but the two emerging stars will also be vying for a chance to face either Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard in a title unification bout sometime in the spring. Despite the elevated stakes, the once-beaten champion is keeping things are basic as possible, focusing only on his opponent and the obstacles he will present on Thursday night.
“He’s a tough kid and it will be a good fight. He likes to put on a good show and so do I,” Henderson offered in assessment of his opponent in the WEC 53 main event. “One of his greatest strengths is that he has a great unpredictability to his game. You never know what he’s going to throw next; whether it’s going to be a straight, hard 1-2 or a spinning judo backfist capoeira kick or whatever.
“He’s unpredictable in what he throws and that keeps you guessing,” continued Henderson. “His takedown defence keeps improving, and his jiu jitsu is pretty good. He’s pretty good all-around; he’s a skilled kid and I think it’s going to be a fun, exciting fight and I can’t wait to get my hand raised.”
Getting his hand raised is all Henderson has done since debuting with the organization. In the span of two years, the man they call “Smooth” has gone from stepping into the WEC cage for the first time to amassing five consecutive victories while winning, unifying and defending the lightweight title. It has been an impressive run, but not one that came as a surprise to Henderson.
“To me this is par for the course,” admitted Henderson with a laugh that shows his answer to be honest, but far from conceited. “With every fight, you expect to win. You expect to be successful. You can’t always stay undefeated; everyone loses and everyone has setbacks, but that’s the mark of a true champion is losing and coming back. My goal has always been to win, and with each win, you keep following your career path. Luckily, my career path has gone pretty successfully.”
While Thursday’s contest will mark his opponent’s fourth fight since March, Henderson will be taking to the cage for the third time this year, but the first in eight months, a longest layoff the champion has had between bouts in his entire career. For some, the downtime would be a detriment, but Henderson actually prefers the opportunity to spend more time working with his team at Glendale’s MMA Lab.
“I like having more time between my fights,” the two-time NAIA All-American wrestler admitted. “If it were up to me, I’d have it like this every time. I’m not one of those guys that want to fight six or seven times a year. I’m still getting started in this MMA thing; November was four years (competing as a professional) and I have a long way to go still.
“I can get a lot better – in my boxing, in my kickboxing, in everything – and you can’t get better if you’re just going from training camp to training camp to training camp. You need time in between your fights to actually get better. I want to improve; every time I step into the cage, I want to be better than the last time I stepped into the cage. So I want that time to get better and show improvement. I don’t want to be the same fighter in 2011 that I was now. That’s not going to be me.”
Though he’ll walk to the cage to the familiar sounds of Kirk Franklin’s “Revolution,” Henderson promises you’ll see a new and improved version of the WEC lightweight champion, a scary proposition for Pettis on Thursday night and the members of the UFC’s 155-pound division after that.