UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson was in the last place you would expect him in the days after his dominant title defense against Nate Diaz last December. Most fighters in the same situation would still be on an epic bender, vacationing with friends and family, or, at the very least, taking advantage of some much-needed rest and relaxation.
Benson Henderson? He went to work.
UFC fans near Federal Way, Wash., at least those with a thirst for energy drinks or craving some potato chips, were in for quite a surprise. At a small convenience store named Peter's Grocery, nestled in a typical American strip mall across the street from a Safeway, the UFC champ worked a 10-hour shift.
And not just once, but for five days in a row.
This wasn't a publicity stunt or reality television—this was plain old real life. As tired as Benson was from his months-long training camp and 25-minute fight, he knew his mother, Korean immigrant Song Hwa Graves, was more tired still.
"That's what she does every day," Henderson's head trainer, John Crouch, said. "He worked his mom's shifts at her store so she could take the week off. And she works crazy hours. Even now, she owns this store and goes in and opens up at 6 a.m. and closes at 11 p.m. That's her shift. Ben gets his work ethic from his momma."
For Henderson, this is nothing new. According to teammate Yaotzin Meza, he's done something similar after every fight since he won the WEC lightweight title in 2009.
"Everywhere he goes, he's flying his mom in. His brother. He's real tight with his family. Being UFC champion didn't change that," Meza said. "He goes to give his mom a break. She's been working hard for them since they were little, so every time he has a chance to give her a break from working, he goes and does it.
"She's worked hard all her life and he wants to give her a break. He works hard too. He had a long camp and a 25-minute fight. He deserves a break, too. But he'd rather give it to his mom. It says a lot about him. He loves his mom so much. His mom is the number one person in his life. You can see that every time he's around her."
If he's not filling in for his mother, Henderson is doing something else that makes his trainer smile—he's right back at his regular job of professional MMA fighter at the MMA Lab, a state-of-the-art 14,000-square foot gym he co-owns with Crouch and Joe Ervin. There, with standup coaches Adam Gillespey and Shihan Nico and strength and conditioning guru Jarret Aki, he perfects his craft, one day at a time.
"With Benson, it's not about the big splash. Ever. Benson's rise to success hasn't been dramatic. It's been slow and steady. Consistent. Like water pounding on the rock," Crouch said. "His secret is that he's always chipping away at it—always. And the rock is eventually going to break. And he's not too good to keep working.
"When we got back from Japan, he had just won the belt. It's a long flight and everyone is tired. Travel was brutal. The food was terrible over there. But the day we got home, he was in his gym taking a class. That's Benson to me. That's how Ben does it. He comes back from fights and is right back in the gym, working out."
It's that work ethic that has led to progressively more success as the 29-year-old's career has advanced from scared neophyte wrestler—and former NAIA All-American with everything to prove—all the way to world champion six years later. As 2013 dawns, Henderson sits on top, not just of the lightweight division, but the entire sport, as the UFC Fighter of the Year.
"It's an honor to be named the Fighter of the Year," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "When I fight, I want the fans, the media, everybody, to take notice of my fights and enjoy the show. Recognition like this just proves that the plan my coaches, training partners and I have had in place going into each fight is effective and people are taking notice."
In the often bombastic world of fighting, it's not unusual for a fighter to toot his own horn. Henderson, however, is not that guy, giving credit to his team rather than horde it for himself. There are others, though, unafraid to sing his praises loud and strong.
“Benson Henderson started off 2012 by winning the UFC lightweight title from Frankie Edgar and then he followed it up by beating him again in the rematch,” UFC president Dana White told B/R. “His third fight in 2012 was an absolutely dominant win over Nate Diaz. To beat Frankie Edgar twice and to go out there and do what he did against Diaz just shows you how incredibly talented Benson Henderson is. He had an amazing year.”
Manager Malki Kawa, the powerhouse agent behind First Round Management who represents Henderson, light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and several other heavy hitters, has helped guide Henderson to the top.
"Benson had an amazing year and really came into his own in 2012," Kawa told Bleacher Report. "He had three title fights and proved to the world that he is the man to beat in the lightweight division. He's a very determined fighter. When he sets his eyes on a goal, he usually achieves it. He's very deserving of this award, and I am extremely proud to represent him."
While Kawa has guided Henderson's career outside the cage, inside the UFC's Octagon, it's Crouch who takes control. The two met in Colorado after Henderson packed up his meager possessions and moved to Denver, leaving behind two job offers to become a police officer in order to pursue the fighter's dream. Henderson had just one friend in the area, but MMA was on the rise—and that made Denver the place to be.
He found a mentor and a gym when he met Crouch at Mile High Gracie Jiu-Jitsu. There, he added the tenets of submission grappling to his already strong wrestling game. When the opportunity came to open the MMA Lab in Arizona, the two, and several others from the gym, took the leap into the unknown together.
Crouch is as old school as they come—a proud black belt recipient, not from a McDojo, but from UFC legend Royce Gracie himself. Crouch trained with the Gracies in the heyday of the Pride promotion and continued working with Royce when he returned to action for a rematch against Kazushi Sakuraba several years ago.
For many trainers, this impressive pedigree would lead to listless and predictable workouts—an endless quest to create the next Gracie jiu-jitsu star. But as much as Crouch respects the Gracies, he isn't looking to turn anyone into a new Royce.
"I'm not looking to mold guys into a certain style. They're not me. They're not Royce," Crouch said. "I learned a lot from the Gracies. I love jiu-jitsu. I love what it's done for my life and I'm super grateful for everything it's helped me accomplish. But I want to use anything that is going to win the fight. If I think we can catch him with jiu-jitsu, we'll focus on that. If I think we can win the standup, then that's the ticket we'll play. Whatever technique wins us the fight, that's my favorite one."
You can see that adaptability in the cage when Henderson fights. He's adding new techniques to his repertoire before every bout. In the last fight against Diaz, it was a punch to the thigh. It was just one of many things that went right on the nationally televised event.
"It was one of our best nights as a team," Crouch said. "We knew we had to control the distance; we didn't want to be in boxing range all night. That wasn't going to be a good night for us. That made the fight about range and keeping it where we wanted it to be.
"We had specific techniques like that we worked on in camp that Benson executed throughout the fight. We were really clear message-wise in the corner between rounds. It was an awesome team effort. The fight doesn't always go according to plan, and you have to adapt, both the fighter and the corner."
What's next? It's hard to say. Henderson is anything but static, the best in the world who happens to be a work in progress.
"Watching him in the WEC, just watching him grow," Meza said. "It's amazing what he's become, but he's stayed the same person. He's hasn't changed from when I met him to who he is right now. He hasn't changed one bit.
"A lot of guys, when they become champ, they start going out different places to train," Meza continued. "He doesn't go anywhere else to train. He doesn't fly anyone out or bring in famous faces to train with. All the guys that have been there from the beginning—me, Efrain (Escudero), Victor (Meza), Gritz (Chris Gruetzemacher)—we're the same guys that spar with him, same guys that roll with him. We've got to push him and bang it out with him. Get him ready. In sparring sessions, he gets hit in there. We are going at it hard. No one's taking it easy on him."
For Henderson, the fighters and trainers at the MMA Lab have become more than just workout buddies. The gym has become a family, a place that Henderson, who prefers staying home with a movie and says he has never sampled alcohol or smoked a cigarette, can feel comfortable.
"He's the most humble person I've ever met," Meza said. "He's so down to earth. A real special person. He respects everyone that comes into the room. Starting with the little kids. I have three kids of my own and every time he sees them, he gives them a hug and asks them if they've been doing their homework. For Christmas, he gave my kids comic books—and he had read them all, too!"
It's tough for Meza and the rest of the MMA Lab team to be surprised by Henderson's kind heart anymore. They've seen it so often with his own family and theirs. But Meza was moved beyond the power of words to describe Henderson's post-fight speech after his win over Diaz.
"I love fighting, winning...but there's a lot more important stuff than fighting, guys," Henderson told the crowd. "Show some love to your loved ones. Hug up on them. Cherish the time you have. Because you never know."
It was a speech meant to bolster Meza, whose mother is suffering from cancer. Adding to the weight on the team's shoulders was the hiking death of Ervin's 17-year-old son.
"I was inside the cage when he mentioned what was going on with my mom. I got goosebumps all over my body. I know he always has something planned for his speech after his fight, and this one was emotional. My body got numb," Meza said. "Knowing that he's thinking about it. At a moment like that to be thinking about my family and my mom? It was amazing.
"My mom is really sick. She doesn't know that it happened, but if she had seen it that would have given her a boost of energy. My dad watched it. He was real appreciative and he was real happy."
It was a fitting finish to the year for Henderson, a carefully crafted game plan and an equally delicate post-fight plan both executed perfectly, with grace and heart.
With 2012 now firmly in the past, Henderson and the MMA Lab are now ready to go back to work. Meza recently signed a UFC contract and is eager to prove he belongs in the big leagues. Teammate Jamie Varner is in the midst of a career resurgence.
There's the small matter of becoming the best fighter in the whole world—not just in the moment, but in history.
"To be the best fighter of all time, I will need to continue to fight the best fighters in the world and win," Henderson said. "I keep saying that I just want to fight the best in the world. I don't care what order they come in; just line them up. In order to win those fights, I'll need to continue to adapt to the changes in MMA and improve each area of my game as each challenge becomes tougher."
Is Anderson Silva's record for title defenses out of the question? His winning streak? The kind of run Georges St-Pierre has enjoyed at welterweight? Henderson isn't the only one who doesn't think it's out of the realm of possibility his name will be whispered among the best of the best one day.
"He has a really great spirit and he loves what he does," Crouch said. "Now it's just a matter of doing it over the long term. He's looking to match Anderson Silva's records, so the challenge now is keeping up the quality over time. The way to do that is find joy in what you do every day. That will be the challenge—to be happy with what you're doing, enjoying the process, and continue getting better.
"You're always going to get his best. That's a super admirable quality. If you can say that about somebody in your life, that they always give their best? That's a person to hang on to. Do everything with the best effort you can. Everything else takes care of itself."