The lightweight division has been one of the best, if not the best, divisions in the sport for years now, but that hasn't kept Ben “Smooth” Henderson from climbing to the top of the pile.
MMA, now more than ever, has a group of seemingly insurmountable champions. Dominick Cruz has defended his bantamweight belt four times in the UFC and WEC. Jose Aldo? Six times. Georges St-Pierre? Eight. Anderson Silva? 10.
Even the champions that haven't stacked bodies for years on end are proving to be miles ahead of their top contenders.
Demetrious Johnson has already beaten the top-three ranked flyweights, and the drop from Ian McCall to John Moraga is not a short one in terms of accomplishment (though Moraga is still a tough test for Johnson). Cain Velasquez, meanwhile, made former champion Junior dos Santos look downright amateurish as he dominated him with non-stop wrestling, and is slated for a rematch against a guy he horribly disfigured months ago.
In that way, Benson Henderson is the most likely champion to get dethroned. That, however, remains somewhat unlikely.
In his time with the UFC, Henderson has completely run through opponents (with the exception of his squeaker against Frankie Edgar at UFC 150). Even top lightweights like Jim Miller and Nate Diaz were both shown to be a little more than speed bumps for Bendo. Hell, in the WEC, he twice beat Donald Cerrone and fringe top-10 fighter Jamie Varner.
How long, though, is the list of fighters that could conceivably take the belt from Henderson? That is a tough question to answer.
How good is Henderson's next opponent, Gilbert Melendez, remains something of a mystery, as he put forth less-than-impressive efforts in his final fights with Strikeforce (though he was admittedly under-motivated after the Zuffa acquisition).
Gray Maynard, though, is the biggest threat to Henderson stylistically. Henderson has high-level striking and grappling, but has used his relatively large size to physically dominate fighters like Nate Diaz and Clay Guida. Maynard has a stronger wrestling pedigree than Henderson, and is comparably sized, which would make it very possible for him to eke out a decision over “Smooth,” but is coming off an ugly split decision win and a knee injury.
Featherweight champion Jose Aldo is going to be moving up to lightweight by the year's end, and will face the winner of Bendo vs. Melendez should he beat Anthony Pettis. Even if he loses to Pettis, Aldo is a scary challenge.
Past the current contenders is a laundry list of rising prospects, such as TJ Grant (who will face Maynard in May), Rafael dos Anjos (who is on an impressive three-fight winning streak and faces Evan Dunham at UFC on FX 8) and undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov (who has already wrecked three veteran lightweights). How good those three are remains to be seen.
So, can Henderson end up stringing together as many wins as the other dominant champions on this list? While Bendo has many doubters, it's very, very possible.
He matches up very well against both Gilbert Melendez and Jose Aldo. Melendez and Henderson are about even grappling-wise, but Henderson is well ahead in terms of striking. Meanwhile, though Aldo has fearsome power standing, Henderson is more technically sound, and will have a major size advantage on top of his ludicrous submission defense in the grappling department.
Looking further down the road is difficult, but among the three prospects mentioned earlier, both dos Anjos and Grant are formidable submission experts, but works-in-progress standing. That just won't hack it against Henderson. Khabib Nurmagomedov, meanwhile, is considerably more well-rounded, but has not truly been tested yet.
Any of them, however, could grow in a major way over a year's time.
While it's tough to compare anybody to Anderson Silva, it's deceptively possible that we could see a very lengthy title reign from Bendo. His next two fights (assuming they come against Melendez and Aldo) could very easily be his toughest. If he overcomes both those opponents, the sky is the limit for him.