Those of you who have followed my work since my time at Bloody Elbow will be familiar with my Killing the King series, but it has been quite some time since I wrote a piece in this series. The Killing the King series is my attempt to hypothetically take apart the champions of each UFC division.
It is the great temptation of anyone in the MMA media to simply declare that a fighter was "too good" or "hungrier" to explain away any victory but this causes us to forget the very nature of fighting.
Everyone is making mistakes all the time. It is not about who is making the least mistakes, but who forces and capitalizes on the most mistakes from his opponent.
The moment we forget that and start treating Anderson Silva, Jon Jones or Fedor Emelianenko like gods, we suddenly lose sight of their humanity, their vulnerability and in fact what makes them so great. If every fighter is making mistakes—it is a case of finding these mistakes and working out which challengers are in the best position to capitalize.
I should hope I don't have to tell my readers that men who have won UFC belts are not slouches and most (with rare exceptions such as Brock Lesnar) have truly been tested by a wide selection of opponents on their way there. Most have fought at least one good striker, one good wrestler, a dangerous puncher and so on.
Yes, it will take a lot more than "will to win", "wanting it more" or "scary power" to commit divisional regicide in any of the UFC's weight classes. This series is as much for my own enjoyment than that of my readers—it is simply fun for me to examine the greatest fighters in the world with a fine tooth comb—but I hope my readers can get some enjoyment out of this too.
Being Benson Henderson
With two successful title defenses already in the bag, Benson Henderson is well on the way to being remembered as one of the best in his division's history. The two things which interest me so much about Henderson are
1) his continued improvement and his carrying a new skill or strategy into almost every fight,
2) his being yet another wrestler who has learned to kick well. This type of fighter is still rare but because of their wrestling pedigree they can open up with kicks like no-one else in MMA can afford to. Cheick Kongo kicks a lot more fluidly and dangerously than Jon Jones (watch his Muay Thai career)—but he is limited to using his mediocre boxing in MMA because he lacks ability in wrestling and jiu jitsu.
Benson Henderson's great strengths are obvious to anyone who has seen his bouts—he can fight at a frantic pace for five rounds and has brilliant wrestling.
Furthermore he can cause a scramble seemingly whenever he is in trouble on the ground and while he sometimes misses a kick and gives away a bodylock from the back he can often channel the spirit of Kazushi Sakuraba and threaten the standing kimura to get his opponent off of him.
Henderson is a hard enough puncher to trouble his opponents on the feet but the majority of his success there comes from his movement and snappy kicking prowess. Coming from a Tae Kwon Do background, Henderson seems adept in kicking without the 'set up step,' which is prevalent in Muay Thai.
Henderson simply picks his leg up and snaps his shin or foot against his opponent with little in the way of telegraphing. In Henderson's title-winning effort against Frankie Edgar, though Edgar was able to catch many of Henderson's kicks, he often ate the power of the kick because he didn't have the time or the warning to step in the same direction as the kick.
Henderson's low kicks also serve as a powerful point scorer and have the power to really beat up an opponent's stance as he did to Frankie Edgar in the opening rounds of their second bout.
As a wrestler AND a good kicker with good movement—Henderson represented a nightmare opponent for Nate Diaz. The Diaz brothers have never had much to offer wrestlers except the chance of a submission, but on the feet was where Henderson surprised many casual fans.
The Diaz brothers' lead leg is almost always turned in, exposing the tender back of their lead leg for kicking, which will also buckle their stance and prevent them from countering. Carlos Condit received criticism when he ruthlessly exploited Nick Diaz's footwork in this way, but Henderson was able to do the same thing while spicing his performance with hard punches and periods of frantic striking and scrambling on the ground.
Henderson's best punch is undoubtedly his counter right hand. Far from a banger, Henderson's successes on the feet have come from drawing an opponent in and catching them with a short right on the snout. This could spell trouble for Gilbert Melendez for reasons I will touch on later this week...
If I could find a fault with this method it is quite simply that Bendo doesn't have many ways of drawing his opponent on this counter punch. Against Frankie Edgar he continually showed a backhanded jab with no hope of connecting—in order to get Edgar to come back at him.
A few great southpaws have used a slapping, backhanded jab in order to give the opponent a parry and invite a returned jab. That is when they counter. In the case of Naseem Hamed, he would lean back and land a right hook over the opponent's counter jab. In the case of star of the moment, Guillermo Rigondeaux–a counter left straight as at 2:50 of the video below.
Henderson would simply withdraw his right hand while retreating and land a good jab on Edgar's snout. Despite being a fighter who is touted as having great head movement, Edgar has shown to have trouble with linear punches against his last two opponents. While he moves constantly—Edgar must always enter on a straight line, and he can often be forced to eat a shot as he does so.
What flaws can be seen in the obviously well rounded game of Benson Henderson then?
As always the issue of ring craft is an important one. While Henderson often uses footwork to get out of the way of strikes, he does not always show the best awareness of where he is in the cage. Often he will find himself in an exchange near the fence and not have anywhere to retreat.
Clay Guida was able to drop Henderson in one such exchange, and Frankie Edgar was able to do the same in their second bout.
one exploited the weaknesses in Henderson's cage placement quite as well as Anthony Pettis, the last man to defeat Henderson. Most folks should know by now that Pettis loves to pressure an opponent towards the fence.
Not only did Pettis land his magnificent rebounding kick off the cage, but he often uses the cage to take away one direction of movement from an opponent so that he can attempt a spinning back kick or another power strike. Pettis will also attempt to force a shot from the opponent and look to catch them with a hard knee.
Against Henderson, Pettis backed the WEC champion towards the cage, then took a step back and allowed Henderson to attempt to fight his way out from the fence with punches—then countered with strikes of his own.
It is not coincidence that Pettis ends up in position to use his spectacular techniques - he will physically push an opponent towards the cage if he has to (as he did with Donald Cerrone—or use a push kick to get them there, as he did against Henderson.
As with many of the facets I look at in this series—it is hard to tell how Henderson's ring craft has come along since these issues because it has not really been tested.
Frankie Edgar is a fighter who likes to move around the outside of the octagon anyway, and only in the last two rounds of the rematch moved Henderson to between himself and the cage. Equally, Nate Diaz shares his brother's poor footwork and struggles to cut off the octagon unless his opponent is wilting from exhaustion.
Lack of Set Ups
The second major fault in Henderson's striking is that he rarely sets up his kicks. While I pointed out his ability to kick straight from his stance is a unique skill and an enviable one, it should be used to bolster an orthodox striking game, rather than replace orthodox set ups and technique.
While Frankie Edgar was forced to eat the power of Henderson's kicks when Henderson threw them in the first bout, he did catch a great many of Henderson's kicks to the point where he looked almost telepathic. We all know that the jab is faster than the rear hand, because of the extra distance that the rear hand has to cover—but think how much further even the fastest rear leg kick has to travel.
In his rematch with Edgar, Henderson focused more intensely on the low kick which is much harder to throw without the set up step. If not set up with punches, the low kick can easily be seen coming and against Guida, Edgar and Diaz, Henderson has ended up turning his back to his opponents off of his missed kicks.
Henderson's tendency to throw one strike at a time from the outside also plays against him sometimes. While pot-shotting is perfect for fighting Nick Diaz and Frankie Edgar—offensive strikers—Anthony Pettis had his success against Henderson on the counter.
On the few occasions which Henderson threw more than one strike in combination he had great success against Pettis and didn't offer such large openings for counter strikes.
It seems as though the best method for at least out striking Henderson (the field in which I can offer the most insight) seems to be in countering his most common habits. As Henderson almost always engages with kicks, baiting the low kick and withdrawing the leg before dashing in with punches as he misses seems like a method which might work well to carry the fight to Henderson.
With regards to boxing—Henderson has a solid left hand but it is not nearly as dexterous as his right—and it often falls out of position in exchanges (such as when Frankie Edgar hurt him). Circling toward Henderson's left side would afford the opportunity to counter strike either off of a slow Henderson left straight, or in muffling a left roundhouse kick with the forearms and coming back with a punching combination before Henderson could set his foot down.
If a fighter were able to pressure Henderson in this way without conceding the takedown—drawing kicks and coming back with counter combinations—he could hopefully either hurt Henderson or put him on the run. When Henderson feels himself near the fence is when he is tempted to fight his way out—this is certainly the point at which he seems most vulnerable.
Of course this is all hypothetical and many of these holes may not even exist anymore. Gilbert Melendez might not even try to exploit them.
Hopefully UFC on Fox 7 will offer us further insight—but it should at least provide us with an entertaining title scrap.