When WEC went out in 2010, it went out in style.
A five-round war between two up-and-coming lightweights that was back and forth for the duration, capped off by the most insane piece of offense MMA had ever seen and a title changing hands as a result.
Ah, the good ol’ days.
Those two up-and-coming lightweights? They were Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis. Henderson was the champion, Pettis the challenger, and Pettis left that night as the last best guy the WEC had on roster.
Both went on to the UFC and immediately became competitive in the 155-pound shark tank. Pettis bounced around a bit between injuries, promised title shots that became unpromised and had one particular loss to a professional Snuggie that people used to love.
Henderson quietly amassed a solid record on his way to a title shot himself, and he made good on it in a tight scrap against Frankie Edgar. He then held onto the title in an even tighter scrap with Edgar, a reasonable showing against Nate Diaz and a win over Gil Melendez in arguably the tightest fight of his reign.
Henderson hasn’t been an overly convincing champion, as there’s a real case that he lost three of his four title fights in the UFC. But he’s the champion nonetheless.
And in a few short weeks, just as in 2010, Anthony Pettis is coming for his title.
But what does Benson Henderson have to do to keep his belt? Truthfully, it’s no one thing. It’s a number of things.
The first is that he has to commit to winning the fight. Not commit to winning three rounds, or winning five rounds—commit to winning the fight. He needs to get himself into a state of mind where he’s not looking to score points and not looking to do just enough to win. He needs to stalk a convincing victory at every turn.
If he doesn’t, he runs the risk of going to the decision well once too often. A man can only ride out questionable decisions for so long before they turn on him, and given the tendency of Pettis to be aggressive, flashy and exciting in his bouts, he may be the wrong guy to attempt to topple with three 48-47s.
In committing to winning the fight, there’s obviously a strategy to be implemented. Unpopular opinion alert: if you’re Benson Henderson, you better believe it’s taking the fight to the ground.
Sure, Henderson is a decent striker in his own right. He’s reasonably flashy, kicks like a mule and is continually growing in his arsenal and approach. But he doesn’t knock people out.
You know who does? Anthony Pettis.
Pettis is a little better than the champ across the board when standing, and he has the X-factor of being able to finish an opponent with one blow.
Henderson can, however, win a fight on the ground. He can also get it there with his wrestling, and Pettis isn’t afraid of fighting from guard, so he may be okay with being put there.
Aggressive ground and pound and pushing for submissions himself is the most sensible route to victory, and it’s something Henderson can easily do given his criminally underrated jiu-jitsu game and endless gas tank.
The final step for the champion is not to get caught up in the revenge angle. It’s not likely that he will, given his cool head under fire, but if there was ever something to seek revenge for, it’s being the face getting kicked in history’s greatest highlight (save for that time Mariner Moose broke his leg hitting the wall in Seattle, perhaps).
Henderson can’t waste time and energy looking for a highlight to add to his own reel at the expense of Pettis, because he’ll wake up with a flashlight in his face if he does.
Just be aggressive, push for takedowns and be unrelenting with strikes and submission attempts once the fight is there. If Benson Henderson does that, he’ll head to his after-party carrying a big gold belt and wondering who his next challenger is.