When an athlete makes the big time, things often change for them and their families. Stories of professional athletes buying their mom a new home after signing their first contract are legion.
The money in MMA isn't quite there yet. So, when Benson Henderson defended the UFC championship against Nate Diaz in 2012, he couldn't immediately buy a new home for his mother. Instead, he made the kind of gesture that tells you all you need to know about him as a man. He went home and worked his mom's shift at the convenience store she owns near Federal Way, Wash., giving her the day off.
Benson Henderson is one of the good guys. I had a chance to sit down with him and talk life, family and fighting Anthony Pettis this Saturday at UFC 164.
Bleacher Report: You've defended the lightweight title three times. The next time you do so will break the record for successful defenses in the division. Did you know that? What does it mean to you?
Henderson: I was aware of that. Somebody pointed it out to me after Gilbert. They told me if I beat Gilbert I'd be tied. I was like, "That's awesome." As far as what it means? It's meaning is whatever you want to put on it. Some people place a lot of stock, of value into that kind of stuff. For me, a win is a win. That's what it all boils down to. You have to perform and, in no uncertain terms, you have to win. Period.
It doesn't matter, all the extra stuff. There's always going to be extra this or extra that. The first time this or the first time that. First time in a main event. First time breaking a record. There's always going to be that kind of stuff. But it comes down to the "W." The win. If I get one more title defense, get my hand raised one more time, what it boils down to is a win.
B/R: That makes sense. It's a very binary sport in that respect. Now, the guy you're tied with is BJ Penn, who most people still kind of identify with the UFC lightweight division. He started it all off and he's still around. He took that division and kind of molded it in his image.
B/R: But, besides BJ, there hasn't really been—at the box office at least—another huge star at 155 pounds. From a financial consideration, do you think that's something that will come with time? Do you even consider that part of your job, worrying about how the pay-per-view will do? Or do you just concentrate on what's going on in the cage?
Henderson: That's one of those tricky questions. Do you want to win? Or do you want to be a fan favorite? Well, I want both (laughs). I want to win and I want to be a fan favorite. But, if you have to choose one, you have to get your hand raised. You have to win. Any financial considerations would definitely be secondary to that.
To answer your question, yes I am aware of selling tickets and being a big draw. Blah, blah blah. All that stuff. BJ is the man. One of my personal favorites. I love the guy. Trying to match him in pay-per-views, I'll be hard-pressed. He was that successful for a reason. He was that big a draw for a reason.
But it is something that I'm aware of. I am aware of pay-per-view numbers. I am told about it. I try to pay attention to it (laughs). But, ultimately, it comes down to getting your hand raised. It all comes down to that. If that means B.J. is known forever as the greatest lightweight of all time, I'm cool with that. But hopefully it doesn't go like that and I can live up to his standard. I have high expectations for myself.
B/R: I'm just going to be honest with you and put it right out there—I was one of the guys who said Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis and the WEC lightweights might not make it in the UFC. That's something I wrote. Obviously, that didn't end up being correct.
But even to this day, you have Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez and Gray Maynard saying Benson Henderson is not even the best guy in this division. I doubted you. It seems like some fighters are still doubters. Does any of that motivate you?
Henderson: It doesn't affect me at all, to be honest. Maybe it should. But in the 1990s if you asked Charles Barkley who the best basketball player in the world was, he wasn't going to say Michael Jordan. He was going to say Charles Barkley. Of course he's going to say that.
Gilbert Melendez isn't going to say, "Oh, this guy is the best. He's better than I am." As a hard competitor, like all the fighters are, he's not going to say, "I'm the man." You can even ask fighters at 170, they're not going to say GSP is the better fighter. They'll say, "He has the belt right now, but I think I'm the better fighter." That's part of being a fighter. So I couldn't care less.
B/R: What I love about you is how you bring your fans into your life, especially after a fight. Whether it was (teammate) Yaotzin Meza's mother and her struggle with cancer, bringing attention to your own mother's hard work and sacrifice, or bringing (fiancee) Maria into the cage to propose, it gets really personal after a fight. Are you ever hesitant to share those things with everyone who's watching?
Henderson: That my friend is a good journalistic question. It can be hard. I am, surprisingly, a really private person. I have had to learn how to be more outgoing, especially in interviews. Not to give one-word answers. It's not natural for me at all. I think I do an okay job now. I eke by in that aspect. Some guys are great naturally, like Urijah Faber. Those kind of guys are awesome. They always give great interviews, are super personable, just nice guys. I've had to learn that.
So me doing it, on the big stage in front of five or six million people, it can be tough. It's hard for me. But I don't do it for myself. I do it because Victoria Meza deserved the shout-out. Victor Meza and Yaotzin Meza are my teammates and they deserve the acknowledgement for the tough time that they're going through, that their mother is going through.
I draw strength to do it through the people I love. My girl, Maria, has been through a lot—ups and downs like all relationships, and I don't do nearly what I should. She's amazing, and I should do a much better job telling everyone what an amazing woman she is. After a fight, I have a chance in front of 5.5 million people to make up for all the times I didn't do it. Why not use that time to shine the spotlight on things I hold dear?
B/R: You say, "Guys, there are so many things in life more important than fighting," and you say it at a time when almost everyone watching, in the moment, is thinking fighting is the most important thing in the world. I always like that. It's kind of a wake-up call. Yes, the fight is important in its way. But there's so much more going on in your life and my life to which we should pay the same amount of attention. That's how I read what you're trying to say in those moments.
Henderson: That's exactly what I'm trying to put out there. A lot of people don't understand exactly what I'm trying to say, but the way you are wording it—it's your job to put things in words, and you do it well. There are a lot more important things in life. At that moment, when everyone is saying, "Oh, great fight," and they're all hyped up about the fight, I want them to remember the other things. Winning and losing is not the end-all, be-all of our existence.
B/R: I think it's tremendous and refreshing. I did a profile on you earlier this year and talked with coach John Crouch and your teammates, and the one thing everyone brought up is how important your family is to you. And I got a sense of that when i watched your DVD. It's almost as much about them as it is about you. What's it been like to see Momma Henderson and your brother get a little taste of fame? How have they enjoyed that?
Henderson: My mom loves it. She eats it up. She's quiet and shy and kind of meek about it, but deep down she really enjoys the attention. She gets a kick out of it. My brother loves it also.
They do a good job of taking it in stride. They're starting to see the other side of it where it's like, "Okay, it was fun, it was cool," but they don't always want the spotlight on them.
B/R: I remember seeing Jon Jones tweet that your brother was signing autographs in the hotel lobby.
Henderson: Now, that, that's actually awesome. We use that as our diversion. My brother plays my role and I jet out a side door. Or else I'll be stuck in a hotel lobby signing autographs for two hours. I try to sign autographs for the fans. I love all the guys who come out and support MMA as hardcore as they do. But in the hotel on fight weeks I'm trying to make weight and am grumpy and all that stuff. If every time I leave the hotel and every time I come back I'm signing autographs for two hours, that weighs on me a little bit. So my brother provides a good diversion.
B/R: That's a good story. We talked about your mom and your brother, but one of the other people, lurking just outside the story in your DVD, never seen and never heard, is your father. I haven't seen much about him or your relationship with your dad.
Henderson: I don't really talk about him very much (long silence).
B/R: Fair enough. Sticking to your maternal heritage, you had a chance to visit your mother's home country of Korea. I remember how Korean fans embraced (former Steelers wide receiver) Hines Ward when he visited there. Did they show you similar support when you visited for the first time?
Henderson: It was one of those surreal moments. The reception was like nothing I had ever experienced before. Definitely crazy. I got off the plane and got to the terminal and there was a sea of reporters. And behind them were a sea of fans. I have no idea how they even heard about it.
B/R: For you, someone who describes himself as shy, what's it like to face down a horde of people like that? Was it fun or a little intimidating?
Henderson: A few years earlier I would have been intimidated for sure. I'd have gone and hid in the corner. But I've slowly gotten adjusted and accustomed to it and am no longer shrinking away from moments like those. I was able to take it in stride, have a good time and smile for the cameras and somehow not be completely overwhelmed by the moment.
B/R: You talk about what it would have been like for you a few years ago. Your DVD covers a four-year period of your life, from the Anthony Njokuani fight all the way up to Nate Diaz. In the course of those 12 fights, how has Benson Henderson changed? Not just as a fighter, where we've all seen how you've grown so tremendously, but as a person? How has this journey changed you?
Henderson: Everybody has their "growing up" stories. You learn how to conduct yourself as a man, you learn how to apply yourself to your job. I was able to get some valuable on-the-job training, so to speak, with the WEC. Learned a lot of good lessons there.
I got a taste of what it's like to be in the spotlight in the WEC, and it got me ready to come over to the UFC and try to do big things. It was a good journey and I hope it continues to be so positive.
B/R: In the cage, this might not be the most pressing question to some, but I have to ask this for my wife, because we always debate this: One of the things you do during your fights is push your hair back a lot. She's convinced this is a tactic that you use to confuse your opponents with hand movement. I think your hair is just in your eyes.
B/R: It happens a lot. Are you aware of it? And who's right?
Henderson: I'm learning quickly that the wife is always right. I want to say that first of all. Your wife is always right. And, my hair is just in my way. The wife is always right and my hair is in my face.
B/R: Very safe answer. You're learning quickly. She recommends a French braid, whatever that is. You pull it back tight.
Henderson: Got it.
B/R: Things have changed quite a bit since we scheduled this interview. Your next fight isn't just for the title and all the marbles. T.J Grant is out. Anthony Pettis in. Are you excited to get another chance at him?
Henderson: I was definitely excited. I got the call and they said that T.J. was hurt, or that something came up. I was like, "Cool. That sounds good." I've been waiting awhile to get my hands on Pettis again, and I'm going to get my hands on him on August 31.
B/R: It's a chance at redemption. Are you ready to finally put Pettis behind you?
Henderson: Do I want to see Pettis again? For sure. Do I want to get my hands on him? I cannot wait to get my hands on this guy. But do I need to fight Pettis again to cement anything, or put the final nail in a coffin or whatever analogy you want to use? Not really.
B/R: So you were able to move on from the kick and all that happened afterwards? I've never seen someone as upset as you were after that fight.
Henderson: I was able to, as a man, move on from it. It happened. It kinda sucked. It wasn't a good moment. But guess what? I learned from it, I grew from it and I got better. I was able to be a better fighter in however many fights I've had since then. It's one of those things in life. You have to man up and move on.
B/R: I can tell you're such a humble guy, just from talking to you. But you also have the goal to be the best fighter of all time. That's such a monumental thing. For me, becoming the best writer of all time is an impossible dream. What makes you think it's possible for you?
Henderson: I don't know if there's anything that tells me it's possible. But I don't think there's anything that tells me it's impossible, either. I think a lot of guys, when they get into their careers, have aspirations. A 19-year-old who starts as a car salesman and by the time they are 40 own four or five car lots. Everyone has goals to be bigger and better and do it better than anybody else. That's me as an American. I want to be the best. That's where it comes from. My American values and American ideology. I want to be the best.
B/R: What if you live up to every bit of your potential but you come up short of that goal? Is it a failure or still a success?
Henderson: No, that's life. It's not failure or success. It's life. Sometimes you give it your all, 100 percent fully prepared, and you still come up short. That's what it is to live. Welcome to Planet Earth. We all know that feeling, where you didn't hold anything back and you still came up short. That is life, my friend.