One mistake, and it all fell apart.
Benson Henderson was in a position where he had been hundreds of times before: inside the guard and with his opponent moving for an armbar. But in this instance, he was too slow.
Henderson had been on top of the lightweight heap. He had tied BJ Penn's record for most defences of the UFC lightweight title. Yet one loss later, he is almost out of the title picture.
He is still ranked No. 2 in the world—right behind Anthony Pettis, the man who bested him. And he's still considered one of the best fighters in the game. But he has lost two matches to Pettis, so campaigning for a third meeting with nothing in the win column through their last two is a daunting task.
A rubber match is typically put together because two fighters went 1-1 in their two meetings. The finality sells the trilogy. The need for closure. However, a third match when one of the fighters has won the first two is not unheard of in MMA or even the UFC.
Quinton Jackson picked up his win over a shadow of Wanderlei Silva inside the UFC despite being brutally stopped by Silva twice in PRIDE FC. Tito Ortiz got to rough up Ken Shamrock a third time because UFC brass realized that fools would still buy into the rivalry after two lopsided beatings.
Henderson's losses, though one was definite, were not lopsided. The problem is that there has never been this sort of false rubber match in a UFC title fight.
Henderson is going to have trouble getting that second shot at the belt that he held for more than a year. But more than just his record against Pettis is standing in the way. He is in perhaps the most cutthroat division in the UFC.
Think about the heavyweight division, where there is just a dearth of talent.
Junior dos Santos took one of the worst beatings in UFC history against Cain Velasquez in their second bout but was still considered head and shoulders above the rest of the UFC division. He beat Mark Hunt, a fighter with skills nowhere near comparable or even in the same area as Cain Velasquez, and that was used to justify a rematch for the title.
Dos Santos took an even more brutal beating.
The lightweight division is not like that. The next challenger for the belt is not just keeping the champion busy while the clear No. 2 takes a tune-up match. When Frankie Edgar lost to Henderson, Nate Diaz was up, then came Gilbert Melendez, and finally it was Pettis.
Lightweight is just a murderers' row of men who could all beat the champion, if they got their chance and did it right—and all of them would struggle to get a second go if they messed it up.
Henderson vs. Josh Thomson
Henderson's upcoming bout is a meeting with the rapidly rising Josh Thomson.
Nothing highlights the volatile nature of the lightweight division quite so well as Thomson's recent success. He had lost to Tatsuya Kawajiri and then lay all over K.J. Noons in an unexciting decision win before rapidly raising his stock with a controversial decision loss to then Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez.
In his return to the UFC after almost a decade outside it, Thomson was matched against Nate Diaz. The younger Diaz brother has always been a force in the division, and few rated Thomson's chances highly. But against an opponent who hates wrestlers and kicks (something which Henderson demonstrated amply in their title bout), Diaz had all kinds of trouble.
The third clack of Thomson's shin off Diaz's dome heralded the end of the bout and the awakening of public interest in Thomson. He was signed to fight Pettis at short notice for the title as a replacement for the injured T. J. Grant, but Pettis injured himself and was forced to pull out of the bout.
Just one good finish separates a fighter from being an also-ran in the lightweight division—nothing demonstrates that as well as Thomson.
In a match of skilled grapplers with kicking-based stand-up games, Henderson and Thomson will fight almost mirror images of themselves. They are not fighting for the chance to move closer to a title shot though, but to stay stable as the constantly shifting tectonics of the lightweight division continue to cause other fighters to fall out of contention.
Conclusions and Brief Technical Analysis
Not only should Henderson not be forgotten, he is a fighter who consistently shows improvement. In a sport with so many different facets, it is tempting to work consistently to drag the opponent to where you excel.
Henderson recognizes what he is best at but fights effectively outside of it. I have had the pleasure of discussing strategy with him and have found him to be as open-minded and conscious of improvement as any fighter in MMA.
Most recognize him as a wrestler, but in his bout with Diaz, he embarrassed the challenger on the feet as well as on the ground. It was easily the most one-sided lightweight title defence since the days of Penn.
The main thing that we have been seeing more and more from Henderson is a focus on his kicking game. Where before he was mainly a wrestler with some nice kicks, now he seems to be as much of a kicker as a wrestler. This kicking game is not—like so others many in MMA—based in Muay Thai or kickboxing, but seems to be drawn along Tae Kwon Do lines.
Henderson chambers his leg before many of his kicks, and he tends to make more of a snap at the knee than most kickboxers do. Particularly oddly, he will kick two or three times high to set up a good low kick. Most fighters will use the exact opposite method, hoping to land a big high kick. It's a neat little quirk that annoyed Melendez.
With regard to his boxing, Henderson's hands aren't the slickest, but he hits with power, and his money punch is his right hook. He throws punches from his legs and hips (a doubly smart move if you have legs like Chris Hoy on a lightweight body to begin with) but tends to get hit while he's punching.
One of the most exciting aspects of his game, however, is his ability to scramble. Henderson has a habit of getting into bad positions and then fighting his way out of them and coming out on top.
Check out this instance against Pettis in their WEC bout (still one of the best fights I've seen). For those who don't know, the WEC lightweights were guillotining each other left, right and centre before the UFC buyout. Pettis attempts a guillotine, but Henderson rolls to his back and scrambles out on top.
How about this sequence where Henderson gets a jumping knee caught, scrambles, grabs a front headlock, looks for his guillotine and winds up throwing elbows from the top of half guard.
This underlines what Henderson does best: outpace opponents. You will often see him tweeting about 25-minute controlled explosions, and that philosophy can be witnessed in any of his fights. Edgar, Melendez and Pettis fight measured fights. Henderson excels when he can make a fight into a fight.
Hell, he even put the pace on Clay Guida.
Indeed, Henderson's least impressive performances occurred when he was trying to fight more measured. Against Melendez, for instance, he sat back and pawed backhanded jabs for long periods before attacking with a few crisp kicks. There are occasions—for instance against Diaz—where being measured on the feet is necessary, but in his bout with Melendez, Henderson gave a methodical fighter time to think and work.
Whether he realizes it or not, Henderson's ability to work with precision at high speed is what makes him unique. By all means he should work to improve himself but in a way that allows him to get in his opponents' faces.
Henderson meets Thomson on January 25 on UFC on Fox 10, and in a division as stacked and dynamic as this one, you can't afford to miss it.