Benson Henderson won’t go quietly.
The former lightweight champion’s split-decision victory over Josh Thomson on Saturday kept him comfortably ensconced among the 155-pound elite, much to the chagrin of his opponent, most spectators and probably UFC matchmakers too.
As for the fact that yet another controversial judges’ verdict in his favor only reinforced Henderson’s reputation as perhaps the sport’s most vexing talent—a guy whose UFC record contains more than its share of questionable decisions—he refused to apologize.
“I like Ws,” Henderson said at the post-fight press conference (via MMAJunkie). “I like getting my hand raised and I’ll take it any way I can get it. Slipping on a banana peel, by the skin of my teeth. By any means, you know?”
With his penchant for getting the nod in close fights, Henderson has grown into a singular, frustrating figure in the MMA landscape. I’m not sure we've ever seen anyone quite like him before—a guy so adept at winning bouts the vast majority of onlookers think he ought to have lost.
Certainly, he is among the very best fighters of the talent-rich lightweight class, but it’s now been nearly four years since he’s crafted a stoppage victory.
His game-planning and fighting style seem specifically designed to get him into close bouts and the fact that he’s won a few that easily could’ve gone the other way hasn’t earned him much capital with fans.
This latest outcome also did very little to point the way forward for a 155-pound division stuck in the doldrums, with both its champion (Anthony Pettis) and erstwhile No. 1 contender (T.J. Grant) out nursing injuries.
According to MMAJunkie, UFC president Dana White told a Las Vegas television station this was just a “typical Ben Henderson fight,” by which he meant it was very long, very close and resulted in very few definitive answers.
Many spectators thought Thomson would be announced as the winner after he controlled much the competitive, five-round affair with his grappling. Even after he broke his thumb in the first round, he managed to take Henderson down and capture his back on numerous occasions throughout the fight.
In the end, however, the judges appeared to favor Henderson’s sheer volume of strikes over Thomson’s control, handing Henderson a split verdict (48-47, 47-48, 49-46).
MMAJunkie suggests that, had Thomson won the razor-close decision, he would have been “next in line” for a championship opportunity. Henderson, with two previous losses to Pettis on his record, won’t get the same deal. Even after Saturday’s victory, White indicated Bendo shouldn’t hold his breath.
“He didn’t do anything that’s going to have anybody screaming, ‘Oh, I want to see him get another shot at Pettis,'” White said.
In other words, there is still no clear direction for the lightweight division, still no healthy and clear-cut No. 1 contender, and still no great ideas about what exactly to do with Henderson.
Much of what happens next may depend on how quickly Pettis and Grant can get healthy. If their rehabilitation schedules somehow line up, Grant could finally get the title shot first promised to him last August. If not, then Henderson’s win could potentially open the door for a litany of contenders.
The most obvious course of action might be to have Henderson rematch with Thomson, but few people seemed to be scrambling for that in the immediate aftermath.
Perhaps half because Thomson’s broken thumb could keep him on the shelf for a while and half because fans know deep down it would only result in another “typical” Henderson fight.
Depending on any number of uncontrollable factors, Henderson may next end up with a rematch against Gilbert Melendez in what would seem like as good a title eliminator as any. A bevy of top-10 lightweights like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Rafael dos Anjos or even Donald Cerrone—who also won on Saturday night—could also wind up in the pole position after another win or two.
The future is perhaps most uncertain for Thomson, who came to the post-fight press conference with his arm in a sling, emotionally wrought and saying he wasn’t sure if he could muster the will to launch another comeback.
“This could be it, man,” said the deflated former Strikeforce champion.
Though he shook Henderson’s hand and told him “good job,” no one seemed more befuddled by the decision than Thomson. At 35 years old, he said he could feel his last best chance at UFC gold slipping through his fingers.
It remains unclear if his hints at retirement will stick, but he wasn’t in a very optimistic mood after the decision was announced.
“This fight, I felt like I won,” Thomson said. “I won it with one hand. I beat the former UFC champion, the guy who was here for two years and I beat him with one hand. That’s what I can’t stomach. I’m a better fighter, that’s what pisses me off.”
He was not alone in those feelings.