Sometimes in sports, good teams get trapped.
They'll play three games in four nights, win the first two against the best teams in the league and lose the third to the worst team in the league because they think the hardest work is already done.
It happens all the time. It might have happened last night. It might be in the process of happening this week.
And the fact of the matter is, if he's not careful, it could be waiting to happen to Benson Henderson in Albuquerque, New Mexico, on June 7.
That night, Henderson will headline UFC Fight Night 42 against Rustam Khabilov, an unheralded Russian upstart who is presently ranked No. 11 in the lightweight division but has the skills to suggest much greater things are coming.
Want to thank all the @ufc fans for all of the followers. On June 7th I'm going to put on an exciting show for you guys.— Rustam Khabilov (@RustamTheTiger) April 25, 2014
Henderson is the big dog in that fight, Khabilov is the fringe Top 10 guy getting a crack at him, and it could be bad news for the former champion if the stars align a certain way.
In his past five outings, Henderson fought Josh Thomson, Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz and Frankie Edgar. Four of those were title fights, and the five opponents presently account for 92 career wins between them. There is also the immeasurable cache of fighting such an impressive list of names consecutively.
Aside from Pettis, Henderson bettered them all.
Conversely, Khabilov is a quiet 17-1 with his only win of consequence coming over Jorge Masvidal. It's not that he's not good; it's that no one has been paying attention to how good he is—certainly not as much as they've been paying attention to how good Henderson or his recent list of foes is, anyway.
If Henderson is sleeping on the Russian in similar fashion, there's a very good chance he'll be rudely awakened when they meet.
That's the design of the trap in sports. The better team is taking a little nap, trying to find an off-night on a work night, and it loses. Only in that case, a team has a dozen or more teammates to share the grief, and there's another game a few days later to help everyone get over it.
Is Rustam Khabilov a trap fight for Benson Henderson?
In MMA, you are out there alone and have to live with getting caught in that trap alone, too. It's your jaw getting broken, your body getting thrown around the cage all night or your paycheck getting cut in half by not landing the win money.
Plus, you get months to think about it instead of days.
Doesn't sound so hot, does it?
For his part, though, Henderson seems to have the focus and fortitude to overcome such a trap. While many fighters will claim all opponents to be created equal, to claim they'd never look past the fight in front of them, Henderson seems to be one to actually live those words.
His frenetic approach to combat notwithstanding, he's intelligently measured when it suits him.
"It’s the same approach for all the fights," he told UFC Tonight in the lead-up to the Thomson fight. "There’s a lot of extra hoopla every fight – this is the first time for main event or the first time on a main card, whatever. But you’ve got to go out there, have a good performance and get your hand raised. It’s the same fight as all the other fights in your career."
That attitude will serve him well with Khabilov staring across the cage in ABQ.
There's an ongoing Russian invasion in MMA, a generation of men from Eastern Europe walking the trail that Fedor Emelianenko blazed. They're the perfect athletes for the sport—technically masterful with a fearlessness and nastiness that blends to create the type of sporting violence fans are starved for.
The only problem is, with few exceptions, they're unknown at this point. Khabilov largely is, at least.
However, if Henderson isn't careful, that could change pretty quickly, and it could change on his watch. It's simply a matter of how aware he is of the trap he's in, and what he does to prepare for it.