At first glance, Rustam Khabilov seems like a weird matchup for Benson Henderson.
Given Henderson’s status as the UFC’s No. 2-ranked lightweight contender, pitting him against a guy who hasn’t even cracked the Top 10 is a fairly unorthodox move—especially in the nationally televised main event of Saturday’s Fight Night 42.
But we all know Henderson is a special case.
He may be running neck-and-neck with the rest of the UFC’s 155-pound title hopefuls on paper, but in practice he’s nowhere near another shot at the gold. Not unless some unexpected sea change comes along to wash away the stigma of two previous losses to champion Anthony Pettis.
Dana White confirmed as much in January after Henderson eked out what the UFC president deemed a “typical” split-decision victory over Josh Thomson. After tepid judges verdicts in each of his last eight victories, typical isn’t going to cut it for Bendo any longer.
“Ben Henderson lost twice to Pettis, the champion, and he got destroyed last fight,” White told a Las Vegas TV station, as reported by MMA Junkie. “He didn’t do anything (against Thomson) that’s going to have anybody screaming, ‘Oh, I want to see him get another shot at Pettis.’”
To that end, enter Khabilov.
The Dagestani fighter currently making his professional home at Greg Jackson’s MMA has been on a tear since coming to the UFC near the end of 2012. He’s sprinted to a 3-0 promotional record (17-1 overall) but hasn’t yet tangled with anyone of Henderson’s caliber inside the Octagon.
For Khabilov, the opportunity is obvious: Beat Henderson, leapfrog his way to the top of the charts.
The stakes for Bendo are a bit more understated.
Naturally, he needs to beat the fast-rising Khabilov to prove he’s still one of the alpha options in the UFC’s most competitive weight class, but it’s more complicated than that. Henderson needs to do something special here. After opening as more than a 2-to-1 favorite according to OddsShark.com, he needs a highlight-reel knockout or impressive submission to rekindle some excitement about him as a potential title threat.
More than anything, he needs to start changing peoples’ minds about what kind of fighter he can be.
Henderson began his MMA career with 10 stoppage victories in his first 13 fights. He marched to the WEC lightweight title while dispatching highly regarded opponents like Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner and Shane Roller and won performance-based bonuses in three of his last four appearances with the company. The final one was his epic fight of the year-caliber scrap with Pettis, which ended with the now infamous “Showtime kick” and a decision loss that cost Henderson his title.
Since then, the expeditious finisher has faded into the background. The impression of Henderson today is as a conservative (if effective) athlete with a hunt-and-peck stand-up style and a penchant for stealing rounds with late takedowns. You can’t argue with the results—he held the UFC lightweight title for 18 months in 2012-13—but the strategy hasn’t done wonders for his reputation.
Fans didn’t exactly go into mourning last August when Pettis beat him (again) and took his title (again). If the folks over at UFC headquarters also breathed sighs of relief at the notion of trading up at champion from a decision artist who doesn’t like to do press to a flashy headhunter with more suits than most people have underwear, well, it’d be hard to blame them.
In the wake of that loss, conventional wisdom said Henderson wouldn’t get another title shot as long as Pettis was champion. The fact that the new titlist has spent nearly the first year of his reign inactive due to injury has only made matters worse. If you think the rest of the lightweight division is losing out with Pettis on the shelf, imagine how Henderson must feel.
Add in Pettis’ upcoming role on The Ultimate Fighter and it’ll be December before anyone at all gets the chance to take the belt from him. So long as he’s got it, Bendo’s prospects can likely only soar so far.
Unless he’s able to blow the doors off Khabilov this weekend.
That seems like a tall order, considering the 27-year-old newcomer hasn’t lost since November of 2011 and has never been finished in his seven-year career. Nonetheless, that’s Henderson’s mandate on Saturday if he wants to underscore his position among the 155-pound division’s elite.
One impressive stoppage victory won’t completely revitalize his hopes and it won’t fully undo his status as a fighter who usually plays it safe. But it would be a start.
For a man in Henderson’s unenviable position, a start would have to do.