Benson Henderson was wise to handle all his own business on Saturday against Rustam Khabilov.
This was the wrong night to leave anything to chance.
The UFC’s first trip to Albuquerque, New Mexico, turned out to be an altogether weird one, full of fouls, questionable stoppages and a judges’ verdict in the co-main event that may go down as one of the worst in MMA history. It was just one of those off-kilter evenings, when the unexpected starts early and seems to permeate all aspects of the card.
Henderson’s fourth-round submission victory over Khabilov was one of UFC Fight Night 42’s least peculiar turns. It was notable primarily for its lack for controversy and for being the former lightweight champion’s first stoppage victory in the Octagon and the first time Khabilov had been finished in his professional career.
It also made an important statement for Henderson on several fronts.
In the immediate, the submission accomplished the double duty of snapping his streak of judges’ decisions in each of his previous eight wins while avoiding giving the shaky ringside officials in New Mexico any say.
In the big picture? It was probably even more meaningful, underscoring the fact that—while he won’t be fighting for the title anytime soon—he’s still breathing down the necks of the best 155-pounders in the world.
Afterward, Henderson had words for the people he felt had unfairly criticized his approach as overly conservative in recent years.
“Say something now,” he yelled through the chain link at reporters sitting on press row, via MMA Junkie. “I’m talking to you. Say something now.”
It was a dramatic gesture, though it was possible Henderson may have been shouting at the wrong people.
After all, it’s his employers at the UFC—not the media—who are largely responsible for the stigma that this sport sometimes attaches to winning by decision. It’s UFC brass who are always reminding fighters not to “leave it in the hands of the judges.” It was Dana White who in January implied Henderson wasn’t getting any closer to another championship opportunity by stringing together hard-fought but razor-close decisions.
This did not seem like the right night to explain that to Henderson, though. It was not the first time he’s shouted at the media seats following a victory, and he’s told us on numerous occasions that he prefers to do most of his talking inside the cage. It’s not unusual for athletes in this sport to go to strange lengths to motivate themselves for battle, and being at odds with the press may well be part of Henderson’s regimen.
Whatever he did, it worked this time.
Through the first three rounds, it seemed as though this fight might go the distance yet again. Two of the official scorers had Khabilov ahead headed to the fourth stanza after he paced the early going with his heavy counterpunches and vaunted grappling attack. Henderson weathered that initial push, giving nearly as good as he got on the feet and working his way back up each time the Jackson’s MMA fighter took him down.
In his first real test against Top 10 competition inside the Octagon, Khabilov looked on his way to proving he belonged, right up to the moment Henderson tapped him out.
When it happened, the end came swiftly.
With Khabilov backed against the fence near the beginning of the fourth, Henderson scored with a right uppercut, left cross combination and then followed his stunned opponent to the mat. He took Khabilov’s back and locked in a rear-naked choke that quickly elicited a concession.
It was the ninth submission victory of his career. When it was over, Henderson tacitly admitted to play-by-play announcer Jon Anik that he hasn’t been immune to the pressure heaped on him since embarking on his lengthy string of decisions.
“I put more pressure on myself than anybody realizes,” he said. “I expect to succeed. I expect to do well. I expect to end fights. I expect to beat everybody. I bust my butt to make sure that happens. Sometimes it does, sometimes it doesn’t, but all I can do is my best.”
Henderson will have to make a habit out of this type of finish if he means to force his way into a third bout with champion Anthony Pettis. With two previous losses to Pettis already on his record, Henderson is currently the odd man out in a lightweight division that is crowded with contenders. On paper, he’s the No. 2-ranked challenger in the weight class, but in practice, he still has a long march ahead of him.
To that end, Henderson also had things to say about the champion after dispatching Khabilov. Pettis has been out since August 2013 while nursing a knee injury. When he returns, he’ll star opposite Gilbert Melendez as coaches on The Ultimate Fighter. As a result, the lightweight championship probably won’t see action again until December.
“The belt’s not being defended,” Henderson announced. “Anybody who wants to fight for the belt, come see me.”
After this weekend, it’s a good bet that the division’s other top contenders—guys like No. 4 Khabib Nurmagomedov and No. 5 Rafael dos Anjos (also victorious Saturday)—might take him up on that.