Rustam Khabilov was a good start.
Last we saw Benson Henderson, the former lightweight champion snapped his streak of eight consecutive decision victories at June’s UFC Fight Night 42, earning—wait for it—the first stoppage win of his UFC career via fourth-round submission over Khabilov.
This particular rear-naked choke—beautiful in its efficiency after Henderson stunned the Russian fighter with punches against the fence—mattered more than most.
Not only did it continue to distance him from a potentially career-defining second loss to Anthony Pettis at UFC 164, but it proved he can still be devastating. He can still be that guy who amassed an 83 percent finishing rate during the first dozen wins of his career. He can still dismantle, excite and win a bout without asking the judges to sift through 25 minutes of neck-and-neck action.
In other words, Henderson can still be the guy he needs to be in order to earn a chance to regain his lightweight title.
Prior to Khabilov, that guy had been conspicuous in his absence for some years now.
Next comes Rafael dos Anjos, winner of six of his last seven and another in the seemingly endless supply of fearsome 155-pounders. Dos Anjos is No. 4 on the UFC’s official rankings, but Henderson is going off as much as a 4-1 favorite, according to BestFightOdds.com.
That makes the mandate clear: Henderson must do in dos Anjos in similar fashion to Khabilov if he wants to find himself one step closer to emerging from his own personal lightweight no man’s land. Simply grinding out a "typical Ben Henderson" decision won’t be good enough.
When Bendo takes the cage against dos Anjos on Saturday at UFC Fight Night 49, it’ll be just shy of a year since he lost the 155-pound championship to Pettis via first-round armbar. Their previous fight at WEC 53 went the distance, but Pettis won that one, too, after a literal off-the-wall kick that still ranks among the greatest MMA highlights of all time.
For the last 350-odd days, those two losses have had Henderson mired in a weird kind of limbo. UFC brass has made it exceedingly clear he won’t get another championship opportunity any time soon. At least not while Pettis is on top and at least not while Henderson continued to rack up razor-close judges’ verdicts, as he did throughout his own 18-month title reign.
Still baffles me that people label Ben Henderson a boring fighter. You can be grumpy about how judges love him, but he's a treat to watch.— Steven Rondina (@srondina) August 19, 2014
If he were a heavyweight, he wouldn’t have these problems, but precisely because the UFC lightweight class is the deepest, most competitive division on earth, he’s got to do something special to get back into the mix.
To make matters worse, Pettis is injured and slated to defend his title against Gilbert Melendez in December. Eddie Alvarez is suddenly also on the scene and could be next up, if he gets past Donald Cerrone at UFC 178. Khabib Nurmagomedov is rehabbing a knee injury, but when he returns, he’ll also be on the No. 1 contender short list.
So until further notice, the mission for Henderson is to not only beat guys like Khabilov and dos Anjos but to remake himself in the process. It could be a year or more before the 155-pound championship carousel has an opening for him, and he’d be wise to use the time establishing a reputation as not only one of the division’s best fighters but one of its most fearsome finishers, too.
To his credit, he’s so far handled what could be a sticky public relations situation pretty well. For a guy who makes no bones about his distaste for doing media, he’s said almost all the right things.
This week he told USA Today’s Mike Bohn that he enjoyed being “as much of a company man as possible.” After defeating Khabilov, he took pains to position himself as a championship gatekeeper of sorts, saying a fighter who had designs on one day getting a shot at Pettis would have to come through Henderson first.
“The belt’s not being defended,” he said in the cage when his victory had been announced. “Anybody who wants to fight for the belt, come see me.”
Dos Anjos certainly has those aspirations, though so far he's been slow to establish much momentum with fans. He could plant a flag in the sand with a high-profile victory over Henderson this weekend, but to date, he shapes up as little more than another chance for Bendo to show he’s developing a mean streak.
Rustam Khabilov on repeat? Sounds like a plan.