For Ben Henderson, Controversial Fights Are Nothing New (But Losing Them Is)

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For Ben Henderson, Controversial Fights Are Nothing New (But Losing Them Is)
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You didn’t think we were going to get through an entire Benson Henderson fight without a little controversy, did you?

Sorry, but that’s just not how he rolls.

Just as they seemingly always do after his fights, opinions differ on Henderson’s knockout loss to Rafael dos Anjos in the main event of Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night 49. Depending on whose social media ramblings you follow, a lot of things may or may not have happened.

Dos Anjos may or may not have stunned Henderson with a flying knee midway through the first round. Henderson may or may not have been out cold after dos Anjos dropped him with a left hook in the ensuing scramble. Referee Big John McCarthy may or may not have been a little quick to stop the fight, as Henderson may or may not have been grappling for position on the ground.

Bendo himself tried to take the high road at the post-fight press conference, but his painstakingly detailed description of events leading up to the stoppage sounded suspiciously like a fighter’s way of implying he got a raw deal.

“It was a flash knockout,” Henderson said, via MMAMania.com’s Geno Mrosko. “I remember dropping my back into the fence and I was like, ‘Oh, damn it, that didn't look good at all, that's a bad thing right there.’ [I] wanted to latch onto a single leg…push him up against the cage…let the cobwebs clear a little bit… But as soon as I start to come around and go onto the single leg, 'Big John' did his job.”

So there you have it. Maybe Henderson was in deep trouble after that dos Anjos punch. Maybe not. Either way, it’s a good bet guys like Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez and Josh Thomson didn’t shed any tears over his loss.

Truth is, Henderson’s been walking a fine line between winning and losing for the majority of his 11-fight UFC career. This outing was shorter than most—and this time he came out on the wrong end of the argument—but since his 155-pound title reign began in early 2012, he’s been no stranger to disputed outcomes.

Both of Henderson’s initial title fights against Edgar at UFCs 144 and 150 could’ve gone either way. His close bouts against Melendez and Thomson at UFC on Fox events in 2013-14 wrote the same story. Miraculously, he won all four by razor-close judges’ decisions (one unanimous, three split).

He’s emerged victorious from so many tight decisions that when he garnered that split verdict over Thomson in January, UFC President Dana White called it “typical” Bendo. Even the boss knows the drill at this point.

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The only of Henderson’s recent victories that didn’t leave some people grumbling were his wipeout of Nate Diaz in Dec. 2012 and his submission over Rustam Khabilov two-and-a-half months ago. In between, he lost his title to Anthony Pettis via first-round armbar, but the lion’s share of his outings have been far less clear-cut.

Henderson’s penchant for inspiring controversy feels essential to his identity in the lightweight division at this point. It’s actually the most interesting thing about the guy, if you want to know the truth, especially considering that personality-wise he’s the last thing from controversial.

Despite taking pains to appear the opposite of fascinating, he always finds a way to make things interesting. When Henderson wins, a lot of people typically argue that he should’ve lost. When he loses? Well, now that’s in doubt, too.

There are worse roles to have in the UFC’s most crowded and competitive division. At least Henderson keeps us talking. Dare I say we wouldn’t be nearly this interested in him if the highest-profile fights of his career had been less scandalous.

This reputation obviously comes with a downside, though. White’s words after the Thomson fight weren’t meant as a compliment. It was common knowledge that despite holding down the No. 1 spot on the UFC’s official rankings, Henderson wasn’t going to get another chance to fight Pettis until he did something to clear up all this uncertainty.

Maybe that’s part of what undid him against dos Anjos.

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After his stoppage over Khabilov at Fight Night 42, Henderson drew rave reviews for finally showing some urgency. He spent the fleeting minutes he had in the cage with dos Anjos looking similarly motivated. Both guys came out of their corners winging punches, hunting for a finish.

Unfortunately, this time it was Henderson on the losing side. If we thought his road back to the title would be long and arduous before this, well, suffering a first-round knockout doesn’t help his case, nor does it further his reputation as a litmus test for up-and-coming championship contenders.

But all is not lost. There is still an incredible backlog of challengers waiting for Pettis and Melendez to finally fight near the end of the year. That means both dos Anjos and Henderson will certainly have to compete again before the championship gears grind back into action.

For the 29-year-old Brazilian, who is now No. 3 on the UFC’s official lightweight rankings, that’s likely bad news.

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Dos Anjos may have stamped his passport as a legitimate threat in the 155-pound division last weekend, but he’s going to have to tread water until the championship carousel has a spot for him. He’s already lost to Khabib Nurmagomedov, and with the rest of the Top 5 currently booked elsewhere, his next bout will probably be one where he has a lot to lose and little to gain.

For Henderson, who dropped from No. 1 to No. 4? This isn’t exactly the end of the world.

He, too, will likely enter the Octagon again before the lightweight pecking order has much chance to change. That means he’ll get yet another opportunity to rehabilitate his contender status. He’ll continue to get high-profile fights, and if he gets back to winning them—by any means necessary—he won’t be down for long.

By the time we sort out the logjam at the top of the lightweight division, things that may or may not have happened at a Fight Night show in Tulsa on a Saturday night in mid-August might well be forgotten.

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