Rising to the top of mixed martial arts is a daunting task by all measures. With every step, a fighter pushes himself through the rigors of training in the hopes he will emerge with a better version of himself and will be more prepared to face the next challenge. All of this is done because he knows that the countless hours of hard work will be put to the ultimate test inside the Octagon.
If the formula is correct, the sacrifices made will yield incredible results.
Benson Henderson knows what it takes to become a champion. Over the past three years, the former WEC and current UFC lightweight title holder has been on a tear to the top of the ladder. In that stretch, the 29-year-old has claimed victory in 10 of his last 11 outings and has earned the position as the No. 1 ranked 155-pound fighter in the world. Acclaim garnered and recognition as the world's top lightweight fighter are certainly aspects "Smooth" appreciates, but ambition and a pursuit of greatness continue to push him further.
Henderson's ultimate goal is to be known as the greatest fighter of all-time, and the next step of his journey comes on December 8th, when he squares off with No. 1 contender Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle WA,.
“Awhile ago, I reached a point in my career where every fight I have is the biggest fight of my life and a career defining moment for me," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "Right now, I’m at that next moment of my career, with Nate Diaz standing in front of me. I’m in the gym everyday working out and busting my butt. This is a lifestyle for me. I don’t just go to the gym for an hour, then go home. I live the gym and live training. It will show in my fight against Nate and all my fights after. Hopefully, it ends with my hand being raised. Then it goes to the next step on that ladder to being the best ever. That is my ultimate goal. I want to be the best ever; no ifs, ands, or buts about it. I don’t want to be one of the best or a Top 10 in the world fighter; I want to be the best.
“When Michael Jordan stepped on the court, it didn’t matter who else was on the court with him—everyone knew he was the best. Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, and Scottie Pippen were all great players, but when Michael Jordan stepped on the court, they all acknowledged he was the best. They all knew. Larry Bird could be there and he would say, ‘that guy wearing the number 23 jersey over there, he is the best.’ That is amazing. To have guys of that high caliber and that talent level give him that recognition is astounding. To consider the egos those other guys have and were still able to admit that is amazing. I want to be that guy for MMA."
Following 10 rounds of battle and two close victories over Frankie Edgar, Henderson is looking to take his title reign to the next step. Standing in his way will be the scrappy Stockton native, who has been on a tear of his own since returning to the 155-pound division.
While Diaz has shredded through a collection of top lightweights on the strength of his improved boxing skills, Henderson believes the keys to defeating the Season 5 TUF winner have already been shown inside the Octagon. That being said, he will still need to execute the plan to claim victory, and Henderson is looking forward to the challenge.
“Anytime there is a blueprint or a gameplan to beat an opponent, you have to pay attention to it," Henderson said. "There are times when someone gets knocked out by a big overhand right seven seconds into the fight. While that is a good win and one I'll take, it’s something of a fluke. Someone gets caught by a flying triangle in the first round it is like, ‘wow – there you have it.’ But anytime someone loses by decisions or repeatedly in the same manner; that tends to lend itself to a blueprint or game plan. Anytime there is a blueprint or a game plan on how to beat that fighter it is just a matter of having enough skills or being good enough to implement that game plan. Hopefully, I’m good enough to do that against Nate.”
The days of single discipline fighters are a thing of the past, and both Henderson and Diaz are strong examples of the multi-faceted skills required to compete at the sport's highest level. Both men possess diverse skill sets with the ability to take the action to every inch of the Octagon. Diaz brings a slick submission game, backed by a high-output and extremely accurate striking attack, where Henderson has relied on his wrestling pedigree and unlimited cardio to find success.
Constant progression is a necessity, and the MMA Lab product takes great pride in his continued development. Through hard work and a dedication to improve, Henderson has become one of the most difficult fighters to categorize in the skills department.
"I started out as a wrestler," Henderson said. "That was my base. I went from wrestling to my ground game and I worked a lot on my jiu-jitsu for the first few years of my career. From there, I branched out; I worked on my boxing, Muay Thai, and more traditional martial arts for a bit. It’s all about being well balanced and being good at everything. You hear people talk about fighters like, ‘oh he’s a wrestler with a little bit of hands’ or ‘he’s a boxer with a little bit of wrestling.’ I think the best guys are the ones who are good at a little bit of everything.
"The new breed of MMA fighters, in my opinion, are the guys who started doing MMA for the sake of MMA. They didn’t start out doing wrestling like I did. The new breed of guys are kids who are 14 or 15 who started out doing everything. Those are the guys who are going to have the belts for a long, long time. I’d like to be on the forefront of that wave and be known for being great in all areas and aspects of MMA."
Less than a year ago, Henderson was looking at the throne from Diaz's perspective. While an opportunity to fight for the title may provide fuel for his opposition, defending the gold against all comers provides its own motivation.
When Henderson steps into the Octagon against Diaz next Saturday night, the champion will lay it all on the line. He will come out full-throttle to mix it up with a surging contender, and when the battle comes to an end, Henderson will be looking to have his hand raised in victory once again.
“I’m bringing the same as always," Henderson said. "I’m giving 100% and coming in well prepared. I open up my heart out there. Most fighters have a hard time opening up their hearts and letting people see who they truly are in their soul and in their heart of hearts. When I go out there I open my heart to the fans in that cage. I let them see deep down who I am, how hard I’ve been training, and the lifestyle I live. I live MMA in all aspects. This isn’t a hobby to me and I let people see how committed I am. I let them experience it. I try to do that in all my fights. I don’t hold anything back and I’m going to do the same thing on Dec. 8th."