Benson Henderson’s professional life may be cranked to full volume, but his voice registered a few notches down as our conversation began on Thursday afternoon.
“I don’t want to wake up the baby,” the former WEC and UFC lightweight champion said in a tone just above a whisper. “That would just be bad news all around.”
It’s a fitting paradox for a man who turned the MMA universe on its ear earlier in the week by announcing he would be leaving the most touted stage in his sport to practice his trade under their rival banner. Henderson’s announcement immediately stole the lion’s share of headlines around the sport and many media members marked his decision as a sea change that would be the catalyst for bigger things to come.
While Henderson is far from the first fighter to jump from the UFC to Bellator, he’s the only one thus far to carry both relevancy and an impressive list of accomplishments in tow. The UFC losing a perennially top-ranked fighter to their competition is a situation unseen until Henderson, and his transition could very well blaze a trail for others to follow in coming months.
“I’m for sure sensing a bit of a shift in things,” Henderson said. “All of the things I’ve accomplished fighting for the WEC and UFC have helped build a solid resume. I’ve had 20 fights for Zuffa and 17 of them have either been in the main or co-main event. I’m also coming into Bellator on a two-fight winning streak where I moved up a weight class and won back-to-back fights where a lot of the other guys who have gone from the UFC to Bellator lost their way out.
“Having held the belt and being on a winning streak I think is what has signaled the change and reaction from the MMA community and from other fighters as well. I can’t tell you how many phone calls and texts I’ve received from fighters still in the UFC asking about the contract I signed. They’ve all asked about money and my deal with Bellator. I think there is a change happening in MMA culture and I believe I’ve been a big spark to it.”
'Fighting has never been about money for me'
None of these things are lost on the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion. And while the MMA Lab leader doesn’t mind being the focal point of a larger conversation about fighter pay and the power of free agency in a growing sport, his personal mindset has a much more refined scope. Henderson is and has always been a man who has chased something greater than himself in the hope that those challenges would bring out something tremendous in him.
His pursuit of higher aspirations has shifted into another gear with Bellator gold on his mind.
“Fighting has never been about money for me,” Henderson said. “It’s always been about something more, but having a family and moving onto this stage with Bellator and Viacom is going to present a great platform. I’m going to be able to take care of my family and provide them guaranteed long term security. Fighting for Bellator will bring new eyes and a bunch of new challenges instead of rehashing all the same fights and rematches over and over again. I don’t have to wait around forever to get a title shot, but better yet, title shots can actually be earned where I’m at now.”
While “Smooth’s” announcement was immediately followed by the news he will face current welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 153 on April 22, the term “title shot” had an interesting role to play in his negotiations with his former employer. In an interview with MMA Junkie, UFC President Dana White revealed the promotion offered a contract that would present a substantial pay increase if Henderson were to lay claim to a title, but the 32-year-old former belt holder ultimately choose to take more upfront money from Bellator.
In Henderson’s mind the stipulation presented from Zuffa was a tricky bit of wording because there would never be any guarantee he’d even get the chance to fight for a title if he re-signed with the organization. Title shots under the UFC banner have become notoriously slippery slopes in recent years and Henderson simply didn’t see a route where merit or traction earned would give him a direct path to the much larger paydays laid out in the proposed contract.
“If your boss tells you that he’ll pay you a bunch more money if you become the champion but your boss is the one who decides whether or not you’ll ever get the chance to fight for the title well that doesn’t look quite as appealing when you break it down that way now does it?” Henderson posed. “I think the die-hard MMA fans could see that right away, but casual fans of the sport probably didn’t pick up the particular wording in that statement.
“The UFC can sit there and promise you the moon, but it’s ultimately up to them to actually give you the opportunity. What’s the point of having that stipulation if it’s beyond my control to earn it? This is about legacy for me. I’ve always strived to be the type of man who stays true to the things I stand for. If I say something I hold to it because it’s not just what you say it’s what you do and what you stand for that determines the type of man that you are.
“I stand up for what I believe in because I just want to be a good person,” he added. “I want to make the right decisions and do what is best for my family. I want to win all of my fights but I want to win them in the right way. I want to conduct myself in the right way and leave a great legacy behind. I think that aspect may mean more to me than maybe it does some other people.”
Where fighting has allowed that evolution to continue for the better part of the past decade, becoming a husband and father has served to push that process into hyper-drive. Therefore with a growing family and the best years of his career still ahead of him, Henderson made the choice to do what was best on all accounts.
The Glendale-based fighter is supremely confident the correct decision was made and the man who goes by “The Once and Future King” now turns his focus to a new realm for conquest.
“I’m coming in at 170 but I think those guys at 155—Will Brooks, Michael Chandler and Josh Thomson—all know I’m a bit of a wild card,” Henderson said. “They know I’m not going to be satisfied just competing at 170 and I’m going to try my hand in the lightweight division as well. They know that and I think they are excited about it. Fighters are excitable people and we all want to prove we are the best. Will Brooks believes he’s the best fighter at 155 and he has a good test right here when I joined Bellator. The same rings true for Chandler and Thomson. Josh and I had a close fight that resulted in a split-decision in my favor and I’m sure he’d be excited to get the chance to even the score.
“There are a lot of great matchups and it’s an exciting time for Bellator. We are going to get the chance to see fights that MMA fans talked about but never had the chance to see. We aren’t going to see someone like Will Brooks step in against a former UFC champion who happened to come over 10 years passed his prime. We are going to see that fight when both men are at their best and get a real answer to see how things stack up. And that’s a pretty cool thing to find out.”
Although Henderson is preparing to begin a new and exciting chapter in his career that doesn’t mean his resolve in regard to what matters most to him will waiver in the slightest. The former 155-pound king in the UFC ranks has never been one to bite his tongue or fall in the line for the sake of harmony when he feels concessions of that nature go against the grain of the ideals and beliefs he’s held steadfast. Henderson looks at fighting as the opportunity to forge a better version of himself with each and every session in the gym and has refused to yield his personal pursuits despite facing a myriad of roadblocks along his journey.
Every obstacle was made to be overcome in Henderson’s mind and the scrappy multi-divisional talent has no intention of slowing down on his road to greatness under the Bellator banner.
“I’m always looking to prove myself,” Henderson stated. “When I had the belt I never thought of it as defending the title but rather having to win that belt again with each and every fight. I’ve always pushed to make a statement and make decisions that have remained true to who I am and I guess this decision stays in line with the rest of my career thus far. I’ve always been a person who isn’t afraid to challenge what I’m told, so when I’m told I have to wear this or can’t wear that; I can stand up for myself. Actually I don’t have to wear that because I have a choice. Whether you understand it or not I have a choice whether or not I’m going to wear those pants, wear those shorts or wear that tee shirt.
“I can go somewhere else because there are other games in town. Places that want to make a name and see me as a person who can help them accomplish that. I have options and believe it all worked out for the best. I signed a six-fight deal with Bellator and they’ve been super accommodating to me. They’ve said I will be able to get these six fights in as quickly as I want and I’m a fighter who is always ready to get back in there right away. Bellator will give me the chance to stay as active as I want to be and that’s exciting.”