UFC

Henderson moves towards history

Benson Henderson weighs in during the official UFC on FOX weigh in on December 7, 2012 at Key Arena in Seattle, Washington.
UFC 164: Henderson vs Pettis goes down Saturday, August 31st on PPV.
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Mike Chiappetta

Mike Chiappetta has documented the fast-growing sport of mixed martial arts since 2006 for news organizations including SB Nation, NBCSports.com, FIGHT! Magazine, AOL and ESPN. He appears regularly as an analyst on countless television shows and radio programs, including CBS Radio and MMA Beat. Follow him on Twitter.

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MILWAUKEE

Benson Henderson never quite understood the criticism. All he had said is that he wanted to be the greatest of all time. No big deal. Just a guy moving forward with the biggest of dreams. At the time though, he was hardly known, a contender not in the UFC, but in the WEC, the little brother league. The one with a chip on its shoulder. And Henderson fit right in, a quiet yet determined, self-proclaimed sci-fi dork whose vision was so bad that he was forced to memorize the eye chart in order to pass a vision test.

That was almost four years ago. At the time, some openly ridiculed him for verbalizing the goal, as if he shouldn’t aspire to be the best in his chosen profession. In all reality, we just didn’t know what we were seeing. Henderson didn’t have the obvious dynamic striking skills of an Anderson Silva or the claustrophobic takedown game of a Georges St-Pierre. He didn’t fight like the names we were used to seeing near the top of the pound-for-pound list, and so we couldn’t visualize him among them.

Today, Henderson is the UFC lightweight champion, and if he beats Anthony Pettis at Saturday’s UFC 164, he will make history for the most successful divisional title defenses, breaking B.J. Penn’s record. But that’s not enough. His consistent success has quieted all the people who made fun of him way back when, but his aim hasn’t wavered. Now poised around the top five of the pound-for-pound lists, he still has a few slots to go.

“That’s been my long-term goal for a long time,” he told FOX Sports. “There’s been a lot of people who were upset for some reason about me stating that. They were not happy, as if I verbally attacked them or said something wrong. My personal goal is of being the best pound-for-pound. People were offended I’d say that and have such lofty goals. It kind of surprised me. It’s like, wow, why would you let that affect you, to hear me say that? That was a surprise for me. But I still pursue that every day in practice. I know it’s not going to be quick and fast to get there, but I’m not afraid of hard work, and I have all the time in the world to get there. I’m not in a big hurry.”

For some athletes, silencing the cynics is a fun byproduct of success, but true to his humble roots, Henderson never doles out an “I told you so,” and never wags a finger in anyone’s face. His was always a journey of self-discovery and self-motivation.

To Henderson, the critic can have his say, but it’s meaningless. He has somehow evolved to listen but not process, or simply file away any negative assessments in his mental trash bin.

On Thursday, for example, Henderson sat in a featured role on stage, answering questions from media, when late in the session, he was asked a question which was prefaced with, “Since 2010, you haven’t scored an exciting win.” For context, just seconds earlier, his opponent Pettis had just finished saying Henderson doesn’t get the respect he deserves, and now he was hearing this. As if some of his incredibly impressive wins against the likes of Clay Guida and Jim Miller and Nate Diaz never happened. Yes, he has had some close calls, and yes, he’s seven straight decision victories, but to say none of them were exciting? A bit unfair.

Yet as the words came out of the reporter’s mouth, Henderson didn’t scowl or cut off the question. Instead, a wry smile formed on his face. He seems unflustered, much as he does to the opponents who try to tie him up with submissions, only to see him escape.

“I wouldn’t say criticism is warranted or unwarranted. I just don’t care,” he told FOX Sports. “I just really don’t. As long as I go out there and have my performance, no one can take that from me.”

That personality trait has always been there for Henderson, as far back as he can remember. He can remember as a kid, people making fun of his clothes or sneakers, but it just never mattered to him. As long as he liked it, that’s all that mattered.

It’s a great characteristic to have in his job, of course, where everything is discussed publicly, ad nauseam, until the point of overanalysis is inevitably reached. That includes criticism from his opponent, Pettis, who while praising his record of success, has called Henderson a “point fighter,” and “sloppy” to boot.

The difference there is that Pettis has to answer for what he says. Not that it makes things any more personal for Henderson. He is a champion made of Teflon, deflecting all negative heat directed his way. After all, his stated goal is more than enough to focus on. He doesn’t just want to win a belt; he wants to go further than anyone else. So whether it’s the fans or media or Pettis badmouthing him, Henderson brushes it away and focuses on his next step forward.

“I’m thinking about going there and beating him up,” he said. “I don’t know about anything else. For me I’m just thinking about going to beat him up. It doesn’t matter to me where it’s at. It could be in the back of a 7-11, I don’t care. I’m just going to beat him up. After that, that it’s for me. On to the next.”

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