Record: 17-2 overall, 5-0 in the UFC
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (WEC 53)
How he got here: Ben Henderson was a two-time All-American at Division II Dana College while earning a double degree in criminal justice and sociology. Instead of pursuing a career with his degree, he tried out amateur cagefighting, compiling a 2-1 record and loving the sport enough to make it his job. It didn't take him long to be noticed. Henderson was fighting for Mark Pavelich's MFC within 18 months and earned an invite to the WEC just over two years into his professional career.
He was thrown into the fire immediately, earning stoppage victories over Anthony Njokuani and Shane Roller which earned him an interim WEC lightweight title shot against Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone at WEC 43.
Henderson was still green at the time, but he gutted through a multitude of submission attempts from the former bullrider, using his wrestling to outscore him positionally in what was voted Sherdog's 2009 "Fight of the Year." With the victory, he became the interim WEC lightweight champion.
He unified the titles by defeating incumbent champion, Jamie Varner with a third round guillotine choke and would once again have to face Cerrone for the title at WEC 48, the first and only pay-per-view the promotion ever attempted. In what was expected to be a repeat of their first epic war, the "Smooth" one, choked out Cerrone in less than two minutes to defend his belt.
Henderson would fight one last time for the WEC against the upstart Anthony Pettis. We all know how that played out, with the kick heard 'round the world. What some may forget, was the fight was incredibly close, entirely up for grabs until the final minute of round five.
In his UFC debut, Henderson put on a strong showing against submission specialist Mark Bocek and he followed it up with the most impressive victory of his career, a three round domination of then-number one contender Jim Miller at UFC on Versus 5. With the victory over Miller, he earned a match against Clay Guida and put on a show en route to another dominant and very exciting decision victory to earn his crack at the championship.
He made the most of his shot, earning a unanimous decision over Edgar to dethrone the champ and he defended his strap against "The Answer" in controversial fashion this past August. He'll be hoping to put that behind him with a convincing defense this Saturday night.
How he gets it done: Henderson simply needs to utilize what worked in the last fight but to more extremes. He used terrific pressure against Edgar, so he should put even more pressure Diaz with his kicks and his wrestling.
The leg kicks Henderson threw against Frankie Edgar in the first round were incredibly rough and had the former champion in serious trouble, but he went away from them. He needs to utilize them to great affect against Diaz, a fighter with a reputation for ignoring them and getting wobbled from heavy kicks.
If Henderson can initiate a clinch, I can see him really working Diaz over as the former TUF winner will have no escape from the champion's strength on the inside.
Lastly, Henderson's wrestling could be key. If he's losing the fight on the feet, he can always fall back on his wrestling. Nate Diaz has lost four fights in his UFC career to fighters who could muscle him around and grind out a decision with their wrestling and especially with "Smooth's" reputation for being impossible to submit, going to the ground in top position is never a bad idea.
Record: 16-7 overall, 11-5 in the UFC
How he got here: Diaz didn't take the easy road. He made his MMA debut in the WEC and by his seventh professional fight, he was fighting for the promotion's lightweight title against Hermes Franca at the Brazilian's peak, losing via submission in the second round.
Undeterred, Diaz tried out for TUF 5, the first season to showcase the lightweight division. The self-assured Stockton native was one of the season's stars, constantly arguing with castmates, guest coaches and the like. He defeated Rob Emerson, Corey Hill and most impressively Gray Maynard via submission to compete in the Finale where he would be gifted the show's championship after fellow finalist Manny Gamburyan separated his shoulder in the main event.
Diaz got off to a hot start, defeating his first five UFC opponents before being derailed by tough wrestlers Clay Guida and Joe Stevenson. After an impressive second round submission of Melvin Guillard, Diaz would lose a split decision to Maynard, which would fuel his decision to bump up a weight class.
At welterweight, Diaz stopped both Rory Markham and Marcus Davis in his first two fights. This would put him in a position against some of the toughest young 170 pounders. Diaz had trouble getting outmuscled by Dong Hyun Kim in a tightly contested match and would get tossed around the cage by Rory MacDonald in a bout where he was completely physically dominated.
This spurred the decision to return to lightweight, as suggested by his coach Cesar Gracie and Diaz was paired up against Gomi, a scrappy fighter with some serious history against his brother. The former TUF winner destroyed Gomi, crushing him in the stand up and then finishing it on the ground with a nifty armbar transition from a triangle choke. He followed that up by absolutely dismantling both Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller in consecutive fights to more than earn a shot at the champion..
How he gets it done: Diaz is becoming more and more like his older brother, Nick, every time we see him in the Octagon. It appears that after starting out as more of a submission fighter earlier in his career, he wants to stand and bang now. As Nick has grown in his boxing, so has Nate. He showed remarkably similar tendencies in his striking during his last few bouts with Gomi, Cerrone and Miller: talking trash, taunting with both arms, throwing quick precision strikes and a high volume of them.
Diaz needs to keep the pressure on Henderson in the stand-up. Henderson probably wants to keep his distance and work some kicks but that plan will be foiled if Diaz can get in his face and really force him to make mistakes.
If the bout goes to the ground, it will be initiated by Henderson, but don't discount Diaz and his judo techniques. He's got very underrated ability to use his opponent's momentum against them and if his hometown opponent gets reckless shooting in for a takedown, he could either find himself reversed onto his back, stuck in a guillotine choke or even Diaz's patented double middle finger triangle choke special.
Expect constant forward pressure, some taunting and a huge volume of strikes headed Henderson's way. Diaz almost certainly can't submit him in a pure one on one scenario, but if he would Henderson with his striking, he could be weakened enough to not be able to stop a submission attempt.
Fight X-Factor: The biggest X-Factor for this fight might be how Henderson deals with Nate Diaz's actions in the cage. His taunts, both physical and verbal, can be extremely distracting. Jim Miller had serious issues dealing with it and Donald Cerrone got completely taken out of his game due to them. Henderson is such a nice guy that he's probably not used to people acting like that when he fights them. It could get him to ignore the gameplan and fight on pure emotion. If that's the case, it could be all the advantage Diaz needs to leave with the belt.
Bottom Line: With the way both of these men fight, constantly pressing the action, looking to be the aggressor and the stylistic differences, something exciting will likely be taking place at all times. Whether it's Diaz pounding away with punches, Henderson staggering him with kicks or even if it goes to the ground, it's going to be fun. There won't be any lay-and-pray on the canvas as Diaz is going to be extremely active on his back and will likely force some very entertaining scrambles if the fight goes there. Don't blink!
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