When Ben Henderson stepped into the Octagon last night (Dec. 8, 2012) to defend his UFC Lightweight title against gritty challenger Nate Diaz in the main event of UFC on Fox 5, it was the culmination of some very intense and particular preparation.
The result was a dominant performance, an extremely strong one-sided showing against one of the toughest fighters in the division.
Before Henderson ever stepped into the cage, however, he specifically prepared for all the facets of the game that Diaz brought to the table and gameplanned ways to shut every single one of them down.
Low leg kicks, punches to the leg, constant pressure and remaining calm while being taunted were all showcased last night as Henderson thwarted Diaz at every turn. It was hands down his most dominant performance since coming over to the UFC after the WEC merger.
Henderson's coach, John Crouch, the head grappling instructor of MMA Labs was in his corner last night. Crouch talked to MMAmania.com about the pre-fight preparation that led to Henderson's fantastic outing, even dishing the dirt on "Toothpick-gate" in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
John Crouch: Well not exactly relief. We expect to win. There are the normal nerves and anticipation. I wouldn't say it's a relief. That's what Ben does and it's what we've come to expect. I certainly liked it better than the Frankie Edgar fights that's for sure.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): What really impressed me the most was you guys never let Nate Diaz get comfortable in there. He was never allowed to get in a groove and work his offense. Anything he tried to get anything going, Benson completely shut him down. Was that part of the plan to either always be attacking from outside of his range or getting inside his range and never spending too much time in the pocket?
John Crouch: You said it pretty well. That was good, man. You should be a coach. That's awesome. (laughs) That's the idea. You don't want to stand in boxing range with Nate. He's dangerous. Once he gets on a roll, he just overwhelms people with his pace. We felt like we could get in and out when we wanted to and it turns out we were right. It was great. It was exactly what we had talked about. We implemented a lot of things we worked on and it was exciting to see them come to fruition.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Benson had gone away from the leg kicks against Frankie Edgar after a strong first round but against Nate Diaz, he stuck with them and they were so debilitating. Every time he threw them, something bad happened to Diaz whether he was getting staggered, getting dropped or having to change his stance. They were so effective. Was that a big part of the plan heading in?
John Crouch: Absolutely. Ben kicks hard. He's really good at it and really comfortable doing it. It's a big part of our gameplan all the time, trying to utilize all his weapons. I can't classify him as a boxer or "this" or "that." He uses all his weapons really well. He has a lot of weapons in his lower half and he used his elbows really well last night too. His boxing keeps getting better and better so absolutely. We want to fight to our strengths and kicking is part of that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Something I read before the event which I thought was interesting was you put Benson through this gauntlet of trash talk to get him prepared for Nate Diaz, having his teammates swear at him in sparring and try to get in his head. It didn't seem like that bothered him one bit last night. Did you think the extra preparation helped him out in that department?
John Crouch: I think it's just like an NFL team going somewhere and practicing with a bit of noise. You just have to be conscious of it and be ready for it and I think once you're aware of something, it's a lot easier to prepare for it. We had some guys throwing taunts out there, flipping him off and after a while it got to be a playful thing but we just want to be prepared for whatever comes. We didn't want to walk in and have the coaches go, "Oh, we didn't think of that." That's my worst nightmare. We played with it, had a good time with it and honestly I don't know if Ben would have been bothered either way but as coaches, it makes us feel better anyway.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): He threw an attack that I've only ever seen from Anderson Silva and I've never seen it really be effective before. He threw a lead punch to Nate Diaz's leg and it actually knocked him down at one point. Was that something you actually practiced or was it just something crazy that Ben came up with spur of the moment during the fight?
John Crouch: Oh no, we practiced that. Alex Caceres "Bruce Leroy" came into our last camp and he likes that punch. He does a lot of wacky stuff, that kid. He hit Ben in the leg with it one day and Ben didn't like it and he started doing it to everybody else. It hurts, man. It is a really weird place to get punched in that thigh. It hurts your leg. It hurt Nate's leg last night and it's pretty far range and a weird angle too so it worked well. It was absolutely in the gameplan and it's how he hit that overhand in the last round and dropped Nate. He threw that leg punch and then came over the top so it worked great.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Benson really got in Diaz's face last night which was something that his three prior opponents were unable to do. What do you think it was about those last three fights for Diaz that his opponents weren't making the proper adjustments?
John Crouch: Well styles make fights, really. People stay at the end of Diaz's range and let him get going and the kid's a monster there. We didn't want to be there and Ben, he's a very aggressive fighter. Since we've come to the UFC, we've tried to be more aggressive. Ben can go all night and push the pace. We weren't able to do that against Frankie Edgar. That kid is great. Frankie's a great fighter. It's really hard to do that against Frankie or you'll get punched in the face and knocked out. It was really nice to do that against someone we could have fun with against.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Something kinda crazy that came out of the event last night were all these questions about whether Ben fights with a toothpick in his mouth. You train with him and see him all the time. Is that just a comfort thing? Does he really do that? Or are you not at liberty to discuss it?
John Crouch: I don't ever know when he had it in. I tell him not to do it and he either does or doesn't do it. I don't know. We're gonna work on it. I think with all this attention, hopefully this will stop him from doing it anymore. I've been asking him for years not to do it. I've checked. I've physically looked. I can't tell if he has it or not sometimes. He's a stubborn kid and that's why he's a champion. I don't know why that's his little thing. I'm sure they're gonna give him a hard time about it. I didn't know it was in there. It makes me sad that that's what people wanted to talk about. I understand it's a curiosity, but at the press conference, some idiot that was the first question they wanted to talk about. Like seriously? You just watched that fight and the first question you're gonna ask about is a toothpick? That's crazy. When you're in the public eye and you do something, people notice.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Now taking it away from him, could that affect his performance?
John Crouch: Nothing affects him. You could throw him in the freezer for 30 minutes before he fought and he'd fight the same way.
You can follow John on Twitter @JCBJJ.
To listen to the complete audio of my conversation with John Crouch, click here (interview begins at the 12:00 mark)