For Ben Henderson, it's quite a long road from Glendale to Saitama.
At the end of 2010 in Arizona, "Smooth" suffered his first and only defeat in a thrilling five-round war against Anthony Pettis, a fight punctuated by the infamous "Showtime Kick." As World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) took its final breaths and folded into bigger brother Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), it was supposed to be Pettis who stormed the UFC lightweight division, with his flashy striking and more than competent submission game.
But Clay Guida gave "Showtime" a less than accommodating welcome into the Octagon and the last WEC 155-pound champion saw his hype train temporarily derailed. Two months prior, Henderson had made a successful UFC debut earning a unanimous nod against a solid Mark Bocek. Two months after Pettis fell short against "The Carpenter," Henderson once again stepped inside the Octagon and convincingly defeated Jim Miller.
It was enough to push his name towards title contention and a fight with Guida who had already ruined one former WEC fighter's championship aspirations. The bout took place at UFC on Fox 1, the promotion's debut on broadcast television. Unfortunately, it didn't actually air on the network. The event was by and large a showcase for the heavyweight title bout between Junior Dos Santos and Cain Velasquez so the two men, a hundred pounds lighter, got the proverbial shaft.
It didn't stop them from tearing the roof off the Honda Center. And in the end, Henderson stood once again victorious, winning not only his third straight fight but a shot against Frankie Edgar which he'll cash in this Saturday (Feb. 25) at UFC 144 in the main event.
Before he does, we'll take a closer look at the fight against Guida, a three-round instant classic which should have aired on Fox and ushered the UFC into its new era.
The two fighters begin to circle each other, snapping jabs to keep the other at bay while also aiding to find their range. A leg kick from Guida slaps against the tree trunk-like leg of Henderson and it's soon after that "The Carpenter" pressures his opponent against the cage. They exchange wildly with one punch from "Smooth" grazing an off-balance Guida who slips to the mat. He pops up but now his back is against the cage with Henderson applying pressure.
The former WEC champion and his opponent engage in a firefight, swinging like madmen until Henderson cracks the Greg Jackson fighter on the jaw, forcing him to drop to the mat for a takedown attempt. Arms wrapped around one of Henderson's legs, Guida is more so buying himself time to recover than anything else. No such luck as "Smooth" continues his attack, punching the head and body before dragging Guida back to his feet and nailing him with a knee to the skull.
Guida desperately continues to work towards the takedown but his opponent defends beautifully. They jockey for position against the cage, grinding against each other, attempting to wear the other down. "Smooth" now pushing Guida towards the chain-link while "The Carpenter" throws some rabbit punches. Guida pushes off in an attempt for a single leg takedown but Henderson spins out and looks to attack. A stiff jab from his opponent forces him to retreat and reset.
An errant high kick from "Smooth" and the two begin to slow the pace. They circle around and Henderson finds himself against the cage. He lightly bounces off and uses the momentum to throw a Superman punch which, like the head kick, misses completely. Guida then busts out his own high risk/high reward strike when he sails through the air, throwing a flying knee. It misses but the ensuing exchange sees him tag -- and drop -- Henderson with less than a minute left in the opening round.
Guida immediately tries to cinch up a guillotine choke but can't find lock it in. They begin to scramble on the mat and by the time the horns sounds, Henderson has fully recovered and taking the fight to his opponent.
The next stanza opens up with a knee to the body from Henderson which Guida responds to with a takedown attempt. No luck. A second attempt almost immediately after finally sticks but when "The Carpenter" attempts to transition forward on the mat, Henderson slips out from under and ends up on top. Knees and takedown attempts from "Smooth" paint the picture of the first half of the round until one of those knees is caught by Guida, leading to a takedown of his own.
As usual, they spend very little time on the mat and instead -- again as usual -- wind up bullying each other against the cage. They break apart and in one the of most ... aerodynamic moments the Octagon has seen, Guida throws a spinning back fist which barely misses its mark and the momentum sending him flying through the air, barrel rolling onto the mat with Henderson quickly pouncing. "The Carpenter" finds a standing guillotine and looks to sink it in as he pulls guard. "Smooth" defends perfectly and ends up on top as the round ends.
The final round to determine Edgar's next challenger opens up more measured than the previous two. Neither wants to make a fight-ending mistake but neither should be comfortable leaving the decision in the hands of three people who may or may not know what they're doing. A takedown attempt from Guida sends both fighters from one end of the Octagon to the other as "Smooth" bounces and defends but still ends with Henderson on top. It's been the same story the entire fight: Guida simply cannot take the former WEC lightweight down.
With a little over a minute remaining, "Smooth" is wrapped firmly around his opponent and searching for a rear naked choke but the wild haired madman slips out and they collide on their feet with Guida ending up on top and frantically looking for a last minute choke to pull out the victory. Like fellow Greg Jackson fighter Donald Cerrone can tell you, wrapping your arms around Henderson's neck is easier said than done. Much like he did in the WEC 43 main event, "Smooth" avoided each submission and ended the fight on top of Guida, raining down ground and pound.
The unanimous decision for Henderson came minutes after and three and a half months later, the reward for his victory has also arrived. With a win at UFC 144, "Smooth" will be the first man to hold both WEC and UFC 155-pound titles.
We'll find out Saturday.