Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight kingpin, Ben Henderson, looks to unify the Strikeforce and UFC titles against the last Strikeforce lightweight champion, Gilbert Melendez, this Saturday (April 20, 2013) at HP Pavilion in San Jose, California.
Since joining the UFC, Henderson's mixed martial arts (MMA) game has thoroughly evolved. The one-time World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) champion burned through his first three opponents, two of them Top 10-ranked opposition, which earned him a title shot.
Against Frankie Edgar, Henderson won two razor thin decisions. Then, he faced Nate Diaz, in his first non-Edgar title defense, and throughly dominated the skrap pack representative. This upset Melendez, who has long claimed he's the best lightweight in the world, and the UFC paired the two together. If Henderson defeats Melendez, he'll tie Edgar and Penn for the most title defenses in UFC lightweight history.
But, does he have the skills to do so?
In addition to his Tae Kwon Doe background, Henderson has developed a savage Muay Thai arsenal. Henderson uniquely meshes the two styles, making him very dangerous with kicks and clinch-fighting.
While Henderson has powerful body kicks, and some funky techniques like ax kicks, the real gem of his kicking game is his devastating leg kicks. Henderson uses two types of leg kicks very well, both of which were demonstrated in his recent fights against Frankie Edgar and Nate Diaz.
Against Edgar, Henderson utilized heavy leg kicks to the thigh. Edgar's style focuses heavily on lateral movement, which leaves him open to kicks. To capitalize on this, Henderson kicked out Edgar's legs, repeatedly knocking "The Answer" off of his feet.
When he fought Diaz, he still used his regular leg kicks. But, he also began to throw kicks to the calf. Again, these kicks tripped up his opponent and threw off his striking.
While Henderson's boxing is the weakest aspect of his striking, it is in no way a weakness. Henderson has a jab better than most and follows it up with quick straight left. His most powerful punches are likely his hooks. Henderson likes to lead by throwing hooks with either hand and gets all of his weight behind each shot by leaping in behind it.
One of the most interesting techniques Henderson has added to his arsenal is his jab to the thigh. Looking to continue to hurt Diaz's movement, Henderson began jab to the thigh. Once Diaz began to react to it, Henderson went upstairs with a left hand.
Henderson uses aggressive boxing combinations to force his opponents backwards. Eventually, he'll run them into the clinch, where he can dominate with knees and dirty boxing. This is one area of his game that lacks polish, as he can be countered while charging forward looking for the clinch.
Once Henderson traps his opponent along the cage, he mauls him. He is very aggressive with both knees and elbows, and looks to land punches if his opponent tries to create distance. Clinching with Henderson presents the constant threat of a takedown, which opens up his savage knees even more. One of Henderson's best attacks from the clinch is when he gets one under hook, and grabs his opponents hand, and pins it to the cage or their hip. From this position, his opponent is defenseless, and Henderson will land numerous knees to the ribs.
Henderson's striking has some flaws. He has a habit of getting dropped by less than powerful strikes, such as Shane Roller and Clay Guida. While his recovery is phenomenal, the fact that such limited strikers have been able to hurt him isn't good, and it's mainly because of his lack of head movement.
Henderson has a terrible habit of dropping his hands while he backs up, or when he thinks his opponents combination is over. Shane Roller and Edgar both capitalized on this, dropping Henderson as a result. This flaw is also what allowed Anthony Pettis to land his "Showtime Kick," which essentially cost Henderson his WEC title.
Henderson is a two-time NAIA All American wrestler. His overall wrestling is very good, and is complemented by his incredible balance and scrambling skills.
Henderson doesn't have a superb blast double, but he does have the drive to get his opponent to the fence. From there, he'll drag their legs away from the cage and lift them into the air. Additionally, Henderson uses a guillotine/front headlock to drag his opponents to the mat.
More often than not, Henderson gets his takedowns from the clinch. He is very good at pressuring his opponent into the fence, and then suddenly changing directions with a trip. Henderson transitions between his strikes and his takedowns very well, mangling his opponent with knees before hitting a trip or diving for a takedown.
From top position, Henderson destroys his opponents with nasty ground and pound. He's very active, constantly moving and adjusting his position to open up more punches. Henderson is nearly impossible to contain and loves to stand above his opponent, delivering nasty punches and slicing elbows. When his opponent focuses on trying for submissions, forgetting to protect his face, Henderson lights them up, which Jim Miller and Mark Bocek found out the hard way.
While he generally hurts his opponents from the top more than most fighters, there is a trade off: Henderson is unable to control a fighter from the top as well as some grinders. A perfect example of this is his fight with Pettis. Henderson was able to take down Pettis often but was too intent on hurting him to control him, which contributed to his loss.
Henderson's takedown defense and balance is spectacular. He is able to hop around until his opponent's takedown loses steam, or until he gets an under hook. If neither of those happens, Henderson wards off the takedown until he gets his back to the fence. In the .gif below, Guida drives Henderson across the entire Octagon, which is 32 feet across.
Henderson, a jiu-jitsu brown belt, has competed a lot recently in BJJ tournaments. He has done quite well, winning some and medaling in major tournaments, such as the Pan ams. Henderson has become well known for his grappling skill, namely his ability to survive deep submissions and for owning one of the most dangerous guillotines in the lightweight division.
A majority of Henderson's submission victories come via guillotine, with a few rear naked chokes as well. Henderson is very good at causing scrambles, so while his opponent searches for better position, "Bendo" hunts for the guillotine choke. When Henderson does the guillotine, he prefers to finish from full guard. He likes to finish the choke like he is attempting an arm in guillotine, regardless of whether or not the arm is in. Instead of arching back, a common way to finish, he leans into the neck, in a movement similar to a sit up.
In addition to his "Smooth" guillotine, Henderson has a sneaky good guard game. While he hasn't been able to submit his opponent from the bottom yet, he uses his submissions to get back to his feet. For example, against Mark Bocek, Henderson threatened with an arm bar from his guard. As Bocek moved to defend, Henderson rolled up to his knees and then escaped to his feet.
Henderson's incredible ability to sneak out of submissions comes from his natural flexibility, relaxed state of mind, and ability to cause a scramble whenever he needs to. Flexibility is an often overlooked talent, but Henderson makes the most of it. Whenever his opponent, such as Jim Miller or Donald Cerrone, start cranking on his limb, Henderson relaxes and allows it to bend. Eventually, Henderson wiggles his way out of the hold and reigns down punches.
Henderson is excellent at causing scrambles whenever he's in a bad position. When he's on the bottom, Henderson will explode to create space. From there, he's simply quicker than his opponent. Against Canadian grappling ace Mark Bocek, Henderson out-hustled Bocek and was out of his submissions before he could lock them in.
While Henderson is very good at getting out of submissions, getting trapped that often is not a good thing. The fact of the matter is, if a fighter manages to trap and squeeze his neck at the right angle, he will go to sleep. In fact, Henderson was choked out cold in his first career loss and has recently been tapped by in BJJ tournaments.
Henderson is one of the most dynamic athletes in the UFC. Henderson explodes out of submissions and bad positions, giving his opponents few opportunities to do damage. Additionally, Henderson's explosiveness allows him to try risky techniques, such as the jumping kick he tried against Edgar, after "The Answer" caught a leg kick.
While quite a few fighters have the ability to explode out of positions, few maintain the incredible cardio like Henderson. His last three fights have all gone twenty five minutes, and Henderson has yet to tire. His opponents, Edgar and Diaz, both have incredible cardio as well, so if anyone had the ability to tire Henderson, it was them.
Finally, Henderson has his flexibility. Mainly, flexibility gets Henderson out of bad positions by fortifying his submission and takedown defense. Like his explosiveness, this allows him to be more aggressive and take risks, because it prevents his opponents from capitalizing.
Best chance for success
While Melendez is an easy fight for no fighter, Henderson does have a clear path to victory. If Henderson wants to win easily, he'll want to keep the fight in three places: range, the clinch, and top position.
Despite Melendez's small reach advantage, Henderson has a very big advantage at range, his vicious kicks. Melendez is primarily a boxer, so he doesn't have many offensive options from Henderson's kicking range. Coupled with his jab, Henderson is very capable of staying away from Melendez's boxing and tearing apart his legs and body.
Additionally, the clinch is a great position for Henderson. If Melendez gets too aggressive with his boxing, Henderson should counter with a clinch then spend as much time as possible tenderizing his ribs. In a five round fight, knees to the ribs and kicks to the legs will be extremely beneficial late in the fight.
Lastly, if Henderson can take down Melendez, he absolutely should. Melendez has shown very little submission offense, so the chances of him tapping Henderson from his back are absurdly low, meaning Henderson is quite safe. Since he's safe, he can really attack with punches, elbows, and submissions.
Basically, if Henderson can avoid boxing with Melendez, the fight is his to lose. The question is, can he prevent Melendez's game plan and impose his own?
His title depends on it.