MMA Lab head coach John Crouch knows exactly what he's got in Benson Henderson.
The UFC Lightweight Champion has brought a whole new level of prestige to his Arizona gym, even becoming one of the owners once his UFC career blossomed.
Their relationship is very special, with Crouch seeing the potential in the "Smooth" one from the very beginning, even telling him five years ago he was going to be a household name one day.
Henderson got all he could handle against Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez this past Saturday night (April 20, 2013) in the main event of UFC on Fox 7, but after making some adjustments following a rough first round, he wound up getting his hand raised via split decision.
Crouch, who was in Henderson's corner, spoke with MMAmania.com in the post-fight fallout talking about his pre-fight strategy against Melendez, what helped Henderson make the fight much more competitive after the first round and his role in the dramatic post-fight proposal in this exclusive interview.
Check it out:
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Let's start with what happened right after the main event. Benson is announced the winner and then he drops to one knee and proposes to his girlfriend. Were you in on it the whole time? I'm pretty sure you were the one that gave him the ring, right?
John Crouch: Yeah, that's right. He only told me about it probably an hour before the fight. He's sneaky, that little son of a gun. The only people that knew about it beforehand were his mom and her dad, that's who he told first. It was a surprise for most people.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Okay, let's talk about the actual fight. Benson got off to a slow start and just about everyone gave Melendez the first round. What were some of the things you were saying to him in between rounds to get him fired up and to be more proactive, because he definitely picked up the pace after the first.
John Crouch: I just told him we gave the first round away, that we needed to get going with our gameplan. We had originally planned to come out and push the pace real hard at the beginning but Gilbert did a good job. He sat back and we weren't really expecting him to do that. He played more of a counter striker, passive, wait-for-Ben type of thing and he mixed in his push-forward offense really well. It took Henderson a round to get used to it and really get going. Once I told him that, he looked at me after I said we gave the round away and he knew. He was good to go afterwards and we went after it.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Did you notice any reaction from Henderson after you told him about losing the lane? He seems like such a nice guy, how do you get him to flip the mental switch?
John Crouch: Well he looked at me and shook his head like, "Gosh dangit!" He knew and I said it and he went out and changed it. There's no switch. It's kind of funny because Benson's kind of a laid back person. He's not really a mean person so you have to really push for him to be aggressive and mean in the cage. He likes this stuff, but he's not necessarily one of those guys that wants to hurt anybody. He just wants to do his best. We've worked hard since he entered the UFC to be really aggressive and this last fight wasn't the best for us in that department but we'll get better at it. We'll keep working on it.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): A big part of pre-fight preparation for your fighters is imitating your upcoming opponent's style during sparring sessions. How close do you think the imitation was in practice for Melendez compared to how he actually looked once Henderson was in the cage with him?
John Crouch: Not close enough. I thought Gilbert actually, as far as pacing the fight and putting the fight where you want to put the fight, Gilbert won that aspect of it. He controlled the pace a little better than we did. Not all the time, but he came out a bit different. I thought he did an excellent job. I'll put that on the coaching staff that we need to do a better job next time.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): It seemed you guys did make some good adjustments in the fight, though. Henderson began working the low kicks more after his body kicks were getting caught and he was much more aggressive with that step-in elbow and those attacks seemed much more effective.
John Crouch: We don't really care about getting kicks caught. Ben just started slow. He got a bit lazy and got knocked over a couple times with the single leg after they caught it and then it never happened again. Gilbert caught a few other kicks after that but it didn't matter. It was more just us starting slow. Ben has a good array of striking. He's not the greatest boxer, not the greatest this or that but he does mix up his weapons very well and I thought he started doing a lot better job of that in the second round.
He stopped waiting for things to happen and started making things happen. We wanted to beat up his legs and Gilbert's legs were bruised and batters. I wanted him to do more than that but he banged up his foot a little bit so he didn't go to the legs as much as I would have liked him to. The major adjustment was just being more aggressive and he did that.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Melendez's corner told him that he won the first three rounds. Do you think that hurt him as the fight wore on?
John Crouch: I don't think Gilbert faded. That explains a lot if his corner was telling him he already had the fight won. You don't want to stop. You don't want to start thinking that because you get into a more passive mindset and it's harder to come back. It was a great fight and I don't want to watch any more like that ever again. I'd like them to be more one-sided.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Now because this fight was so close and you've been so complimentary of Melendez, do you think he'll be vying for the title against Henderson again someday?
John Crouch: I can't imagine we wouldn't. He did a great job. A lot of respect for him and his camp. He was a very tough guy. People thought because he had that last lackadaisical fight again Josh Thomson that he wouldn't be able to match up, but Josh Thomson is an incredible fighter and you saw that against Nick Diaz. He's also fought Gilbert three times and he knows him well. I can't even imagine how hard it was for Melendez to motivate himself to fight someone for the third time. Everyone was discounting him but I think we all saw just how good Gilbert can be on Saturday night.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Is there anything specifically you guys can do to have more one-sided title fights like the Diaz fight compared to the razor thin bouts against Melendez and Frankie Edgar?
John Crouch: Honestly, I think most title fights are close. Even Jose Aldo isn't finishing that many people anymore. He had a close controversial fight with Frankie Edgar. Every fight of Edgar's is close and controversial. Dominick Cruz is a great champion but he has close fights that all go five rounds. Georges St. Pierre hasn't had a fight go inside the distance in three years or so. When you get to that level, when you're the champion of your division, you're not fighting creampuffs. You're fighting guys who know what they're doing and they've studied you for a long time and they know what you're good at and they try to keep you from that. We'll just keep trying to get better. It's not a matter of what we need to do specifically. We'll just keep improving and shore up our weaknesses. Really, it's just a matter of repeatedly fighting guys who are second best in the world and it gets harder and harder as you go up on the ranks.
John Crouch: Definitely. Line 'em up and we'll keep knocking 'em down.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Yeah, you'll have to keep doing that at a high pace if Benson is going to beat Anderson Silva's record like he's been saying.
John Crouch: (laughs) Yeah, people gave him a hard time about that but I think it's a real positive that he has some good, hard, long-term goals that are really challenging for himself. Why would you aim to be average if you're a fighter. Why would you aim to just barely make it? If you're not reaching for the stars, what are you doing? I think it's a real positive for him and because it's his goal, it's our goal as a team to get him there.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): You brought up that Henderson banged up his foot during the fight while throwing his kicks. Do you think that's serious or did he come out of the fight relatively unscathed?
John Crouch: Yeah, I think he'll be fine. He's moving around better today. Fighting is a hard sport, it's like a car crash. He's got a couple nicks because he and Gilbert bounced heads off each other a couple times. He's got a little scrape and a cut on his chin, but he's good to go.
Brian Hemminger (MMAmania.com): Any last words?
John Crouch: I'm just super proud of Ben and his work ethic and his willpower. That kid is tough as nails and I'm so proud to have him as a leader on our team. I love the kid and I'm excited for his future.
You can follow John on Twitter @JCBJJ