Recently dethroned Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight kingpin, Benson Henderson, looks to break back into the win column against fellow former champ, Josh Thomson, this Saturday night (Jan. 25, 2014) at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
After putting in work against World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) lightweights, Henderson became a champion. In the organization's final event, Pettis took the title from "Bendo," sending him back to the bottom of the division. This hardly slowed Henderson, who climbed back to the top and eventually regained his title.
Next, he up-kicked the title out of Frankie Edgar's hands and defended it three times, resulting in two controversial decisions and a beat down of Nate Diaz. Once again, Pettis rose through the ranks and came gunning for Henderson's gold.
And for the second time, Pettis succeeded.
Looking to reverse roles, Henderson now has to earn his way to a title shot and take his strap from Pettis. But first, he must travel to "Chi-Town" and deal with some "Punk."
Does Henderson have what it takes to defeat another top 10 lightweight?
Let's find out.
Henderson has done an excellent job mixing together Tae Kwon Doe and Muay Thai to create a violent arsenal of strikes. From his Southpaw stance, Henderson looks to destroy his opponent with kicks before closing in with punches or powerful clinch attacks.
The MMA Lab-trained fighter has very strong legs, and their effect is visible in his kicking prowess. Henderson kicks very hard and very fast, while frequently switching up his target. Although his kicks get caught surprisingly often, Henderson's balance is generally more than enough to prevent a takedown off a catch.
While Henderson can and does kick to the head and body, his most effective work is done with leg kicks. When Henderson steps into his low kicks, its not uncommon for his opponent to be knocked from his feet. Recently, Henderson began attacking his opponent's back leg as well as front, which stumbled Melendez more than once.
Not only does Henderson tenderize the inside and outside of his opponent's thigh, but he uses kicks to the calf as well. These kicks seriously hurt, as well as destabilizing his opponent's stance, something Nate Diaz found out the hard way.
The importance of Henderson's low kicks to his game cannot be understated. In fact, there's a good chance he wouldn't have defeated Edgar or Melendez without them. Low kicks allowed Henderson to counter Edgar's frantic movement, which helped him land punches. With Melendez, Henderson's kicks slowed the Californian down, allowing him to take over the later rounds.
While Henderson does use punches to set up his kicks, he also hides them by disguising his intended location. For example, in his fight versus Melendez, Henderson threw two head kicks with no set up from just outside of his range. Next, he stepped forward a bit and threw another kick. At first, it seemed to be going toward "El Nino's" head, but then it chopped down into his thigh.
Since Henderson uses this method of hiding his kicks so frequently, it's not difficult to predict when a kick is coming. In fact, even UFC commentator Mike Goldberg was able to correctly predict when "Bendo" was going to kick. However, for his opponents, figuring out where and what kind of kick Henderson will use is quite challenging.
Henderson's boxing isn't as "Smooth" as his kicks, but it's still pretty effective. In particular, Henderson uses his straight left hand very effectively. Against Melendez, he also debuted a stepping left elbow strike. The elbow worked well, as he either threw it as Melendez kicked or as he threw a wide punch.
Unlike his left hand, Henderson's right does very little in the boxing range. He constantly pumps an ineffective jab with little power. Although keeping a jab in his opponent's face isn't a bad thing, without some force behind it, it's not a very good range keeper. That said, when Henderson decides to slug with his opponent, his right hook packs some power.
After Henderson throws a combination, he likes to grab the clinch. There are few fighters with Henderson's physical strength and dangerous arsenal of strikes in the clinch. From the Muay Thai plumb, Henderson lands vicious knees and elbows. He can also land solid small punches or heel kicks to the thigh from wrestling clinches like the over-under. As his opponent tries to scramble out of the clinch, Henderson will land hard strikes during transitions, or just step back and unload a few punches.
It's not uncommon for Henderson to get dropped by punches. It was difficult to figure out exactly why, but it seems like Henderson relies more on distance than head movement to avoid punches. When his opponent gets in range and throws a combination before Henderson can move away, he gets hit hard.
One positive thing about Henderson's defense is his ability to get away from the fence. When he fought Melendez, the Cesar Gracie-trained fighter was intent of pressuring him against the cage, then landing punches. At first, this worked fairly well. Then, Henderson began feinting with takedowns by lowering his head and raising his knee for a knee to the body when Melendez looked to punch. These two things made Melendez hesitate, as both the takedown and knee to the body had been used against him earlier, and allowed Henderson to repeatedly escape back to the center of the Octagon.
Henderson, a two-time NAIA All-American wrestler, relied on takedowns much more earlier in his career, before he developed his kickboxing attack. In addition to his powerful base, Henderson's extraordinary balance really bolsters his wrestling ability.
While Henderson is capable of blasting his opponents off their feet with a double leg, he's better at driving them into the fence. After he pins them to the cage, he can lift them into the air for a slam or drag them to the mat. Henderson will also use guillotines and front headlocks to snap his opponent down to the mat.
A majority of Henderson's takedowns come from the clinch, where he can maneuver his foe around with ease. While pushing his opponent around, Henderson will suddenly change direction with a trip or throw. Not only does Henderson hit trips while pinning his opponent against the cage, he also lands clinch takedowns while in the center of the Octagon. Making his takedowns even more difficult to stop is his ability to mix them in between his knee strikes.
Once he gets top position, Henderson does his best to pound his opponent out with heavy punches. The "Smooth" one will stand above his opponent and throw hard punches as often as he can. Henderson is difficult to control from within his opponent's guard, as he has strong posture. Once he creates the space to land big punches, Henderson often dives back into the guard with a hard punch. Then, he'll break the guard once again and the process repeats itself.
Henderson does a very good job punishing his opponents for trying to submit him. As his opponent tries to attack Henderson's arm/leg/neck, "Bendo" will rip away and unleash strikes. Of course, this is a dangerous game to play, and Pettis proved it by locking in an armbar while Henderson looked to land an elbow.
Such aggressive ground striking does have a downside. Henderson often allows his opponent to return to his feet, because Henderson is trying to land punches rather than control. Additionally, diving into his opponent's guard and extending his limbs opens up submission opportunities.
The risk of this style was very evident against Pettis. In the first bout, Pettis was able to get to his feet repeatedly, and he managed to submit him in the second. Contrast this with Pettis bout against Guida, where "The Carpenter" did literally zero damage, but controlled "Showtime" for three full rounds.
Henderson has incredible takedown defense, and on the rare occasion he is brought to the mat, he springs back up to his feet. The reason "Bendo" is so tough to take down is his balance. Henderson can bounce around on one foot until he reaches the fence. From there, he'll fight for underhooks until his opponent is no longer in a good position to take him down. Henderson has fought some very talented wrestlers, such as Frankie Edgar, Jamie Varner, and Jim Miller, but none have had much success controlling him with takedowns.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
A jiu-jitsu black belt, Henderson competes pretty often in grappling competitions, generally doing very well. He even competed in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) last October, winning his first match. That's a major accomplishment on its own, considering how high level ADCC is.
Of Henderson's eight submission victories, four occurred in major promotions, and they were all guillotines. Henderson gets the guillotine by causing scrambles, then attacking while his opponent tries to get to their feet or a better position. Additionally, any future opponents intent on double legging Henderson should watch their neck. When "Bendo" uses the guillotine, he likes to finish from full guard. To finish, Henderson acts as though he is attempting an arm in guillotine regardless of whether or not the arm actually in. Rather than lean back and raise his elbow, Henderson sits up and into the choke, crushing his opponent's neck.
Henderson is rarely on his back long enough to demonstrate his guard game, but he proved that he's not helpless from that position against Mark Bocek.
Bocek is a very talented grappler and had finally gotten on top of Henderson, looking to control him. As he wrapped an arm around Henderson's neck, Henderson swiveled his hips and rolled for an armbar. Bocek immediately yanked his arm out of danger, but Henderson just did a backward roll. This landed Henderson in turtle, where he quickly stood up.
Despite his first career loss, in which he was put to sleep with an anaconda choke, Henderson has long had a reputation of being impossible to submit. This was largely due to his habit of getting caught in deep submissions only to work his way out and beat on his opponent in the process, a pattern he first demonstrated against Donald Cerrone. Of course, this reputation took quite a hit when Pettis cranked on his arm last August.
The problem is this: a fighter who never gets in those submission attempts is a better defensive grappler than one who is constantly forced to fight out of them, even if he is successful. Consider someone like the recently-retired Georges St. Pierre. When was the last time he was seriously threatened by a submission? In 2004, when Matt Hughes tapped him is most likely the correct answer.
That is truly good submission defense.
None of this is to say that Henderson has bad submission defense. Anyone that can manhandle Nate Diaz on the ground safely for five rounds has very good jiu-jitsu. All it means is that Henderson, like everyone else, can be submitted, and that it shouldn't be surprising if he gets caught considering his aggressive grappling.
Best chance for success
It has been a pretty long time since Henderson has come in with the game plan of taking his opponent into the clinch, mauling him with Muay Thai, then dragging him to the mat. It may be time for Henderson to bring that plan out of retirement.
Outside of Pettis, Thomson may be the best kickboxer that Henderson has fought. Therefore, it would probably be smarter for him to close the distance and use his strength, rather than try to fight a technical striking match with a veteran. Of course, if he's forced to battle in the center of the Octagon, he'd likely still do well.
If he gets Thomson to the ground, he needs to be wary of his submissions. Thomson has an active guard game and is always looking to scramble toward his opponent's back. Instead of trying to land violent ground and pound, which Henderson has yet to really finish anyone with, he should work to pass to dominant positions and try to find a submission.
There you have it. For our complete fighter breakdown of Josh Thomson click here.
Will Henderson get back in the title hunt, or will Thomson continue to show that he's a top five lightweight?