Top five-ranked Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweights Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson will go to war with pivotal title implications on the line in the main event of this Saturday night's (January 25, 2014) UFC on FOX 10 from United Center in Chicago, Illinois.
The bout between No. 1-ranked Henderson and No. 4-ranked Thomson has been billed as a potential title eliminator. But with divisional champ Anthony Pettis on the shelf reportedly until July, nothing is guaranteed.
After having held the belt for nearly two years, Henderson suffered the first loss of his Octagon tenure when Pettis shockingly submitted him at UFC 164. "Smooth" is looking to crawl back towards another title shot, but he has a ton of work to do to get there.
With two losses to "Showtime," Pettis has become his mixed martial arts (MMA) kryptonite. He'll need to win in more than convincing fashion if he expects to fight for gold when Pettis returns from his surgery.
Thomson, on the other hand, is more likely to receive a shot at the belt should he defeat Henderson. "Punk" was scheduled to fight Pettis in the headliner of UFC on FOX 9, but the champ had to withdraw.
Thomson was last seen destroying Nate Diaz with a vicious headkick at UFC on FOX 7 in April 2013, becoming the first man to finish the outspoken slugger from Stockton with strikes.
The former Strikeforce champ has been a divisional mainstay for many years now despite not receiving much in the way of publicity. This is "Punk's" chance to finally shine on a grand stage, and that should translate into this fight being an exciting battle. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Henderson and Thomson:
Record: 19-3 overall, 7-1 UFC
Key Wins: Frankie Edgar (UFC 144, UFC 150), Nate Diaz (UFC on FOX 5), Gilbert Melendez (UFC on FOX 7)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (UFC 164, WEC 53)
Keys to Victory: Henderson is a tough and well-rounded mixed martial artist who is well renowned for his stellar work ethic. His wins over former UFC lightweight champion Edgar and former Strikeforce champion Melendez are testaments to that.
Henderson has a Tae Kwon Do black belt that he uses to unleash a varied mix of dangerous kicks. His strength and conditioning only serve to make his striking more effective. His boxing is on point, as well, and he's proven repeatedly that he can take a shot and keep coming forward.
His background as an NAIA All-American wrestler makes him incredibly tough to take down, even for a fighter like Thomson, who trains at American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) with wrestling powerhouses Daniel Cormier, Cain Velasquez, and Jon Fitch. Henderson uses a smothering clinch game to push his opponents up against the cage and neutralize their skills.
That's going to be an important tool in shutting down "Punk's" offense in Chicago.
To top off his training, Henderson recently obtained his Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt and also competes regularly in submission grappling tournaments. "Smooth" is nearly impossible to tap out, and that's what made Pettis' armbar victory over him so shocking.
Henderson has repeatedly admitted his mistake from UFC 164, and you can bet he'll come to the Octagon with a renewed sense of motivation and urgency.
Henderson wants nothing more than to get his hands around the belt once more, and with his complete mix of skills and intelligent gameplan, he's going to be very tough to stop.
He's not afraid to scrap anywhere the fight goes, but he has to be careful against a fighter with Thomson's experience. Look for "Smooth" to keep Thomson at range with his kicks and look for some takedowns to score with his brutal ground and pound. Thomson has never been submitted, so Henderson is in for a war.
That's something he's willing to jump right into. He just can't look ahead to Pettis because he has a long road to climb back towards another title shot. That road begins this Saturday night in Chicago.
Record: 20-5(1) overall, 3-1 UFC
Key Wins: Nate Diaz (UFC on FOX 7), Gilbert Melendez (Strikeforce: Melendez vs. Thomson), Pat Healy (Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Werdum)
Key Losses: Gilbert Melendez (Strikeforce: Evolution, Strikeforce: Barnett vs. Cormier)
Keys to Victory: Thomson is one of the most experienced lightweights fighting in UFC today. His career began over thirteen years ago and he's been facing some of the best 155-pound talent in the world ever since.
Like Henderson, Thomson is a very well rounded fighter who brings a solid gameplan to the cage each and every fight. He has his own black belt in Guerilla jiu-jitsu, which he's parlayed into an impressive nine submissions in his career.
Thomson also wrestled in college, but he didn't obtain the All-American status that Henderson did. Still, he trains with arguably the best wrestling-focused gym in AKA, and that should make him nearly impossible to take down.
His striking has been on point lately, never more so than in his devastating headkick knockout over Diaz. The win got him more recognition than he had ever received, and that star is only going to shine brighter should he get past Henderson.
To beat the former champ, Thomson is going to have to beat "Smooth" to the punch. Staying active will be key to victory, but his aggression will have to be used in a controlled manner.
Thomson needs to check Henderson's low kicks while avoiding any takedown attempts, making defense no easy task. To combat this, Thomson needs to disrupt "Smooth's" rhythm by outboxing him, something Melendez was able to do in the early rounds at UFC on FOX 7.
Barring any fluke submissions or flash knockouts, that appears to be the only blueprint to knock Henderson out of the top rankings spot. Thomson routinely focuses on conditioning, and he's going to need it for this fight.
Bouts with Henderson tend to go the distance, something that "Punk" will be fully aware of. He has to be ready to dig in and win a dogfight. With his experience, that should be nothing new. But even with the level of competition he's faced throughout his career, Henderson will be one of the toughest.
If he can push the pace and maintain a high striking output while winning the scrambles, Thomson will be in prime position to score his biggest win ever.
Bottom Line From Chicago: The bottom line for this fight is that it very well may decide the next contender for the UFC lightweight title. That is, if Thomson wins.
If Henderson wins, he'll likely need another win over a top-ranked opponent before he gets another shot at Pettis. He's already lost twice to "Showtime," so while it would be clear that Henderson is hands-down the second best fighter in the division, a third fight between them just wouldn't make that much sense right now.
With Pettis tentatively set to return in July, this fight is the biggest lightweight bout UFC has to offer right now.
And it should be a closely contested, long-lasting affair. Thomson has only been finished once and Henderson twice, making a stoppage highly unlikely for this bout. If it were to happen it would definitely make a strong case for either fighter to be the obvious title contender.
However, don't plan on that happening. With Henderson and Thomson possessing similar skillsets, we could see a war of attrition in Chicago. Henderson has a way of turning his matches into grinding affairs and he's still looking for his first UFC stoppage. Even without a flashy highlight reel, "Smooth" is one of the most talented competitors in MMA.
Thomson isn't all that far behind, and that's what makes this fight so exciting on paper. Takedowns are going to come at a premium, and submission attempts should be few and far between. With the mat prowess of both fighters, expect this one to be contested largely on the feet. Thomson may have a slight edge in boxing, while Henderson definitely possesses the better kicks.
This is a very tough bout to pick, but one thing is certain: whether they get the title shot or not, the second best lightweight in MMA will emerge at UFC on FOX 10 this Saturday night.
With champion Anthony Pettis recovering from knee surgery, Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson will square off for lightweight supremacy at UFC on FOX 10. Can ‘Smooth' get back to his winning ways, or will ‘Punk' continue the momentum of his UFC return?