Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight kingpin, Benson Henderson, is looking to work back towards the title by defeating Sambo specialist, Rustam Khabilov, this Saturday night (June 7, 2014) at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
See "The Tiger's" complete breakdown here.
Since losing his belt, Henderson has found himself in the unenviable position of earning a title shot against a man who's already beaten him twice. Further complicating things for the former champion is Anthony Pettis' recent injury and upcoming appearance on The Ultimate Fighter (TUF), both of which will keep "Showtime" occupied for quite some time.
Regardless, Henderson has jumped right back into the division.
After a contentious decision win over Josh Thomson, Henderson quickly agreed to a match with Khabib Nurmagomedov, a Russian fighter who is currently running roughshod on the lightweight division. Or at least, he thought he accepted the challenge of that Russian mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter.
Instead, he's set to fight a different Dagestani, who's also done quite well inside the Octagon.
Does Henderson have the skills to return to title contention?
Let's find out.
Henderson has done an excellent job developing a kick-heavy style that combines Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do. Capitalizing on his heavily muscled lower body, Henderson knocks his opponents around with a variety of powerful kicks.
The most effective strikes in Henderson's arsenal are undoubtedly his low kicks. When Henderson throws his full body behind his leg kicks, his opponent is usually pushed backwards by the impact or occasionally knocked off of his feet. Even when his opponent does catch his low kick, which happens surprisingly often for a relatively quick fighter, Henderson does plenty of damage with the strike.
Furthermore, Henderson switches up the way in which he attacks his opponent's leg. Starting with his bout against Frankie Edgar, "Smooth" really relied on his kicks to the calf. These rather painful kicks are excellent for destabilzing his opponent, and frequently sent the fast moving fighter slipping to the mat as his leg was kicked out from under him. These kicks also worked against Nate Diaz, although for the opposite reason, as the fighter's flat-footed style of boxing was used against him. In addition, Henderson will occasionally go across his opponent's body to kick at his back leg.
Outside of his low kicks, Henderson will attack the mid-section and head of his opponent. These kicks still pack some force and speed, but it's clear that Henderson's main focus is on his opponent's lower body. Henderson's body kicks, however, are aided by his southpaw stance, as most of his opponent's are orthodox. This allows him to kick around their guard more easily, as Pettis did to him in their second fight.
It's actually not hard to predict when Henderson will throw his kicks. However, he frequently disguises their intended location. By making it appear that his kick will go high only to cut low and vice-versa, Henderson can keep his opponent guessing. Plus, this keeps him out of boxing exchanges in which he could be countered. The downside of this is that Henderson's opponent's can catch his kick if they correctly choose where he will throw, but Henderson's balance usually negates this.
As a Southpaw, Henderson's primary weapon is his straight left hand. He's very quick with the strike and will throw it as a lead, in combination, or to intercept his opponent's straight right. When Henderson fought Melendez, he added a stepping left hand into his arsenal, which he used to cut inside of Melendez's wider punches.
For years, Henderson has been constantly pumping a soft, right-handed jab. This usually lead to the jab getting parried and then countered, or his opponent coming over the top with an overhand. However, in his last bout, Henderson showed a new tool with his left hand.Henderson would frequently start his combinations by shifting his head off center and attacking with a charging hook to the body. Afterwards, he'd either throw his left hand or strike into the clinch.
For whatever reason, Henderson hasn't really used his clinch striking a lot recently. Prior to his championship matches, a huge part of Henderson's strategy involved pinning his opponent to the cage and then aggressively attacking with hard elbows and knees. Then, he would land a boxing combination or takedown when his opponent created distance in an attempt to move away. It wouldn't make sense to bring this style back against a clinch specialist like Khabilov, but it does seem odd that Henderson has largely abandoned what brought his early success.
Defensively, Henderson relies more on distance than head movement to protect himself. This works fine for the most part, but it can Henderson hurt when his opponent finally does close the distance with punches. Or, if Henderson is sucked into a brawl, his defense obviously suffered. These two traits are largely the reason Henderson has been dropped by punches so often in his career.
One impressive aspect of Henderson's defense is his Octagon awareness. Melendez was intent on forcing Henderson into the cage to unload on him with punches, but Henderson used the threat of takedowns and counter knees to make "El Nino" hesitate whenever he founds himself along the cage. He first established these two offenses as threats, then would quickly circle out when Melendez reacted to his feints.
Though Henderson does rely on his wrestling much now that his kickboxing game is developed, he's still a talented takedown artist. A two-time NAIA All-American wrestler while attending Dana College, Henderson's wrestling very much revolves around his explosiveness and balance.
Henderson's best takedowns come from inside the clinch. He's very good at using his dirty boxing to slip in underhooks. If he can secure a body lock, Henderson will cinch up his grip and squeeze down on his opponent's waist, forcing him to the mat.
Unlike many clinch grapplers, Henderson does his best work in the center of the Octagon. After pushing and pulling his opponent around, Henderson will switch directions with a trip. Once he gets a grip on his opponent, Henderson fully commits to his trip and usually succeeds.
In addition to his clinch wrestling, Henderson has pretty strong double leg takedowns. He actually does better when he can pin his opponent to the cage, as it allows him to get in perfect position to lift and slam his opponent. Finally, Henderson will latch onto his opponent's head with a guillotine or front head lock and snap him to the mat.
From the top, Henderson has absolutely brutal ground and pound. "Bendo's" posture inside the guard is impressive, as he's nearly impossible to hold down. This is because he's willing to quickly stand up inside the guard, which can open up sweep attempts for his opponent. However, Henderson is confident enough in his jiu-jitsu and balance to take this risk.
Once he's either postured up or standing above his opponent, Henderson will drop heavy strikes. He really puts his entire body into the strikes and mixes his target up well, making his ground and pound both difficult to defend and effective. Plus, he'll often forsake his standing position by diving into his opponent's guard with a big punch.
Henderson does an extreme amount of damage when his opponent's try to submit him. Henderson will rip out of whatever submission his opponent is going for and then use that newly created space to slam his foe with punches and elbows. Additionally, Henderson's relatively low concern for his opponent's leg lock attempts allows him to land easy shots while his opponent's arms and legs are tied up with the submission.
The "Smooth" one requires space to land hard ground strikes, and he uses it well to do damage. However, this also means his opponent has space to work as well. Though Henderson is a tough man to sweep, and his submission defense is generally quite solid, his opponent can use this space to scramble back to his feet.
For the first time against Josh Thomson, Henderson lost multiple rounds due to his opponent's wrestling. Thomson -- who's more recognized for his well-roundedness than his dominating wrestling -- was able to secure underhooks in the clinch and then throw Henderson around. It was entirely unexpected; most recognized Henderson as the strong clinch grappler prior to the bout.
Considering his opponent's penchant for suplexes, hopefully Henderson has worked on this part of his game.
Outside of that performance, Henderson's takedown defense has been spectacular. He's slightly more vulnerable to double legs than singles, but his sprawl largely shuts down those attempts as well. His balance is extremely useful in both cases, as he's able to easily hop along while his opponent tries to drive him to the mat. Plus, Henderson usually looks to stay in kicking range, making it difficult for his opponent to get in range for a shot.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
A jiu-jitsu black belt and one of the more active grappling competitors, Henderson is a very talented submission wrestler. Last fall, he competed in the Abu Dhabi Combat Club (ADCC) and put on an impressive performance. Though he lost in the second round, it was still an impressive showing for the MMA Lab-trained product, as the ADCC is as high level as no-gi grappling gets.
All four of Henderson's submission victories in major promotions came via guillotines. Henderson does not look to force the choke, but he does search for opportunities during scrambles. Whether his opponent is trying to stand up and leaves his neck out or Henderson uses a stepping knee to create space during a takedown attempt, "Bendo" is always looking for his opponent's neck.
In order to finish, Henderson sits up into the choke. He basically does the arm-in guillotine finish regardless of whether or not the arm is actually in. The benefit of this choice of finish is that Henderson can finish the submission from full guard. When using a high elbow guillotine, which is perhaps the most popular way to finish the guillotine, it's better to be off to the side a bit more with an open guard. Though a quicker and more efficient choke, it can allow the top man to spin out. Henderson's version does not have this issue, and he has the squeeze to still make it very threatening.
One of the few times we saw Henderson's guard came against Mark Bocek. The Canadian black belt managed to sweep Henderson and was looking to pass his full guard. When Henderson rolled for an armbar, Bocek instinctively yanked his arm out of danger. This created the space necessary for Henderson to roll backwards and scramble away from the submission fighter.
When talking of Henderson's submission defensive, the proverb "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure" immediately comes to mind. Simply put, anyone who grapples and strikes on the mat as aggressively as Henderson will find himself in danger of being submitted relatively often.
That said, Henderson's submission defense is excellent. The fact that he employed his risky style against grapplers like Bocek, Jim Miller, and Nate Diaz without being caught is very impressive. Henderson was eventually caught by Pettis, but that style did lead him to the title, so it's hard to criticize him too harshly.
Best chance for success
For Henderson to defeat Khabilov, he needs to control the distance. This will be an interesting battle, as Khabilov likes to stand outside the normal boxing range as well. While striking at this distance, Henderson needs to focus on landing his leg kicks while avoiding Khabilov's lunging overhands.
Obviously, Henderson also needs to avoid getting suplexed. Jorge Masvidal had tremendous success avoiding Khabilov's trips by immediately getting his hips low once the clinch began. In addition, whenever Khabilov secured a back clinch, "Gamebred" would drop his base down to the mat until he could break his grip.
Henderson needs to emulate this strategy.
Perhaps the biggest advantage that Henderson has in this bout is conditioning. Khabilov slowed down significantly in his three round bout with Masvidal, while Henderson went five rounds with cardio machines like Frankie Edgar and Nate Diaz without any change at all. To best capitalize on this, Henderson should attack the body and legs often.
To hurt the Russian's body, Henderson should continue to use his right hook that he showcased in his last bout and also mix in his stepping knee to the body. Whenever "Tiger" rushes into the clinch, the counter option of the knee to the body is available. This is another move that Masvidal proved as effective against Khabilov.
Can Henderson take another step closer to the title, or will Khabilov upset the former champion?