After making the switch from the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) to Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), Ben Henderson seemed like he could have been the dominant champion the Lightweight division hadn't had in years.
Following three utterly dominant wins over Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida, Henderson earned the No. 1 contender spot after losing what would have been a guaranteed contender UFC title shot when Anthony Pettis defeated him at WEC 53.
When the time came to take on Frankie Edgar for UFC's 155-pound crown, Henderson was far less impressive than he was in previous outings. Though Henderson left that night as the division's new champion, plenty of fans saw the decision going the other way, and as such, an immediate rematch was booked. However, their rematch was even more controversial, with Henderson taking a split decision victory that many fans were unsatisfied with.
Despite how close his two fights with Edgar were, Henderson moved on to new challengers, embarrassing Nate Diaz in a five round drubbing before taking on Gilbert Melendez, who he again struggled with en route to a controversial decision win. At this point, Henderson was just about anything other than the dominant champion some anticipated.
And with his less-than-decisive victories in some of his title defenses, it was difficult to call him the far-and-away best in class.
Enter UFC 164, where Henderson took on the last fighter to defeat him, Anthony Pettis. Their back-and-forth classic in their first match put a lot of hype around this fight, and with noted improvements in each fighter, there was plenty of speculation as to who would leave as the champ.
In a very unexpected twist, the fight was anything but competitive.
Pettis was so much sharper with his strikes, hurting Henderson with body kicks that he landed effortlessly. Henderson brought the fight to the ground, but it would prove to be his undoing, as Pettis locked up an armbar and finished the fight in a way that just about nobody expected given Henderson's reputation as a submission escape artist.
That fight brought Henderson back to the drawing board -- and without a title belt around his waist -- it would be a difficult road back to the top, especially considering the man with the belt had now beaten him twice. Following an injury to the newly-crowned champion, Henderson filled in to fight Josh Thomson at UFC on FOX 10.
Thomson went after Henderson straight away, showing early on that he was the definitively better wrestler. For five rounds, they fought back and forth, with many thinking Thomson would leave as the winner. However, in typical fashion, "Smooth" left the cage that night with his hand raised after profiting from yet another controversial decision.
That leads us to tonight (Sat., June 7, 2014) with UFC Fight Night 42, which takes place at Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Rustam Khabilov -- one of many talented fighters coming from the growing Dagestani talent pool -- is a product of Greg Jackson's esteemed Albuquerque-based camp. And in that sense, he will also be a hometown fighter at this event. His excellent clinch grappling was highlighted in his win over Vinc Pichel, where he utilized some crowd-pleasing suplex throws to set up a technical knockout win.
Wins over Yancy Medeiros and Jorge Masvidal have further legitimized Khabilov as an up-and-comer in the division -- he is as dangerous as anyone at 155 pounds.
Henderson will definitely be tested in this fight. Khabilov is a respectably well-rounded opponent, but his main strength lies in his wrestling, which is what Henderson struggled with in his last fight against Thomson. To add, Henderson has shown that he lacks when it comes to range striking, with a pitiful jab among other flaws making him all too hittable in this department.
However, Henderson's huge advantage in this fight is his experience in big fights. He is also very used to going all five rounds if need be, which is something Khabilov has yet to do.
This fight serves as one where Henderson has everything to lose but very little to gain. He's facing an opponent who isn't well established in the division, but still appears to be a major threat in some respects. Henderson will be tested here, and despite Khabilov coming in as an underdog, it is not wise for anyone to look past him.
In this fight, "Smooth" is going to have to show the form that he displayed in 2011 -- a ferocious, attack-minded pressure fighter with a chip on his shoulder. Henderson has a lot at stake in this fight, and winning is very important, even if it won't do all that much to advance him in the division.