Tonight (June 7, 2014,) Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweights Ben Henderson and Rustam Khabilov will go to battle in the main event of UFC Fight Night 42, airing live at 10 p.m. EST on FOX Sports 1 from Tingley Coliseum in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
Recently reclaiming his No. 1 ranking, former champion Henderson was last seen winning a lackluster decision over Josh Thomson at UFC on FOX 10 in January. After losing his title to Anthony Pettis at UFC 164 in August 2013, "Smooth" is looking to crawl back into title contention. But with two losses to "Showtime," it's going to be a long road.
Henderson's journey continues against No. 11-ranked Khabilov, who has been out of action since a UFC Fight Night 31 decision win over tough veteran Jorge Masvidal. He's won six straight mixed martial arts (MMA) bouts. "Tiger" was supposed to face Rafael dos Anjos at February's UFC 170, but an injury actually got him placed in a much bigger bout.
The Dagestan Sambo expert has his hands full in a major way, but he also has the chance to shock the world on a grand stage. Let's take a look at the keys to victory for Henderson vs. Khabilov:
Record: 20-3 overall, 8-1 UFC
Key Wins: Frankie Edgar (UFC 144, UFC 150), Nate Diaz (UFC on FOX 5), Gilbert Melendez (UFC on FOX 7), Josh Thomson (UFC on FOX 10)
Key Losses: Anthony Pettis (UFC 164, WEC 53)
Keys to Victory: On paper, Henderson is one of the most well rounded martial artists on the planet. He has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, NAIA All-American level wrestling, and a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under noted coach John Crouch.
However, he's yet to score a single finish in UFC, a dynamic that has gained him the moniker of being a boring fighter. The pressure is on Henderson not only to win, but also win impressively.
To do so, he'll have to push the pace a bit more with his striking. He has the skills to mix up his game with effective combinations, and those will in turn lead to opportunities to take the fight to the ground. With his unorthodox Sambo background, it's going to be far from easy to finish Khabilov. The Russian prospect has only lost one fight, and that was a split decision.
But that can't matter to Henderson. He has to fight like he knows his lofty ranking is on the line. He no longer has the belt, so the motivation to fight safe and keep it should not be affecting him.
He'll never be considered for another title bout if he doesn't score an emphatic win sometime soon. In today's win-now UFC landscape, here's no better time than tonight.
Record: 17-1 overall, 3-0 UFC
Key Wins: Jorge Masvidal (UFC Fight Night 31), Vinc Pichel (TUF 16 Finale)
Key Losses: None
Keys to Victory: "Tiger" has looked beyond impressive in his three UFC bouts, slamming Pichel and Yancy Medeiros and outscoring Masvidal. He's earned a very steep step up in competition against Henderson, so this bout will be a very good gauge of just how far he can progress in UFC.
To score the massive upset in Albuquerque, Khabilov has to dictate the pace. He can't let Henderson settle into his striking rhythm, so throwing some surprising kicks will help him disrupt "Smooth."
His vaunted suplexes are one of his best wepons, but it's hard to imagine him ragdolling a fighter of Henderson's caliber. If he can, he should be able to find an advantageous position on the ground, which could lead to an opening for a submission.
Henderson has tapped out twice in three total losses, and Khabilov has five of his own. Still, at this point, you're going to have to get Henderson in a position where he is facing imminent injury to see him tap out.
"Smooth" is hell-bent on getting back to a title fight, and that makes this undoubtedly the hardest bout of Khabilov's career.
Bottom Line from Albuquerque: The bottom line for this fight is that it is kind of a lose-lose proposition for Henderson. A win over Khabilov won't do much for his title plight, but a loss will certainly have him out of the discussion for the foreseeable future.
Khabilov, on the other hand, can cement himself as a legitimate title contender by defeating "Smooth." But with this fight being close to Henderson's home training camp in Arizona, the former champion is going to be beyond motivated to make a statement.
He's a very calm and collected challenger, so the emotions should help him rather than hinder him in this instance. Khabilov maintains a similar demeanor, but he's never fought on a stage like this.
If Henderson can win and continue doing so, it will grow increasingly more difficult to deny him another shot at gold. Expect Henderson to pull out all the stops as he attempts to get back to the peak he once enjoyed.
Benson Henderson has received a ton of flack for a fighter who's only lost once in UFC. Will he score his first Octagon finish against Rustam Khabilov tonight?