It's not that UFC lightweight Ben Henderson doesn't care about the move to the UFC. He does. It's a grand stage, a larger pool of fighters to contend with, bigger paydays, more attention and the pinnacle of the sport. It's just that Henderson doesn't want to leave his WEC glory behind him.
Henderson is arguably the owner of two Fight of the Year performances. In 2009, his clash with Donald Cerrone captivated MMA fans with a thrilling five-round back and forth battle where he came out the victor. In 2010, he and eventual WEC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis took part in the final WEC fight ever, showcasing the skill, daring and physical brutality that served as hallmark's for the WEC's Zuffa run. Henderson famously lost the fight, but also won many Fight of the Year honors with his perfectly respectable performance.
In this exclusive interview with Henderson that took place on MMA Nation on 106.7 The Fan, Henderson talks about his quest for another breakout MMA performance, coming back from the loss to Pettis, who the top lightweight in the world really is, tackling the challenge of Mark Bocek at UFC 129 and his love of NCAA wrestling. Full audio here:
Luke: Alright Ben, we haven't heard from you in a little while, give us an update. How are you feeling, any injuries, anything you had to take care of in your off time? Bring us up to speed.
Ben: No, injury free, feeling good, 100 percent healthy after my last fight. Had no problems, no injuries or anything like that so good to go. I'm excited to get in there.
Luke: When they called you and told you they wanted you to be on the UFC 129 card, what were your initial impressions?
Ben: I was stoked of course. No matter UFC 129 or UFC whatever number, it doesn't matter, I'm always excited to get into the cage. Get in there with the lights on, the cameras on, the fans sitting around. Excited atmosphere. It's awesome.
Luke: Ever been to Canada before?
Ben: I have actually, I've fought in Edmonton, Alberta Canada twice and I'm from Seattle so I've been to B.C. a buncha times.
Luke: Have you been to the Rogers Centre before?
Ben: I have not, first time to the Rogers Centre.
Luke: Everyone says, 55,000, this is the first stadium show. You've had a lot of exposure in the WEC, but as big as those were, those were in some cases five times as small in some of those venues. Are there any concerns about the enormity of the venue making it unable to hear your corner?
Ben: No not really, it's something we have talked about and have dealt with. In practice we've tried to mimic as close to possible in many ways the game time situation and what it'll be like. So no, of course we're aware of it but we're not overly concerned with it.
Luke: I don't want to spend a ton of time on it but I have to ask you. Your last fight was against Anthony Pettis in a five round absolute brutal war and it ended in really kinda strange fashion, the "kick heard round the world". When you look back on that fight, when you look how it ended, were you shocked that he was able to pull that off?
Ben: Oh yeah, it's a once in a lifetime type of move, pretty flashy and everything. Looking back on it, yeah it's really amazing that anyone could get off that type of kick, let alone fifth round end of the fight, about a minute left in the fight. Under those circumstances it's even more amazing.
Luke: When you were fading and he was approaching you, what were you thinking he was gonna do, because you kind of dropped your hands at the very last minute.
Ben: For anybody who's actually ever been inside the cage or competed or even played football, you don't really have a whole lot of conscious thoughts, you don't think through your head "Hey, I'm gonna step back with my right leg and keep my left hand up and I'm gonna push my butt off the cage" there's no actual real conscious thoughts that go through your head. The general idea of what was going through my head though was "he's jumping at me" I had no idea it was gonna be what it was. Obviously, who could predict that? Who could see that coming? There's no clear conscious thought that goes through your head, for me personally, there's no conscious thought that goes through my head. It's just more of a feeling, fighting, playing football, basketball. It should be more reactionary "guy moves this way, you move the other way automatically just as a reaction."
Luke: You're facing Mark Bocek, fair to say in terms of MMA, it's best grappler you've ever faced? Or would you say in terms of his MMA game, maybe his grappling is on par with some of the guys you've fought already?
Ben: I'd say he's definitely on par as some of the guys I've fought already. As far as credentials go, I think he is the most accomplished grappler or Jiu Jitsu guy or decorated, however you want to phrase it, grappler in a MMA fight that I've ever fought against. It'll be a tough fight, I've face black belts before, I've submitted black belts before in the fights so obviously I have to be aware of it, but it's not something that I'm nervous about or paying too much attention to it.
Luke: Would you say that Mark Bocek is a bit of an under rated wrestler or not?
Ben: I would definitely say that, I bring up in a lot of my interviews as well. Everyone always talks about how good Bocek's Jiu Jitsu is and that's what he's known for, he's known as a good Jiu Jitsu wise, but first of all he's got to get guys to the ground. I wouldn't say he's exactly a "good" wrestler technique wise, explosiveness wise, but he's a very insistent wrestler on insisting that he's gonna get the fight to the ground and doing whatever it takes to get the fight to the ground. There are a lot better guys who have better technique and more skills as far as wrestling. But as far as being stubborn and insisting on getting the fight to the ground, I think that Bocek is definitely underrated, hugely underrated in that aspect.
Luke: You know, you've had a lot of tense moments where you've fought guys, many of the fights that you've won, where for example, Donald Cerrone had a triangle on you once and you got out of it but that thing looked so tight. I've seen your subsequent videos that you've put out online explaining how you were able to withstand it but would you agree that some guys physically have an ability to withstand choking pressure or arm pressure to hang on longer in tense moments. Am I exaggerating or is there something to that?
Ben: I'll agree and disagree a little bit on that one. I think it's all just a matter of how much time you spend doing it. Obviously, guys who've been doing it like myself who have been getting pushed around, having other one on one contact in wrestling, grappling, and submissions, I've been doing it for quite a while. I've had quite a few triangles thrown on me so I'm a little bit used to it, so I can stay calm, I stay relaxed inside the triangle and work my way out, work technique on how to get out of there. As opposed to some guys who haven't had literally 10,000 triangles thrown on them, so they aren't as relaxed so they tense up and they fight it the wrong way and tire themselves out, and they end up doing more damage than good. So I think that it is about some guys who may seem natural, but it's because I've been inside the triangle for 10,000 inside my gym so I can stay relaxed. The best guys like Anderson Silve, those type of guys, he's so relaxed and knocks guys out with one punch, makes it look like average "everyday" type stuff. But the reason is because he's done it 10,000 times, he's done that front push kick how many times? Of course he made it look natural and super easy, but the reason is because he's done it so much.
Luke: That front kick blew everyone away, it sounds like it really impressed you as well.
Ben: Oh yeah, absolutely, it was a phenomenal kick.
Luke: Your last fight was in the WEC and this is your UFC debut. When the first few guys came over and fought, there was this "we're going to prove to the UFC guys how good the WEC fighters really were". Do you even care about that, I feel like that doesn't even matter as much anymore. Are you carrying that mentality into this fight or is it simply about Bocek and new opportunities?
Ben: I wouldn't say that's exactly the way it is but I wouldn't say I'm against it either. For some of the ex-WEC fighters it is that way, it is that way with me a little bit. But I'm not going in there thinking of just WEC vs UFC. Speaking of that, we're not proving to the other fighters that we belong, it's more to the general fan base and to the reporters and media. It's more proving to you guys who are always saying "the WEC guys, there's no way they can hang with the UFC guys". The UFC guys, those are our training partners. Those are the guys we train with everyday, it's not like they don't see us when we train. I train with Kenny Florian, BJ Penn, Efrain Escodero, they're all in the UFC, so it's not like they're all like "Oh no well he's tough and all but he's in the WEC so he's not any good", I train with those guys so we have a mutual respect. So it's not really the fighters per se, who us ex-WEC are trying to prove ourselves to; it's more to the general fans who don't really know what's going on or don't really know a whole lot in depth what it means to be a fighter and the respect we have for each other. That's more who the ex-WEC fighters, thats where our chip on our shoulders is directed towards. Sure you can say that's your opinion, but now I'm gonna go in here and prove otherwise.
Luke: Did you get a chance on Saturday to catch the Strikeforce fights?
Ben: I actually missed it. I wanted to but I just ended up missing it.
Ben: I read about it. Everyone is entitled to their opinion. Us fighters, we have a lot of self-confidence and a lot of self-esteem. All us fighters should have a lot of self-confidence, you don't want a guy who goes in there and says "oh I think I'm okay, I think I might be 25" you don't want that. You want a guy who goes in there, knows he's the best and goes out there and proves it. Gilbert, having his opinion, it's his opinion, of course he's allowed and entitled to have his own opinion. As far as what everybody else thinks, they're entitled to their opinion whether they think he is or not. In my opinion, I think he's proven himself to be top three in the world. Top five for sure, top three. As far as saying he's the best lightweight in the world, I don't know. Thats not for me to say exactly, but I'd say top three for sure.
Luke: Who is the best lightweight in the world?
Ben: Me personally, in my opinion I think you have to give that to Frankie Edgar. Especially after the adversity that he battled through in those last two performances. Even before those last two performances, last three performances if you include the Gray Maynard fight, he has had some great performances and he's on a nice win streak as well, so I think you need to give credit to Frankie Edgar. I think his list of opponents he's beaten on his current winning streak is a lot of stacked guys who he went against and who he's beaten on his current win streak.
Luke: The guy you most recently faced, Anthony Pettis takes on Clay Guida. Winner of that fight gets a shot ostensibly against Edgar, who do you like in that fight? Guida or Pettis?
Ben: I'm kinda pulled in different directions to be honest. I want to go with the ex-WEC fighter just cause I want to see the ex-WEC fighters do well in the UFC. I have nothing against Pettis or Guida, I hope they both do good, someone has to get their hand raised. I'm just looking towards an entertaining fight and I think it'll be a super entertaining fight.
Luke: I need to ask for a prediction and no waffling: in the main event of the card you're on it's Georges St. Pierre vs Jake Shields. Just about everyone is picking Georges St. Pierre, are you one of those guys? Or are do you believe this is Jake Shields' time to shock the world.
Ben: I think Jake Shields has a chance, if he gets it to the ground who knows? But as a fan of MMA first and foremost, I am most excited to watch Jose Aldo vs Mark Hominick. I think that's gonna be a SUPER exciting fight, I think that's gonna be the potential fight of the year type stuff. Those boys are gonna THROW DOWN and it's gonna be awesome.
Luke: We had Mark Hominick on the show last week and I sort of asked him to make the case for why he will win. For the folks who may be now just hearing about how awesome this fight is gonna be, for the listeners here in Washington, D.C., make the case, why is this fight so special?
Ben: I think Aldo is nearing Anderson Silva's type of record. He was like 6-0 in the WEC and ended almost everybody viciously. The one fight he didn't was against Urijah Faber and that was a dominating performance. He's just a tough as nails kid and he's explosive, you never know what he's gonna do. It could be flying knee from ten feet away within the first ten seconds of the fight or it could be a completely dominating, just debilitating leg kicks the entire five rounds just taking out Mark Hominick's legs. It could be a strict 1-2, he's just so explosive and so unpredictable in his stand up, it's hard to say beware of this or that. He has so many different tools that he brings to the table in just his stand up game, it's scary. And you look at Mark Hominick, he's a veteran, he's been around the block. He's not gonna be overwhelmed with the experience. He's fought everywhere and fought everybody. He's tough as nails and just recently taken his game to the next level. He started out originally as a standup guy, as a striker, so he's comfortable standing up with anybody in the division. But he's really evolved his game as far as MMA, working on his Jiu Jitsu and his wrestling in the past couple of years. You can really see the evolution in his MMA game. He's super explosive and super exciting, always puts on a good show. What I like about both of these fighters is they go for the finish.
Neither one of these guys will bounce around and content with getting a decision by beating someone up and easing off. Both of these guys I like a lot because they are hungry to get the finish. Aldo, something about that kid, he just loves to finish fights. I think this is gonna be one of those fights like the Anderson Silva push kick or Anthony Pettis' kick off the fence, after this fight the crowd will be standing up saying "wow" at the end of this fight.
Luke: Is there any other MMA fighter where you get into fan mode and you just want to watch them compete for the pure entertainment value of it?
Ben: Some of the fighters, not as many just fighters as far as MMA goes, maybe one or two. I love BJ Penn, I love watching BJ Penn. I love watching either traditional Muay Thai fights or College Wrestling or Brazilian Jiu Jitsu like the bigger tournaments, the Pan Ams, Europeans, Abu Dhabi, those sort of tournaments for Jiu Jitsu. I like watching the sports in their own aspect. I really like watching those events. As far as MMA where the fan in me comes out: Anderson Silva of course, he's the man; BJ Penn, he's one of my all time favorites from even before I started fighting; and Matt Hughes, he's one of my all time old school favorites.
Luke: You mentioned college wrestling, did you catch the National Tournament in Philadelphia last month? Who did you think was the break out star? For me it was Jordan Oliver out of Oklahoma State or Jordan Boroughs out of Nebraska...
Ben: I gotta go with Jordan Boroughs cause that kid is a beast. He can shoot a low outside blast double from ten feet away and he still gets it...ON EVERYBODY from HIS KNEES! He's about as explosive as you can get on a wrestling mat, definitely have to give it up for Jordan Boroughs, Nebraska's first time ever two-time National Champion. I think you gotta say a lot about Bubba Jenkins for the whole back story. Not just for his performance, he went for a suicide cradle to pin David Taylor in the final of 157. Not only is that a high risk maneuver to go for, pretty risky, but the whole back story Bubba Jenkins being at Penn State, being an All-American and Cael Sanderson coming to Penn State to be the head coach. Them having their differences and Bubba Jenkins transfers to Arizona State University and had to take a year off. And then he meets Cael Sanderson's protegee, one of Cael Sanderson's top recruits at 157 in the finals and has a bit of revenge. He not only beats Cael Sanderson's star pupil but he pins him in the first period I believe. That entire backstory of Bubba Jenkins is something special. And then Jordan Boroughs, his entire tournament, all of his performances in all of his matches of this entire tournament was amazing.
Luke: Before we let you go, your last fight didn't go as planned it was a helluva war. Are you excited? This is a dramatically enhanced stage for you. Is this the carpe diem moment for you? Is this the exciting moment where you decided "I can make a big splash"?
Ben: I'm really excited yeah. I think this is as almost as perfect a situation as you can go into having a UFC debut. Being the first fight on the Pay Per View, it's gonna set all sorts of records as far as pay per view. There's gonna be 55,000 watching live at the Rogers Centre. So it's a perfect opportunity for me to go out there and make a whole buncha new fans. Actually, a fan came up to me, it was weird but cool. Ended up talking to me about how I've been fighting for four years...Jon Jones has been fighting for four years as well. But I've had two Fight of the Year performances, in my fight against Donald Cerrone won a whole bunch of awards for our fight in 2009 and my fight against Anthony Pettis won a bunch of awards for Fight of the Year in 2010. And both of those were later on in the year, one was in October and the other was in December. So I'd like to get three years in a row where I win Fight of the Year, and have this one get my hand raised against Bocek but get it earlier in the year. Been fighting four years, two of those years I've had Fight of the Year, so I'm really stoked. I think this is a great opportunity, if I have another Fight of the Year type performance, I think I'd have a really good shot at making a name for myself.