The Bellator career of Benson Henderson has been turbulent. He’s enjoyed two title fights in two separate weight classes since jumping ship from the UFC in early 2016, but he lost them both.
After his loss in the Bellator 183 headliner he’s split against the Pitbull brothers, first beating Patricio Freire and on Saturday losing an uninspiring scrap with Patricky Freire, he has seen his record in the promotion drop to 1-3. It seems, based on the broadcast and his name recognition, like his overseers were fixing to get him another title shot before too long, but you would have to think the whole thing will be met with some shoulder shrugs and confused looks.
Henderson’s legacy, in Bellator and beyond, is complex. There is quite a bit more to it than playing out the string in cage fighting before heading to serve his country in the military, whether that string is going poorly or not.
Bleacher Report Combat Sports Lead Writer Jonathan Snowden and MMA Featured Columnist Matthew Ryder considered that legacy coming out of Bellator 183, and this is what they came up with.
I’ve struggled with Benson Henderson as an MMA commodity for years. In fact, I would say I’ve endured more gut-wrenching frustration and mind-bending bewilderment in relation to his career than any other in the sport.
That may seem odd to some considering his place as a respected, longtime UFC champion with a fairly old school, “anyone, anywhere, anytime” mentality, but it remains a fact.
I’ve felt for years that Henderson built whatever legacy he has on doing just enough to get by, often with the help of borderline blind cageside judges. I don’t think he beat Josh Thomson, I don’t think he beat Gilbert Melendez and I don’t think he beat Frankie Edgar—twice.
Bellator 183 was just another example of the narrow line he’s always walked, where he doesn’t do enough to win and relies on judges finding a way to give him the fight anyway.
In the alternate reality that exists in my head, Henderson is 20-12. He’s the owner of a decent enough career that has left me almost entirely uninspired. He falls a good distance short in practice of what he appears to be on paper, which is a WEC champion and a UFC champion of the toughest division in the sport who defended his belt in both promotions.
Am I going in a little too hard on one of Bellator’s marquee talents? Or does he even still qualify as a marquee talent after another loss Saturday?
There is a certain feeling of kismet when a Benson Henderson fight goes to the judges’ cards. That’s not a hot take—just a statement of fact. Whether you agree with them or not, historically speaking a close scorecard is a Henderson card.
That was the case, at least, when he was in the UFC and the consistent beneficiary of either luck or largess. Bellator Benson, however, hasn’t been dealt the same strong hands. Three times he’s gone to the scorecards there. Three times he’s watched another man’s hand raised—twice by split decision.
His guardian angel has seemingly abandoned him, the only remnant the wings tattooed on his back.
None of this can erase the victories written in history’s permanent ink. He was UFC champion. He beat legends. We can’t take that away from him.
But perception is a trickier thing. And you’re absolutely right. Every time Henderson struggles, every time a close decision loss reminds us of a time he was granted an unjust victory, every five-minute round that feels like it lasts a calendar year diminishes him just a little bit more.
Five years ago, B/R named Henderson its Fighter of the Year. The author (a moron, I’ve been told) asked whether he could be the best ever. That, in retrospect, is a truly foolish question.
No one is wondering whether Henderson is an all-time great anymore. We’re wondering whether he has what it takes to compete in Bellator, the UFC’s little brother. And I wonder, Matt, is that a question worth answering for a man who once had such grand ambitions?
My gut, wrenched again with anxiety after watching another thin margin in a Henderson fight, tells me that it is, but for something of a counterintuitive reason, I believe it is his regression to the mean—the market correction for the years he spent “winning” fights without really “beating” his opponents.
The value in answering it comes in seeing that what has happened to him in Bellator is a good lesson for those coming behind him, an illustration that an athlete can only rely on dimwitted judges and guardian angels for so long before it all comes back around.
Inasmuch as I ever feel Henderson looks good in his fights, I thought he looked good in this most recent outing. I scored the fight in his favor, and I thought he won pretty convincingly—again, inasmuch as he ever wins convincingly.
Shows what I know.
Saturday, those dimwitted judges and spiritual entities saw fit to hand the win to Patricky Pitbull, from whom I don’t remember a single piece of offense mere moments after the event has ended.
Is it worth answering for a man we thought might be the best to ever do this thing as recently as 2013? Maybe not in relation to him solely. But for others, it could be instructive of how dangerous a career based on riding out rounds and scoring points can be and how quickly it can go bad on you once it starts to turn.
The MMA gods punish fighters who try to make a living sucking up to the judges. After all, the sport just wasn’t designed with such a fighter in mind.
The original UFC had no judges. A cross between pro wrestling and Brazilian street fighting, it simply didn’t need them.
A fight between two warriors couldn’t, in those days, be decided by anyone outside the cage. It was over when it was over—and someone either conceded or was incapacitated.
Eventually, the world’s final wild-west spectacle was tamed. It became sport. Judges were incorporated. Fighters were developed who never even seemed to think about ending a bout on their own terms.
Henderson is one of them. For years, that sufficed. But those darting dancers can’t guarantee long-term success. You win by the judge, and you die by the judge. And Henderson, of late, hasn’t been doing much winning.
On Saturday night, none of his strikes were thrown with the intention of knocking another man insensate. His was a game of movement, incessant, unyielding and a little bit annoying. Occasionally he darted in for a quick punch, body kick, or half-hearted takedown attempt, only to continue his endless trek around the cage when he was done.
Patricky Pitbull threw and landed the harder punches. It would have been hard for him not to. It wasn’t much—but it didn’t have to be.
At 33, and more than 30 fights into his career, it may be too late to change. Henderson is who he is. And in many cases, that’s just not enough.
I’m inclined to agree Henderson can’t change. Truthfully, I wouldn’t imagine he would if he could. I would expect he’s delighted with what his approach has garnered for him over the years, what with the cold, hard record of success and championships we’ve outlined above.
Pro wrestling meets Brazilian street fighting, it ain’t.
Arguably no one has understood that better than Henderson. And as you said, he’s won by it, and he’s died by it. He died by it at Bellator 183, but I’ll be damned if I’m going to sit here and say he won’t win by it the next time we see him.
That’s his legacy. It would border on irresponsible to ignore it.
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