It’s rare that the champion enters a title fight with more to prove than the challenger, but that could very well be the case when Benson Henderson steps into the cage with Nate Diaz next weekend in the main event of Saturday’s UFC on FOX event in Seattle, Wa.
After a pair of grueling, back-and-forth battles with Frankie Edgar earlier this year, Henderson stands on somewhat shaky ground as the UFC lightweight champion. Some people felt he lost the first fight at UFC 144 in February, and an even larger number believe “The Answer” bested him in their rematch six months later at UFC 150 in August. Despite being able to enter the room with UFC gold resting over his shoulder, Henderson needs to make a definitive statement in his second title defense to silence the whispers of him being a “paper champion.”
This is a problem confined to combat sports. Only in this arena can a fighter have a win on their resume, a championship belt around his or her waist, and legions of fans quick to offer a “yeah, but” to discredit their standing in the division.
Henderson didn’t ask to be in this predicament, and he truthfully deserves better than having to justify his place as the top 155-pound fighter in the UFC time and again as every Tom, Dick, and Spencer offer up their personal scorecard from his second fight with Edgar. He was awarded the decision, he remains the UFC lightweight champion, and Edgar has already moved on, and we all should too.
Except we can’t seem to do that — at least not yet.
Though he enters next weekend’s main event as the champion, something about it feels incomplete. He’s yet to deliver the type of emphatic, clear-cut victory that solidifies a fighter’s place at the top of their division. Whether we’re talking about champions or title challengers, signature wins that stand out in our memories are how we identify fighters, and right now, Henderson doesn’t have one of those moments.
He has a pair of hard fought battles with Edgar, a durable former champion who had to fight the same battle as Henderson following his initial victory over BJ Penn. While Edgar followed up his debated decision win over “The Prodigy” at UFC 112 with an even more dominant performance at UFC 118, Henderson’s encore showing against Edgar provided more questions than answers.
Most people would still identify his wins over Jim Miller and Clay Guida as Henderson’s top moments in the UFC, which is crazy to say considering he’s been a part of consecutive title fights that have headlined pay-per-views, and came away from both with victories.
That’s why this bout with Diaz just might be the most important fight of Henderson’s career.
This is the 29-year-old champion’s chance to deliver a signature victory, and do it on network television in the main event of one of the best fight cards of the year, against a worthy adversary who has been utterly dominant since returning to the lightweight division.
Diaz has rolled through Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone, and Jim Miller on his way to becoming the No. 1 contender, and he’s looked scary in the process. He stopped both Gomi and Miller quickly, and completely shut down Cerrone, throwing “Cowboy” off his game early and battering him for 15 minutes straight.
By comparison, Henderson had edged out consecutive decisions against Edgar, both of which were hotly debated, and has gone to the scorecards in all five of his UFC appearances to date. Even though there was a trio of shutouts in there prior to his successive encounters with Edgar, it still feels like there is something missing from Henderson’s highlight reel.
He doesn’t have that definitive performance that everyone points to as the moment you knew he was going to lord over the lightweight division for a long time. There is no 64-second knockout win like heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos collected when he won the belt from Cain Velasquez or the kind of one-sided championship defense like welterweight kingpin Georges St-Pierre has delivered numerous times in the past.
In addition to looking for his second straight title defense, sixth consecutive victory, and 18th triumph of his career, Henderson will also be searching for that signature moment this weekend in Seattle and he has the tools to make it happen against Diaz.
As great as the former Ultimate Fighter winner has looked since returning to the 155-pound ranks, he has historically struggled against strong wrestlers who are able to control the placement and tempo of the fight, which is something Henderson has had success with numerous times in the past.
What Henderson needs is a victory that is free from debate. Unfortunately, going to the cards with one of the Diaz Brothers usually unearths a number of conspiracy theories and a collection of unique ways to score the fight in favour of whichever Stockton, Calif., resident was fighting, so that might mean he really does need a finish to prevent the outcome from being labeled as controversial.
It’s fitting that the champion’s time in the UFC is linked to Edgar because what he really needs in order to silence his critics is a performance like the one the former champion delivered against Gray Maynard when they met for a third time at UFC 136.
Despite a pair of wins over Penn and coming away from UFC 125 with the belt still wrapped around his waist, Edgar never got the respect he deserved as lightweight champion. That changed when he once again survived a brutal first round at the hands of “The Bully” and ended up stopping Maynard late in the fourth.
While the questions and comments about moving to featherweight persisted, there was no way of denying that Edgar was the man in the lightweight division after that win.
That’s the type of outing Henderson needs next weekend against Diaz. A no-doubter. A win that even his greatest detractors — or the most ardent Diaz supports — can’t argue with.
Until he gets it though, “Smooth” is going to have to accept there are going to be people who question his place atop the lightweight ranks.
E. Spencer Kyte is a regular contributor to ufc.com, UFC Magazine, and Fight Magazine, and writes the MMA blog Keyboard Kimura. Follow him on Twitter @spencerkyte.