Benson Henderson woke up Feb. 26 as one of around 350. He went to bed that night as one of just seven.
When you go from being merely another name on the UFC's vast roster of fighters to becoming one of the organization's esteemed champions, as Henderson did that winter night outside Tokyo by dethroning lightweight belt holder Frankie Edgar, your life can't help but take a sudden turn.
Of course, there's another potentially hazardous turn just ahead for the 28-year-old former NAIA All-American wrestler, who reigned in the WEC's lightweight division until that fight promotion's athletes were brought over to the UFC last year. The Colorado native fights Edgar in a rematch Saturday night in the main event of UFC 150 in Denver.
Is Henderson prepared to defend the belt? The man nicknamed "Smooth" has had to squeeze training around the abundance of new commitments that come with being a UFC champion. His life of obligation was a topic of discussion when the newly minted champ spent a few precious minutes of gym time with SI.com just a couple of days before first putting his title on the line.
SI.com: So you win the UFC lightweight belt back in February, and suddenly everything is different for you, right? Talk about how your life changed.
Henderson: I don't think it's changed all that much. I'm pretty low-key. I'm pretty boring, to be honest.
SI.com: Well, OK, maybe you're the same guy as before. But isn't there a whole new layer of expectations in your life?
Henderson: Yeah, definitely. I guess that's the thing that's changed for me: the amount of obligations a UFC champion has. "Hey, can you do this interview?" "Hey, can you come talk to our youth organization this weekend?" "Hey, would you mind signing this real quick?" Hey, can you stop by our shop?" "Hey, would you take a few pictures with us?" I'm not uncomfortable doing those things, but it took me a while to get used to the amount of it.
It's a pretty dramatic life change for me. No one used to care about what I said about anything. It didn't matter if I said something that wasn't politically correct. Now I've got to be careful of that stuff.
SI.com: It's been almost six months. Are you comfortable in your adjustment yet?
Henderson: I'm working on it. All things in life, you can always be a little better. But I'm getting to the point where it's not too overwhelming for me.
SI.com: Did you get any guidance in this life adjustment from others who wear UFC belts? Do you have that type of relationship with any of the other champions?
Henderson: Jon Jones and I, we're cool. We have the same manager and I see him at a lot of functions, and I've talked to him a few times. And I'm good buddies with Dominick Cruz. We talk quite a bit. He's originally from Tucson, Ariz., and I train in Phoenix now, so I see him whenever he comes home. I've also been out to his gym a few times. We've talked about this, because we were champs together in the WEC. We've talked about how life changes. The ups and downs, the pitfalls, the trials and tribulations, that sort of thing. I've gotten some good ideas off of him.
SI.com: Your biggest responsibility as champion, I suppose, is to maintain a training regimen that'll prepare you to withstand a challenge by Frankie Edgar on Saturday night. Have you talked to either Jones or Cruz about striking the balance between training and extracurricular obligations?
Henderson: That's the thing I've talked to Dominick about the most: the obligations of having a UFC belt. How you're a lot busier. How the UFC will call you on two days' notice and say, "By the way, you're going here, then you're going there." How you have to not waste any time and have to know where to draw the line, especially when it comes time for training camp.
SI.com: When you talk to Jones or Cruz, or watch guys like Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre, do you ever get a sense of awe that there are just seven UFC champions and you are one of them?
Henderson: I wouldn't say awe. But I do understand the situation I'm in. I definitely remain aware of the hard work, the sacrifice and the dedication it took to get here. I understand what I have.
What gets me is when people say, "Oh, it happened overnight for him. Success came out of nowhere." What those people don't understand is that success does not come overnight -- it's not like one day you're not any good and the next day you're on top of the world. It doesn't work that way. It's a long journey to get to this level. It's a long journey to become successful, and you learn to grow with it. You grow with the small steps you take.
So there's no sudden sense of awe because there's not this huge jump from being nobody to the next thing you know, you're the champ. It's a gradual process. One fight you're on the undercard, the next fight you're on the lower end of the main card, the next fight you may be in the co-main event, then you make the main event. All of these small steps prepare you to take in -- hopefully -- the life that comes with it.
SI.com: How far back can you remember thinking, "I can be the UFC champion"? Not "I hope to be" but "I have what it takes."
Henderson: From the beginning, man, from the beginning. A lot of times, people take other people's confidence for cockiness, airheadedness, rashness or brashness, and that's the light in which they see you when you say you always knew you'd be a champion, blah blah blah. Well, you have to be confident in the sport we do. As an athlete, in general, you have to be confident. You ask an Olympic gold medalist, "Did you think you were going to win?" and I think the majority of them will say, "Yeah, I truly thought so." It might have been wishful thinking, and a lot of people might have put them down for their belief in themselves, but hey, they got there.
I fully believed I was going to be UFC champion when I started fighting. That was my goal. I wasn't, like, "Yeah, well, I wanna try this fighting thing." No, man, my goal was to be UFC champ. That's what I'm here for.
SI.com: You mentioned the Olympics. If you were competing in the London Games, what sport would you be there for? And don't tell me wrestling. I know you're a wrestler, but what sport do you dream you could compete in at an Olympic level?
Henderson: Sorry to disappoint you, but it would be wrestling, man. I'm a wrestler, through and through. I love wrestling. If I absolutely had to choose a different sport, well... [A few seconds of silence.] Hmm, I'd have to think about that. I don't even know many other sports besides wrestling.
SI.com: Well, OK, I'll let you off easy on that one and go from the hypothetical to something that's very real for you right now. When a guy wins a championship, some people say you're not a true champion until you've defended your belt. And here you are, getting ready to do that for the first time. So do you buy that line of thinking about being a "true" champion?
Henderson: Um, yeah. I do feel that, yes, you have to defend your belt once to be considered a champ. I'm completely in agreement with that. That's what I plan to do this weekend.
SI.com: There was a lot of wrangling, it seemed, before Frankie Edgar was given this rematch. From all appearances, you stayed on the sideline and let the UFC decide whether your first title defense would be against Frankie or Nate Diaz or Anthony Pettis. But elsewhere in the UFC we have Anderson Silva declining a challenge from within the middleweight division and expressing interest in a fight with Georges St-Pierre but not Jon Jones. Then Junior dos Santos says he wants to fight Alistair Overeem, who has been calling him scared to fight, rather than No. 1 challenger Cain Velasquez. Do you think a champion should be able to select his opponents?
Henderson: To each his own, you know? I think some guys have earned that right. No one needs to tell Anderson Silva, "OK, you're going to fight this guy or that guy." Me, personally, I'm the kind of guy where, you know, I don't want to be a prima donna wide receiver, saying, "I want this, I need that." I'm here to fight whomever the UFC puts in front of me. And I will do my darndest to beat them up. I don't want to be one of those guys who says, "No, I won't fight that guy" or "I won't fight the guy there; I need to fight him here," or that sort of stuff. The UFC says, "This is who you're fighting next," and I say, "Cool. Let's do it."
That's just my personality. But again, that's not to dismiss or say anything bad about any of the other guys. If Dos Santos says he wants to beat this guy up instead of the other guy, by all means. He's the champ. He's the belt holder. He can say and do whatever he wants to.