Henderson proves himself worthy
Benson Henderson has been in possession of the UFC lightweight belt for a little over nine months. But after watching him take the strap away from Frankie Edgar via a razor-thin decision, then win their rematch by a split decision that many thought ended with the wrong man's hand being raised, it was within reason, while perhaps unfair, to label Henderson as something other than an undisputed champion.
Henderson's performance Saturday night was so dominant that its aftershocks could be felt in not one but two weight divisions. His five-round unanimous destruction of Nathan Diaz in the main event of the UFC on Fox fight card in Seattle was an emphatic statement aimed at one and all in the stacked lightweight class that climbing to the top rung of the ladder is going to be a mighty challenge. And watching Henderson outclass Diaz for every moment of the 25 minutes also had to make fans even more eager than they already were for a certain Feb. 2 featherweight title fight. Considering that Edgar twice was able to hold his own against Henderson, you have to think he should be cable of giving José Aldo all he can handle.
How dominant was Henderson? Numbers don't always tell the story of a fight, but here are some that'll give you chills. According to FightMetric statistics, Henderson (18-2) landed 124 significant strikes to only 30 for Diaz (16-8). Nate actually kept the ratio under 2:1 in the first round, but from then on it got uglier and uglier: 28-6 in Round 2, 21-1 in the third, 24-1 in the fourth and 24-6 in the final five minutes. Breaking things down more specifically, the disparity while the fighters were standing within striking distance was a 26-5 thrashing, but when they were on the mat the numbers were an astounding 67-0.
Did you see the SuperSonics jersey Henderson wore to Friday's weigh-ins as a tribute to the basketball team he followed while growing up in the Seattle suburbs? Well, on Saturday night he should have donned a Harlem Globetrotters shirt and had Diaz outfitted in Washington Generals garb. Benson made Nate look as hapless as Red Klotz.
A little over a week following his 29th birthday, Henderson won for the sixth straight time. All have been decisions, but this one was different from the rest because the champ never, ever, not for a moment relinquished control. Diaz is a master at fighting from a distance that suits his long reach and incessant punch output. But Henderson made the distance his own, landing debilitating leg kicks and knockdown punches getting off with his strikes before Nate could unleash his. And when the distance closed, Benson was the stronger fighter, controlling clinches and seizing the better position whenever the bout went to the mat.
Everywhere the fight was fought, Henderson was the faster, stronger and smarter man. Even Nate's trash talk couldn't throw Benson off his game. On the contrary, on one occasion when Diaz held out his arms to taunt Henderson, the answer was a straight right hand that sent the challenger to his back.
"It's just a matter of being well prepared, being in the gym as much as possible," Henderson said after being awarded all five rounds on every scorecard -- with one judge giving him a couple of 10-8 rounds. "All of my coaches are PECs -- performance enhancing coaches."
What didn't enhance Diaz' performance was a punch to the right eye in the first round, which the challenger said left him with blurry vision for the rest of the fight. The best he could manage were a couple of leglock submission tries, but the uber-flexible Henderson was never in trouble. And as time went on Diaz became so beaten up that he seemed less and less willing to commit to any form of attack. "I think if I tried any harder," he acknowledged, "it would have gotten worse for me."
This was the fifth UFC fight card on the Fox network, and by far the most stacked. In addition to the lightweight title fight, there were two other main event-quality bouts, both lopsided as well.
In the co-main event, Alexander Gustafsson (15-1) beat up former light heavyweight champ Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (21-7) so thoroughly after a relatively close first round that the unanimous decision in his favor included one scorecard with a 10-8 round. Like Henderson, Gustafsson controlled the fight by maintaining distance, attacking with kicks and punches that battered the battle-worn Brazilian.
The victory positions Gustafsson as the No. 1 contender in the 205-pound division -- which is to say he now should prepare to be overlooked in favor of a less qualified but more gabby challenger when the UFC sets up a fight for the winner of April's bout between champion Jon Jones and talk-his-way-into-a-title-fight Chael Sonnen.
The evening's other big winner, Rory MacDonald, appears to have no designs on a title fight. At least not for now. He trains with welterweight Georges St-Pierre, so he'll wait patiently for his turn. Just as he waited patiently in his fight with B.J. Penn.
Much was made in the buildup to the fight that Penn is called "The Prodigy" but MacDonald (15-1) is more fitting of the nickname, that Rory was 11 years old when B.J. made his pro debut back in 2001. As it turned out, MacDonald looked like a fighter coming of age while Penn looked like a fighter aging out.
Penn (16-9-2) had not fought for 13 months, ever since taking a beating against Nick Diaz. Well, in losing for the fourth time in his last six bouts, the onetime welterweight belt holder (as well as lightweight king, of course) took an even worse beating Saturday night. By the end of the first round he was target practice for MacDonald, who at times appeared ready to finish the 33-going-on-50 legend but remained poised. The 23-year-old knew that B.J.'s only chance was to land a big right hand, and he wasn't about to walk into one.
Instead, MacDonald attacked with punches and kicks to the tune of a 116-24 edge in significant strikes, and the nasty body shots likely were what sent B.J. to the hospital after the fight. MacDonald stuck and moved -- you might even say he floated like a butterfly and stung like a bee, if you caught a glimpse of the Ali shuffle he showed off a couple of times. He looked like he was having fun, and he certainly made it fun to watch him.
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