Benson Henderson's win over Josh Thomson comes with side of dispute

Sunday January 26th, 2014

According to some onlookers, Benson Henderson (right) should have been saddled with a loss.
Paul Beaty/AP

What a blowout.

If you didn't watch Saturday night's UFC fights because you were glued to, say, the Super Bowl pregame show -- surely that interminable cabaret must be airing by now -- all you had to do to form a picture of the main event in Chicago was go to the FightMetric website. There you would have discovered that Benson Henderson had landed 46 significant strikes over the course of his five rounds in the octagon with Josh Thomson, who'd managed but 19.

So that's why everywhere you turned on Twitter, fans and media and other strong-minded witnesses were calling it a four-rounds-to-one runaway, right?

Not exactly. The 140-character groundswell among those who watched the lightweight fight clearly favored Thomson, but the opinion of the only three observers who mattered went the other way. Or at least two of the three did. Thus, Henderson had his hand raised as the winner of a split decision that was greeted not so kindly by the leather-lunged dissenters among the 10,895 at the United Center.

"Hey, getting a W in the UFC? Let's see how you take it," Henderson (20-3) said afterward, a Cheshire grin spread across his face as he tried to expound on something he's often been asked to explain after fights: a razor-thin decision victory. His reign as UFC champion ended in August via an Anthony Pettis armbar, but prior to that the man known as "Smooth" had defended the belt three times, and two of the outcomes were hotly disputed. Not that Henderson cares. "I like W's," he said. "I like getting my hand raised, and I'll take it any way I can get it. You slip on a banana peel, by the skin of my teeth, by any means."

By any means, indeed. In this case, Henderson owes his win bonus to two judges who apparently put more weight on the 30-year-old's striking volume and persistent aggression than on Thomson's opportunistic seizing of advantageous positions on the mat on several occasions. This is the recurring theme of mixed martial arts judging, sometimes referred to as eenie-meenie-miney-mo. But it's not a random drawing of a winner's name out of a hat, really. It's more of a philosophical debate. Namely, what does it mean to win a fight?

Often the scorecard tug-of-war is between who does the damage and who lands the most blows or takedowns. It's blood and guts versus mathematics. But on Saturday night there was no blood and no significant bruising on either man's face. The only wound was self-inflicted, as Thomson broke his right thumb in the first round -- maybe in landing a punch, perhaps in the grappling game, he wasn't sure. He fought on, however, and still managed to manhandle Henderson, a grappler's grappler, for long stretches of time.

This valiant performance while injured won Thomson some fans -- not necessarily in the arena, where his broken thumb wasn't obvious, but certainly among those who were watching at home, since the Fox commentators mentioned the injury, oh, around a few thousand times. Perhaps this grittiness even factored into some fans' scorecards. But it didn't have to. Thomson could very well have been scored the winner of this fight on his dangerousness on the canvas alone.

Thomson (20-6, 1 NC) believes he did win the fight. The empty feeling that resulted is something he's experienced before. Back in May 2012, he thought he'd regained the Strikeforce belt he'd once worn when he went five rounds with Gilbert Melendez, but the split decision didn't go his way. Just like Saturday night.

But Thomson insists that this time was different. "The Gilbert fight, hey, that to me was a close fight; I could see how it went either way," he said. "This fight, I felt like I won. And I won with one hand. I beat the former UFC champion, who was a guy who's been here for two years, and I beat him with one hand. That's what I can't stomach. I'm a better fighter, and that pisses me off."

You could see it in his face when the scorecards were read. Only one judge, Gabriel Sabaitis, gave the fight to Thomson, by a 48-47 score, the same tally by which Brian Puccillo favored Henderson. Either seemed reasonable, frankly, after a tightly contested 25 minutes. Again, it depended on what you were looking for.

The most puzzling score came from the main event's most experienced judge, Sal D'Amato, who had the fight at 49-46, Henderson. He gave Thomson only the first round. In fact, all three judges gave Round 1 to Thomson and Round 3 to Henderson. Beyond that it was a free-for-all. Puccillo joined D'Amato in scoring the fourth and fifth rounds for Henderson, and Sabaitis went the other way with those rounds but sided with D'Amato in handing Henderson the second.

Henderson did land far more punches and kicks, and he was the one perpetually moving forward. That's a good visual for the judges. But he never hurt Thomson, and his forward motion allowed him to be taken down repeatedly, whereupon he was controlled for extended periods. FightMetric stats actually had each man with four takedowns, with Henderson succeeding on all four of his attempts and stuffing Thomson on seven of his 11. But Henderson did little with his takedowns and couldn't keep Thomson on the mat for long, while Thomson turned his into guard passes and dominant positions. He spent about half of the first round mounted on Henderson's back, a body triangle locking him on. Then again, he never could secure anything resembling a submission attempt, whereas Henderson put him in a standing arm triangle that looked tight for a bit before Thomson escaped. The fight had an ebb and flow, and the no-consensus decision reflected that.

For Thomson, this evening was just the latest disheartening turn of events. Several months ago, on the strength of his second-round finish of Nate Diaz, he was handed a shot at the championship, inserted into a December challenge of Pettis as a replacement for the injured T.J. Grant. But then the champ was himself injured, and the title fight was scratched. Rather than waiting for Pettis's knee to heal, Thomson agreed to the Henderson fight.

It could be his last. At the postfight press conference, the 35-year-old, who's been fighting since 2001, sighed at one point and said, "This might be it, man." He claimed that this was not disappointment talking, that he'd been thinking of calling it quits for a while, that even if he had won -- and thus earned back the title shot -- he still would be contemplating retirement. "What's the point of winning the title," he said, "knowing that you're not going to fight that much longer? I don't want to do that to the UFC, either."

What a blowout, indeed. We saw a back-and-forth battle between two of the top lightweights in the world, and at the end of the night, what do we have? One of them is weighing his future, heavily. The other's future is weightless. Henderson is the 155-pound division's No. 1 contender, but with him having two losses to the champion, he's just circling the landing strip waiting for something to fall his way. Someday.

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