Benson Henderson is a jigsaw puzzle of an enigma, with an edge piece missing.
He has glimmered in the spotlight like he’s owned it, because for years he has owned it. His first splash of splendor came while he was lightweight champion of the long-gone WEC. He later took possession of the even shinier UFC belt, and after that slipped away from him almost exactly a year ago, the hot lights maintained their focus as he faced down the feisty procession of challenges put in front of him.
So when Henderson walked into the BOK Center in Tulsa, Okla., for Saturday night’s UFC Fight Night main event -- a headliner for the eighth straight time -- he was rightly ranked No. 1 in the promotion’s rowdy cluster of 155-pound title contenders.
Yet at the same time, having already lost twice to the current belt holder, the fighter known as “Smooth” was a nowhere man. He was in proximity to the top rung of the ladder, but without a foothold on which to climb back to where he once reigned. He had no place to go but down.
And down he went.
Rafael dos Anjos was the delivery man, and what he left at Henderson’s front door was a dose of harsh reality. It came in the form of a stunning first-round TKO in a fight in which the Brazilian played the alpha role for the better part of its 2 minutes and 31 seconds.
Henderson came in as a 5-1 betting favorite, and why not? The 30-year-old had won nine of his last 10 fights and 19 of his last 21. He hadn’t lost since 2007 to anyone not named Anthony Pettis. Two wins over former champ Frankie Edgar. Two over Donald Cerrone. Victories over Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz, too. How was dos Anjos supposed to live up to that? This fight appeared to have the makings of just another step along the rocky path on which Henderson was treading in order to build a case that might persuade the UFC to invite him to take another grab at the golden ring. He just had to put his best foot forward.
Instead, dos Anjos (22-7) put him on his heels, then on his back. The 29-year-old from Rio de Janeiro matched Henderson’s aggressiveness right from the start, and midway through the round he connected with a flying knee that rattled and felled the former champ. Henderson (21-4) instinctively reached for a takedown, but dos Anjos fended him off, and as Benson climbed back to his feet, Rafael collapsed him with a short left hook. With Henderson flat on his back, dos Anjos pounced with more punches, and referee John McCathy quickly jumped in to end it.
A new lightweight contender was born. For dos Anjos, this was seven victories in eight fights, with the lone loss coming back in April against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The unbeaten Dagestani, whom no one seems eager to fight, is in position call next when Pettis and Melendez get after each other in December. The winner of next month’s clash between Cerrone and Bellator refugee Eddie Alvarez also can stake a claim. And on the strength of Saturday night’s win, so can dos Anjos.
Henderson, oddly, isn’t so far behind. A first-round TKO loss doesn’t help his cause, but he wasn’t about to get a title shot, anyway, until all other feasible challengers had been vanquished. He’s a bit battered in body and ego, but still in the chase. He’s no more in need of a string of impressiveness than he was when he woke up.
Speaking of title contention and wake-up time, there also were UFC fights earlier in the day in Macau, China -- way earlier -- and in the main event of that card, Michael Bisping kept alive hopes that were all but doused. His dominant fourth-round TKO came against a 42-year-old version of Cung Le, and Bisping beat the man at his own game, strikingly. That makes it 14 UFC wins for the Brit for the most by any fighter who hasn’t fought for a title. It’s an inglorious achievement.
Bisping surely will have an opportunity to extend that run in his next fight. He’d love for that not to be the case, though. He’d love to be more than simply relevant. Henderson would prefer to be in a different circumstance as well, but both men will have to fight their way back to where they believe they belong.