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  • After time away to rehab a knee injury, Benson Henderson resumes his efforts to become the first to win a WEC, UFC and Bellator championship.
By Mike Dyce
September 21, 2017

In February of 2016, Benson Henderson sent waves through the MMA world, announcing he was leaving the UFC to sign with rival promotion Bellator. It started an era of “free agency” in MMA with big names testing the waters between the two promotions.

Henderson has opportunity to become the first fighter in history to win a WEC, UFC and Bellator championship. Henderson got his first chance against then-welterweight champion Andrey Koreshkov at Bellator 153 and a subsequent shot at then-lightweight champion Michael Chandler at Bellator 165 roughly 10 months ago, and came up short. Now, after the first extended break of his career, Henderson is ready to return Saturday at Bellator 183 in San Jose.

Henderson has been rehabbing his knee away from the cage, looking to get back to 100%.

“For me, it’s been super hard. It’s one of the hardest things to do, to sit around and not train the way I want to train,” Henderson told SI.com.

A formidable foe stands in Henderson’s way in Patricky “Pitbull” Freire. Henderson fought Freire’s brother Patricio, the current featherweight champion, in his Bellator debut.

“Anytime you fight somebody a second time, like a rematch, you know each other that much more. He knows you and you know him,” Henderson said. “But this time, fighting the brother, he doesn’t know me like that personal experience having shared cage time. But I got pretty much as close as you can get to fighting someone, fighting his little brother and they fight almost exactly similar.”

While Patricky doesn’t benefit from that first-hand experience, he has been picking his brother’s brain, a process that began seconds after Patricio’s fight against Henderson was stopped due to injury.

“The first thing he said as soon as he sat down on the stool, his fight against Henderson had just finished, he looked at me and said ‘Patricky, if you fight him you’ll kill him. He’ll never beat you,'” Freire said through a translator.

The winner of the fight could be the next challenger to champion Brent Primus.

“I know that I can control, only what I can control,” Henderson said. “What I can control is what I do inside that cage. I need to make sure I go out there and do my best. Go have an impressive performance. I need to have an impressive win. I need to stop Pitbull. I need a submission, I need a knockout, I need something.”

“I need to go get him though, I’m fired up. I know I need to have an impressive performance that would dictate the Bellator matchmaker giving me the next title shot.”

Roy Nelson makes Bellator debut

For the first time in eight years and nearly 20 fights, Roy Nelson will fight outside the UFC when he makes his debut with Bellator against Javy Ayala. Nelson is a fan favorite with a considerable following, but has struggled to collect wins as of late. In his last four fights, Nelson has two wins and two losses.

But the change of scenery is rejuvenating Nelson.

“Anything where you wake up to go to work and you’re like ‘I’m excited.’ I’m excited at what I can bring today. How can I be a better fighter? How can I make fans more appreciative? How can I turn new fans into a Roy Nelson fan,” Nelson told SI.com. “All these ideas and I’m not feeling handcuffed anymore.”

Handcuffed is an interesting term. The UFC’s deal with Reebok, which eliminates a revenue stream by forcing fighters into uniforms and removing other sponsors from ring attire, has been unpopular. It’s been cited by several fighters as part of the reason they’re leaving, many claiming to have made more from sponsors on their ring gear than in show money.

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It’s also stripped away personality from the fighters. Chuck Liddell’s iconic icicle shorts or Tito Ortiz’s famous flamed shorts would both be banned in the modern UFC.

“I just needed to be able to be me,” Nelson said.

Under Bellator, Nelson can wear ring attire that suits his needs. Bellator will create a custom video panel package to display during his walk out to the ring.

Aside from being able to show his personality, Nelson walks into a wide open heavyweight division. Vitaly Minakov was stripped of the title in May 2016 for failing to make title defenses and a new champion has yet to be crowned.

Aside from Nelson, Bellator has signed notable heavyweight fighters like UFC vets Matt Mitrione and Frank Mir, as well as the legendary Fedor Emelianenko. If Nelson wins, he could stake a claim to the title bout.

“As soon as I found out I had Javy, I was more worried about Javy and getting through Javy first,” Nelson said. “I’ll talk to [Scott Coker] literally right after my fight.”

The UFC has settled on a marketable matchup mold for picking title fights, choosing marketability and drawing power over the meritocratic structure that helped build its popularity.

Fighters are “talking their way” into title shots and skipping the line, so to speak.

“I’m actually excited for the title, especially in Bellator,” Nelson said. “I think in Bellator, that’s the one thing about Scott, he takes the politics out of the game and let’s everybody get a chance to fight for the belt, versus other organizations where it’s all about politics.”

Nelson would be open to a tournament, if that’s the route Coker went. But The potential for Nelson in Bellator has reinvigorated Big Country.

Aaron Pico looking to rebound in second fight

Coming into Bellator’s debut at Madison Square Garden, Aaron Pico was the focus for a lot of fans in the crowd. Pico was pegged as a phenom and the future of the sport, a sort of wunderkind and once-in-a-generation talent.

But Pico’s debut was not how he envisioned it. Veteran Zach Freeman locked in a guillotine choke to end the fight in just 24 seconds.

“At the end of the day, he won fair and square,” Pico told SI.com. “I rushed in a little too hard and he hit me with that uppercut or right-hand, whatever it was, and it got me. It dazed me.

“He introduced me to the MMA world and I woke up real quick.”

The loss didn’t spoil his professional MMA debut.

Gregory Payan, AP

“It was great, it was a great time during my life,” Pico said. “What I take from it is the positive note, that I really enjoyed myself. Obviously, I don’t enjoy losing, but I look at all the memories that took place before and it was awesome. I don’t regret it one bit.”

Pico and his coaches reiterated his need to be more patient and there are lessons to be learned heading into his second fight against Justin Linn, another MMA veteran with more professional bouts under his belt.

“The only thing I can possibly think of is just to get better,” Pico said. “The biggest thing for me is to get the experience in the cage. I got all the skill sets and I got a good team behind me. It just all comes down to experience.”

Pico’s resiliency is impressive considering he is just days away from his 21st birthday, clearly an indicator of the stages he’s been on already in his amateur wrestling career, including the Olympic trials in 2016.

Bellator 183 sound bites

“This is the biggest fight of my career so far, the biggest fight I’ve had in the organization… But as long as I am ahead of him, he’s not going to be the champion here. I’m going to destroy him.” - Patricky ‘Pitbull’ Freire on his fight against former UFC and WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson

“I think fans would be more appreciative if there was a Roy Nelson bobblehead, because that’s what they’re coming to see.” - Roy Nelson on the Fedor Emelianenko bobblehead giveaway at Bellator 183

King Mo helped recruit boxing champion Ana Julaton to Bellator

Former three-time world boxing champion Ana Julaton has signed with Bellator MMA, after competing with ONE FC for four fights. It’s a notable signing as Bellator looks to bolster its women’s division.

What makes Julaton’s journey particularly more interesting is who recruited her—not president Scott Coker, but rather former TNA wrestler and current Bellator light heavyweight Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal.

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“I remember King Mo back in the day asked me to get a hold of him,” Julaton told FanSided. “He wanted me to get in touch with him because Bellator was opening up a 125 (pound) division and at the time I was focusing on boxing. I spent a few years on the grappling aspect of the sport, spent a lot of time in wrestling room and now I’m focusing on the jiu-jitsu. While I was doing that I wanted to make sure that I understand each aspect of each discipline.

“So before I got started in MMA, I wanted to get back to my boxing roots to understand everything a little bit clearer. So when King Mo hit me up I let him know that I wasn’t really interested in getting into MMA, I was cross-training and everything but it wasn’t something I wanted to jump into right away.”

Bellator will crown first flyweight champion

MMA’s popularity is growing, and more female fighters than ever are ready to compete. The UFC had pigeonholed women into two weight classes, 115 and 135 pounds, making it difficult for some fighters to find a middle ground for their natural weight class. Some are forced to cut more than is healthy, while others elect to fight up in weight against larger opponents. For example, UFC bantamweight title contender Valentina Shevchenko cuts no weight to make 135 pounds.

Bellator has laid a foundation for the women’s flyweight division for a while, building up 125-pound fighters and is ready to crown its first-ever champion in the division.

Ilima-Lei Macfarlane and Emily Ducote will fight for the first flyweight title in Bellator history at Bellator 186 in early November.

Kamaru Usman aims at Rafael dos Anjos

Former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos won his first two fights in the welterweight division and has already cracked the top-five in the division. It  has even thrust his name into the mix when identifying the next challenger to Tyron Woodley’s belt..

“I feel like it is a slap in the face for him to even be mentioned for a title shot because it’s absurd,”  Usman told FanSided. “You just went 0-2 in your last two fights at lightweight. You bump up to welterweight, which is an even deeper division, you beat a guy that’s ranked below me in the rankings; not above me, below me. And for some reason, he is ahead of me in the rankings.”

Usman has a legitimate gripe with the process. He is 6-0 in the UFC, on a 12-fight win streak and still finds himself sitting outside the top-10. When Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia challenged Woodley for his belt, both fighters were on seven-fight win streaks.

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