Benson Henderson is a former two-time NAIA All-America wrestler who, ever since beginning his mixed martial arts career, has had the strength, technique and ferocity to control opponents on the ground and systematically beat them down. When he's found himself in a treacherous poison, which happens sometimes when wrestlers are in the cage with high-level jiu-jitsu fighters, Henderson has shown an astounding ability to persevere, even in what appears to be the tightest submission. He remains patient, finds a way out and turns the tide back his way.
That would seem to put the UFC lightweight champion in good stead against the virtuosic mat attack of Nate Diaz.
Henderson also has heavy-footed kickboxing and the fighting-range discipline, which enabled him to hold his own in the standup fighting in his last two bouts, against Frankie Edgar, the quickest lightweight on the planet with an all-angles relentlessness. Diaz does present different problems while on his feet, yes, with his straight-ahead automatic-weapon assault. But Henderson has the striking game to make him ready for whatever Nate brings.
So the champ should be all set to defend his belt in the main event of Saturday night's UFC on Fox event in Seattle, right?
Not so fast. There's another factor that Diaz brings to the octagon that is unique to him -- with the exception of his brother, Nick. The Diaz brothers talk in the cage. They say mean things. They say things that get you angry.
"For Nate, that's been a pretty big factor in his success in the UFC," Henderson acknowledges. "By talking trash during the fight, he makes the other fighter get mad, get emotional. And then the guy throws a flying knee from 15 feet away. And Nate capitalizes on that mistake."
Henderson is talking about Diaz's last bout, back in May, when his striking and his talking frustrated the normally level-headed Jim Miller to the point where Miller came flying in with that ill-fated knee. The next thing he knew, Miller was in a tight Diaz guillotine choke and was tapping out.
So how does Henderson maintain his composure on Saturday night?
"It's the same as for any fight: You prepare," said the champ. "If a guy's a very good wrestler or a really good boxer or has a really good high kick, you prepare for that. It's the same when you're going to fight someone who talks a lot of crap. You try to make your sparring sessions as realistic as possible. You have your training partners emulate what your opponent does -- how he moves, how he fights, and in this case how he talks."
This might seem silly -- Henderson's friends and training partners saying nasty things to him while sparring. It would seem to be anything but realistic, since Benson knows deep down that his sparring partners don't mean a thing that they're saying to him. And besides, can anyone truly replicate the verbal warfare the Diaz brothers bring to the cage?
Henderson feels prepared, though, while acknowledging that his gym work in the martial art of "Sticks And Stones May Break My Bones But Words Will Never Hurt Me" has not been without its challenges. Early on, his training partners' words got to him. He'd become pissed off in the middle of a sparring session and fight that way, making mistakes he wouldn't normally make. But over the weeks he's gotten better at maintaining his composure.
"This preparation is necessary," he said. "You work on you doing your thing, sticking to your game plan, not letting stuff distract you and get you into a danger zone."
Maintaining composure is important against Diaz (16-7), who has skills to succeed wherever the bout goes. And he's on a hot streak, having won all three of his bouts since moving back to lightweight, two by stoppage and the other by lopsided decision. Henderson (17-2) hasn't been as spectacular -- his two decision wins against Edgar were razor thin -- but he's won five straight and the only loss in his last 16 bouts came courtesy of the most spectacular offensive maneuver in UFC history. That would be Anthony Pettis' springing-off-the-cage ninja head kick that was decisive in "Showtime" winning a decision in their 2010 WEC title bout.
As prepared as Henderson considers himself, he acknowledges that he'll be stepping into uncharted territory when he walks into the cage for this title bout. "I've never had a fight where I went in thinking, 'Oh, he's going to talk a little bit of crap,'" he said. "This will be a new experience. But I've trained for it."
And what if Henderson is so well trained that he maintains his composure in the face of the most in-your-face trash that Diaz can talk? Any chance that, seeing that his verbal attack is falling on deaf ears, Nate ends up being the one bumped off his game plan? "Hard to say," said Henderson. "Nate has faced a few guys before who did not get so worked up by his trash talk. So I'm not sure how it will affect him when he sees me keeping my composure. I don't know if it will discourage him or not. I can't be concerned with that. I just want to make sure I'm at my best."