In 2006, a young man named Benson Henderson postponed his life as a police officer to make his professional MMA debut. The son of an African-American father and Korean mother, Henderson found that his decision wasn’t so popular at home.
“My mom wasn’t too happy at first,” he laughs. “She thought, ‘Oh it’s not safe. You can’t fight or you’ll get beat up every day.’ And I was like, ‘You know that if I’m a police officer, I could get shot at. It’s not really that safe [either].’” The badge appealed to him because he always dreamed of helping people. He just liked MMA a little more. “I took a leap of faith and have been doing it ever since. And it’s worked out pretty well for me.”
Winning seven of his first eight fights, Henderson joined World Extreme Cagefighting. After rolling through his first two opponents, he got a shot at the Interim WEC Lightweight Champion, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, on Oct 10th, 2009. Henderson won a decision in a thriller that was named Fight of the Year. After unifying the title, he tasted his first defeat in several years at the hands of Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, another Fight of the Year. Around this time, the WEC was bought up by the giant Ultimate Fighting Championship. Out of all the fighters to join the UFC from outside promotions, few have soared as high or as fast as Benson “Smooth” Henderson.
Almost literally wearing his faith on his sleeve, Henderson sports angel wing tattoos on his shoulder blades and back. He considers himself lucky that at age eleven or twelve his two older cousins started taking him and his brother to church functions four times a week. “Right during those 3-4 years when you decide who you wanna be, I was taken to church all the time. I hung out with a lot of good people. A lot of positive influences. It helped me a lot during my life.”
Upon entering the UFC, Henderson rattled off three straight wins to earn himself a title shot at one of the UFC’s toughest and most popular fighters, Frankie “The Answer” Edgar. The two met in the main event of UFC 144 on February 26th, 2012 in Saitama, Japan.
Henderson’s rise to a UFC championship fight came as a result of a lot of hard work and he knows he owes a great debt to his mother. “The biggest example she set is hard work. She’s the hardest working person I’ve ever seen.” Clearly the fighter took the lesson to heart. Always in fight shape and always improving, “Smooth” has consistently been one of the best and classiest fighters in the world. “[My mom] helped set the course for the man I became.” Ironically, she too was the one to encourage him to take up the Korean martial art taekwondo, as a way to keep some of his Korean heritage while living his American life.
Henderson won a hard fought decision victory against Edgar and became the new UFC Lightweight Champion of the world and ESPN’s Fighter of the Year; the first and only fighter of Korean ancestry to win a UFC title.
Long eager to fight in his homeland, Henderson asked the UFC to schedule him for this event. But he denies that fighting in Korea will affect his performance. “Being in Korea is awesome, it’s great, it’s cool. But it doesn’t matter. There’s always extra stipulations on fights. First time in Korea. First time in the UFC. First main event. First fight for a world title. There will always be a new first. It’s definitely a historic moment, but you have to approach it the same.”
Although he doesn’t speak fluently, Henderson can get around better than most. “I can walk around downtown Seoul and be just fine on my own. Explain myself. Asking for this or asking for that. Getting around. I have no problem with that.” He watches some Korean dramas and films on Netflix but really loves Korean cuisine. “I was stoked the first time [my wife] cooked [Korean BBQ] for me.”
Henderson beat Edgar again at UFC 150 and followed that up with two more successful title defenses, tying the legend BJ Penn with the most defenses in UFC lightweight history. In six years, he had only lost to one man, Anthony Pettis. And at UFC 164, he lost to “Showtime” again and, once more, lost a lightweight championship in the process. For the second time, “Smooth” had to look at himself in the mirror as a former champion.
Often in Korea, those who are born overseas or of mixed race have trouble being accepted as Korean and ask themselves “Who am I?” Not Benson Henderson. “I never had a hard time understanding who I was. I’m American. My ethnicity is half-American, half-Korean. I never had a hard time or a problem with that. It might be because of who I am personally. I never tried to fit into anybody’s mold. I do understand that some people have a hard time with that. But for me the biggest thing was realizing that everybody is different: the entire world over.”
Henderson sees Korea soon becoming more comfortable with its changing identity. “As Korea gets more diversified and more global, you can either try to stay the same or embrace the change. And there’s one constant in life, one thing that always stays the same, and that’s change. So you have to learn to grow with change.”
Shortly after his loss, Henderson bounced back with two wins before suffering a first round knockout loss to current lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos and an extremely controversial decision loss to Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. Losing 3 out of 5−more losses than he suffered in his previous twenty-one fights combined−Henderson found himself in very unfamiliar territory. So, like Frankie Edger did after Henderson beat him twice, “Smooth” decided it was time for a change.
This month, the former lightweight champion fights his second fight at welterweight against Thiago “Pitbull” Alves in Seoul. Moving from 155lbs to 170lbs presents a unique set of pros and cons. Although he will be giving up his strength advantage, he will be gaining an advantage in speed, agility, and endurance.
When asked about his legacy up to this point, the 31-year-old former champion puts it succinctly: “Not done.” Still in fantastic shape, still growing, and still hungry, Benson Henderson is not ready to look backwards. “I’m trying to break records and set records higher. When you’re doing that you don’t have time to reflect back. I do know, conceptually in my head, that I’ve done a lot of things. But for me this is, say, Chapter 3 or Chapter 4 in a 20-chapter book. So I feel like I’m just getting started, always trying to grow and improve myself. So stay tuned. Man, give me another year, another two years, another three years. I’ll open some eyes up.”
“UFC Fight Night Seoul: Henderson vs. Alves presented by Bodyfriend” comes to the Olympic Park Gymnastics Arena on November 28 with a 6:45pm start.