Benson Henderson understands that he’s doing something big.
The former UFC lightweight champion made waves in the MMA community this month after turning down a new contract with the UFC to sign with Bellator MMA.
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With his old job behind him and an April 22 Bellator welterweight title fight on the horizon, Henderson (23-5) sat down with Newsday to discuss the move and his future:
How has the business of MMA changed since you started fighting to where it is now?
BH: “It was such a big splash initially because it was so new, so different, so extreme. Because it was such a big splash, the business side of it exploded, it boomed a lot. Then after the boom it kind of went down, companies realized there’s a huge fan base for this, but there’s not a whole lot of money in it just yet. So there was a big explosion, it went down a little bit, and now it’s picked back up a little, but it’s still nowhere near where it was when it first started and hit the mainstream and all these companies were throwing a ton of money into MMA, but it’s still a good, viable business.”
When you started fighting, there was plenty of competition between MMA promotions, and now a few years after Zuffa absorbed a few of those organizations, that seems to be the case again. How important is it for there to be legitimate competition?
BH: “I think competition is good. The world we live in, we’re a capitalistic society and we’re all about having options, so I think it’s good. Our business model as a society, why would you not apply it to MMA? The more top-level organizations there are, the better it is for the fighters, the better it is for the fans to be able to view more, watch more on free cable television, to be able to watch some high-level MMA fights. The more organizations, the better it will be. The way I envision it, in 20 years, a young up-and-coming fighter is just getting into MMA and he’ll be able to have a 20-year, maybe 30-year career and be able to buy nice things for his wife, nice house, take care of his family, his kids, set aside a little for retirement and all that sort of stuff without having to get to the high, high level and be a world champion. He can be a mid-level guy, like mid-level boxers, guys who haven’t made it to the extreme. Not the Floyd Mayweathers, not the Manny Pacquiaos, not the Ricky Hattons, but the mid-level guys, they can still make a good career. They’re not super-hugely famous, but they’re well-known and they can make a good living, so I hope one day MMA can get to that point.”
Before becoming a UFC champion, you held the lightweight title in the now-defunct WEC. Do you see what Bellator is doing as similar to the old WEC or Strikeforce?
BH: “I see something different. I think the way the WEC, Strikeforce in particular, the way it went, I see Bellator as surpassing that. Not only surpassing, but being different too, it’s not going the exact same route. I just see it as different.”
When did you first get the inkling that your time in the UFC was coming to an end?
BH: “I wouldn’t say I had any inklings, but I was coming to terms when I had three fights, four fights left on my contract with the UFC. I signed an eight-fight deal. When I was getting toward the end of the contract, and having three, two, one fight left, I was like, ‘I think I want to enter free agency, I think I want to see what my worth is.’ The UFC is going to present a contract extension and I’ll take a look and see. They offered a contract after my second-to-last fight. Right before my last fight they offered another contract extension and I said no to both of them. So I’d say with three fights or two fights left that I wanted to try free agency.”
What was the process like shopping different organizations?
BH: “The biggest thing is that it was a test of patience. Waiting to hear back from this company, this organization, that organization. But it was good, got to field a lot of different offers, talk to a couple kickboxing organizations because I want to try my hand at kickboxing. Talked to ONE FC, Bellator, a couple other organizations in Asia. I enjoyed it, it was cool to field offers to be able to talk to different people and meet new people, so I enjoyed it.”
Was this like LeBron James and “The Decision” with big board rooms of executives wooing you or was it more conversations over the phone and negotiations?
BH: “Mostly it was on the phone. I did have dreams, I guess, of flying to here and there and having the big meeting and you get off the plane and they have dancers out there tap dancing, saying ‘Come to our organization!’ But it didn’t work out that way. MMA is not to the level NBA is just yet, but hopefully one day will get there.”
In the end, what made Bellator the right fit?
BH: “For me, it was a lot of the intangibles they brought to the table, intangibles the UFC just can’t match. Stuff the UFC doesn’t have the ability to match. Free cable television with the network deal they have with Spike, Bellator being open to me having kickboxing matches or boxing matches they can co-promote, so them being open to that idea, I loved that also. I’m one of those individuals who likes to test myself and find out how good I really am, no matter what it is. I would love to test myself in boxing and kickboxing, I think I can go pretty high in the kickboxing world, and Bellator is open to that.”
You’ve competed in other sports as well, is that allowed under the contract?
BH: “That’s the other thing, I was able to sign a ‘for the love of the game’ clause with Bellator. I also want to go do jiu-jitsu tournaments, wrestling tournaments. Bellator allows me to continue doing that, to go to do [ADCC Submission Wrestling World Championship] in 2017 and not have any qualms about it, not get any stink-eyes from the upper guys and Bellator VPs, not have any ill feelings toward me doing competitions.”
Did you ever get those stink-eyes and weird feelings from UFC people when you competed elsewhere while still under contract?
BH: “I got a couple stink-eyes and a couple letters of rebuke, but not too much.”
Do you feel like Bellator really made things personal for you?
BH: “For sure, and that was the other great thing about Bellator, they were super open and gracious enough to construct our contract in a different way. In the UFC, it’s ‘this is our contract, and this is how it is’ and there’s no wiggle room or individuality there. Bellator was super awesome being open to different ideas and things in a contract.”
Is that in terms of payment options, such as gate percentages, or just activities outside the cage?
BH: “Both sides, but they were open to it. UFC’s just not open to it. ‘Nope, we don’t talk about that, we don’t discuss it.’ You can’t even talk about? What do you mean? We can’t even discuss it at all? So that was kind of odd to me, you know? I think the key to all relationships, whoever they are, is communication and having open communication. With Bellator, everything was open and transparent, and you’ve got to love that.”
How much did the UFC’s exclusive deal with Reebok factor into your decision to leave?
BH: “That made a huge, huge impact on the deal. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t play into the deal. Reebok deal, we’ll see how it plays out, it’s playing out to mediocre fanfare so far. For me, I’m one of the fighters who lost out on a lot of money, a lot of money, when the rumors of the Reebok deal came out, and when it went into effect, I lost out on a lot of money. Being told I have to wear this, then being compensated with a few pennies, I’m not a big fan of. Being told I have to do this and being compensated with nothing, I’m not a big fan of. I’m not an employee, I’m an independent contractor, and if you’re an independent contractor, you don’t have to do certain things. So being told what to wear, you have to wear this, you have to do this, you have to dance like this for us, dance like that for us, I wasn’t a big fan of that. So again, that’s something Bellator brought to the table that UFC can’t, you’re not allowed. I was in the top tier, you can look it up in public records, the top tier for the Reebok deal is $20,000, so if I were to fight four times in a year at $20,000 is $80,000 in sponsorship money. So for a whole year I get 80K for wearing Reebok and that would’ve been over $100,000 I would’ve lost in that one year from the Reebok deal.”
Long Island’s Aljamain Sterling is entering free agency with a top-5 bantamweight ranking in the UFC and an undefeated record. What advice would you give him and other fighters going down this path?
BH: “I say do what’s best for you and your family long-term. Don’t think short-term, don’t think just here and now, something flashy. You have to be aware of your brand. You are building your brand, how you conduct yourself, how you give interviews, how you do everything is building your brand. And you have to think of your brand 10 years from now, 15 years from now. You have to be smart for your family decisions. Think about paying for your kids’ college education, extrapolate how much college education costs now and 18 years later. My son was born six months ago and I’m thinking, ‘how much is college going to cost in 18 years?’ So I’m trying to prepare for that, and Sterling needs to do the same thing, do what’s best for him and his family long-term.”
What do you make of New York being the only place in North America with a ban on professional MMA?
BH: “From my perspective, I understand the unions have a pretty good stronghold. I think unions are a good thing, but sometimes, not to get too political, but unions can go the wrong way, but the idea of unions are good, they’re smart, they’re positive for the average American in the workforce. So for them trying to get MMA legalized here in New York, dealing with those unions, it is what it is.”
Because we’ve had this ban for so long, would it be special for you to fight in one of the first few events in New York?
BH: “I think my dream would be – I’m pretty laid back and casual, not that I don’t care, but I’m casual with most things – but one of my dreams for sure is I want to be on the first New York card. It doesn’t have to be the first New York card but I imagine if they do an MMA event in New York it will be at Madison Square Garden, the very first one, so I’d love to be on that card at all. Period. First fight, main event, doesn’t matter. MMA’s first event here in New York at Madison Square Garden, I would love that, that would be a dream of mine.”
New York would be nice, but you’ve fought around the world, including your final UFC fight in Korea. How special was that given your Korean heritage?
BH: “The last fight being in Korea had a lot of different facets that meant a lot to me. My mom being from Korea, born and raised. It being my last fight on my then-contract. Being the first time ever in Korea. There’s a whole lot of things to choose from, so it definitely meant a whole lot to me on a lot of different levels.”
You began your martial arts training in Tae Kwon Do, did you ever see MMA as a career path back then?
BH: “When I first started training Tae Kwon Do, it was more just for discipline. My brother and I were two knuckleheads and my mom being a single mother wanted us to get more discipline somewhere other than her yelling at us. But I had no visions at all or aspirations of going from Tae Kwon Do into mixed martial arts. For me it was more, Tae Kwon Do I had fun, got very good discipline, yada yada yada. But it wasn’t until I wrestled in college when I realized this MMA thing could be a career.”
Did having that varied skillset make MMA come naturally for you?
BH: “For sure I think the traditional martial arts is a good background to have and definitely allows me to do a lot different things inside the cage. My wrestling background definitely helps me out a lot, but I don’t think either one led directly to MMA. I decided to do MMA because I wanted to be a professional athlete, I have a strong desire to compete. I love competition, it doesn’t matter if it’s MMA, Monopoly, Tic Tac Toe, whatever it is I love to compete. I’m one of those buttheads who doesn’t take losing very kindly. So for me, that’s more where it stands from, but having the Tae Kwon Do and wrestling background definitely helped out.”
After a long career at lightweight, you moved to welterweight for your final two UFC fights, starting with a short-notice bout against Brandon Thatch. Was that a move you planned for a while?
BH: “It was something I was thinking about for a while. Making 155 for me kind of sucks. It’s like soul, heart-wrenching getting down to 155. I had just lost, or ‘lost,’ to Donald ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone in a decision. It is what it is, you’ve got to accept it and move on. I was able I think to accept it and move on more quickly than any of my other losses. I was like, ‘I lost, it is what it is, the decision was what it was.’ But moving forward, getting past that they called me about Brandon Thatch on two weeks notice up a weight class, I said sure no problem. Then they said Denver, Colorado, and I was like, eh, elevation a mile up, that sucks. That’s the only thing that gave me pause, two weeks notice at a higher elevation. But they offered and I said yes.”
Do you see yourself staying at 170 after your first Bellator fight?
BH: “I’m open to, and Bellator is open to me fighting at 170, next fight 155, next fight 170, next fight 155. The great thing with Bellator is they have so many options with fighters and matchups for myself coming over. So I can go 155, next fight 170, then 155, so I’m pretty stoked about that and Bellator being open to that.”
How do you match up with your first Bellator opponent, Andrey Koreshkov?
BH: “I think it’s a good matchup. He’s a tough kid. He has one loss, he lost to Ben Askren. I know his camp, I know he is smart enough to get better in how they lost. He lost because he got out-grappled by Ben Askren and in his last fight, he won the welterweight belt by out-grappling Douglas Lima. So he’s smart enough to not just work on his positives, but work on his holes and mistakes he made. So the mistakes he made against Askren, he used that and turned it into a positive against Lima. I think he’s a tough kid, absolutely for sure with the bull’s-eye I have on my back, he’s going to bring his ‘A’ game. Not only is he defending his belt, but he’s going up against me, so for sure he’s going to bring his ‘A’ game, which entails that I absolutely have to bring my ‘A’ game.”