Benson Henderson eschewed chewing his trademark toothpick at the Bellator 208 news conference in Manhattan on Thursday, not citing his safety or hygiene, but instead his toddler son.
“I have a 3-year-old at home and if he sees me doing anything, he wants to copy me,” Henderson said. “He puts a toothpick in his mouth and is running around flying like crazy, and I see the toothpick and go, ‘Oh my God,’ so since my oldest son has been born, I’ve cut back on the toothpicks quite a bit.”
Partially kicking his toothpick habit isn’t the only change for Henderson.
The former UFC lightweight champion returns to the cage at a bit of a crossroads, facing veteran Saad Awad (23-9) at Bellator 208 on Saturday at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. Henderson still has aspirations for his fighting career and can take a step toward another shot at the Bellator lightweight title with a win, but he said less and less of his time is devoted solely to training these days. Ahead of this bout, Henderson said he’s been trying to find the right balance between fighter, coach, business owner and family man.
“I’m lucky to have a job where I get to be home with my kids for a large part of the day, my wife and I are able to hang out together and do this or that,” Henderson said. “But the more I train or coach or do this, it takes away from family time, so I’m sad about that, but I have to have a work life to pay the bills and be able to be home.”
At 34, Henderson said there aren’t a ton of things left for him to check off his MMA bucket list, but occasionally he gets to experience something new. A student of combat sports, Henderson is excited to compete in New York for the first time. But these days, his most unique opportunities come through coaching teammates at his gym in Phoenix, the MMA Lab.
“My coaching technique and style right now while I’m still a fighter is more hands on. So I’ll coach and help out one guy by practicing with him, that way it helps him more and I still get good training,” Henderson said. “Later on when I retire, I probably won’t practice one-on-one as much, it’ll be more classes and helping groups of guys.”
Since buying the MMA Lab a few years a back with coach John Crouch, Henderson said retirement has been in the back of his mind, but he doesn’t know when.
"The gym is mine, it’s who I am, I helped build it, I put it on my back and said, 'Hey, this is the MMA Lab, we’re the best gym in the world. The hardest working gym in the world,'" Henderson said. "We may not be the best looking, the funniest, the smartest or any of that stuff, but we will for sure be the hardest working gym in the world, every single day. So for me, it’s in the back of my head, I am aware of it.”
Still, Henderson (25-8) plans to get the most out of his body while he can.
“I want to get at it five, six times a year. I’m feisty like that,” Henderson said. “I like staying busy, staying active. If I can fight every other month, I’m down with that, let’s do it. My body’s holding up while it can and I’ll ride it until the wheels fall off.”
Henderson’s competitive drive clearly hasn’t disappeared. While he wasn’t asked to compete in Bellator’s grand prix at welterweight — the division he fought in when he came to Bellator — he told president Scott Coker he’d be willing to step in on short notice as an injury replacement.
He’s hungry for his second straight victory, which would be his first winning streak since joining Bellator, but he’s not optimistic it will happen if the fight goes to the judges. Henderson hasn’t won a decision with the promotion. He's 2-3 in Bellator, with all three losses coming by decision.
"I’m not going to win any [expletive] decisions?" Henderson said. "Cool, no problem, I won’t win by decision, just let me know ahead of time so I make sure that all my fights, I finish everybody. The way all the decisions have gone, split decision this, split decision that, I understand, being told straight up you’re not going to win a decision, that’s just how it is. Fine, I’ll go out there and finish everybody.”