DENVER - Benson Henderson, who was born in Colorado Springs and once thought he might settle down as a Denver police officer, strode to his press conference at Pepsi Center to cheers from the crowd.
His Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight title belt was already set up at his table.
"Benson!" one fan called.
"Nice shoes Benson!" said another, referring to Henderson’s white high tops, which didn’t come close to matching his three-piece suit.
Henderson smiled and pointed at the fan who remarked about his shoes.
Henderson didn’t start mixed martial arts fighting thinking he’d become famous, but there he was, smiling and laughing as UFC president Dana White played to the crowd at the press conference, which drew at least 100 fans. At White’s podium was a poster with the faces of Henderson and his opponent, Frankie Edgar, promoting the upcoming UFC card at Pepsi Center.
UFC had 6.75 million buys for its 11 pay-per-view events last year, according to MMAPayout.com Blue Book, which tracks the business of MMA. And Henderson will be headlining the 150th card in UFC history, on Aug. 11. The fighters were in Denver to promote that tickets go on sale Friday. UFC is hoping to at least equal the 16,000 fans it got for its last event at Pepsi Center.
The star of the upcoming show takes it all in stride. He’s as surprised to be in this spot as anyone.
"I’m not one of those guys that gets accustomed to more notoriety and fame," said Henderson, who is now going by Benson instead of Ben. "Every day I’m surprised when I’m walking down the street and someone yells my name, like, ’What, how do you ... oh, that’s right.’"
Henderson grew up in the Tacoma, Wash., area and trains in Glendale, Ariz., but he still feels a close connection to Colorado. He was born here and had an offer to join the Denver Police after graduating college with a degree in criminal justice, but ended up fighting professionally. He started training for his MMA career in Denver.
"I took a lot of lumps and bruises out here; I did a lot of growing out here," Henderson said. "It’s nice to come back out here, kind of on top."
He worked his way up, first making his name in World Extreme Cagefighting. But UFC is the big name in the sport, and Henderson got his chance to prove himself on that stage when UFC took over WEC in a merger.
When he beat Edgar in their first meeting Feb. 26, winning the UFC lightweight championship in a unanimous decision, it validated his fighting career.
"Every day, it hits me a little more and a little more," Henderson said of winning the title. "It means a lot."
In some ways, the laid-back Henderson seemed out of place at Tuesday’s press conference. He’s not a self-promoter - he corrected a fan who asked him about his quote that he would beat Edgar 10 out of 10 times, saying he merely pointed out he would work his hardest to get that result - but White promotes the sport well, sharing all his opinions and sometimes profanely arguing with fans on Twitter.
Fans laughed at White’s inside jokes about UFC fighters. He played along with one fan’s request to be part of a fighter’s entourage at UFC 150, and another’s question about a ring girl signing autographs.
"Whether you’re putting your money down for a ticket or pay per view, we’re going to deliver a great card," White said.
Yet, Henderson also manages to fit in well. He reciprocates the attention from the fans who made him the unlikely star in the sport that he is today. He appears genuinely grateful for everything that has come his way.
"I don’t want to go from here to here and not enjoy the journey," Henderson said. "I want to stop and smell the roses every once in a while. I want to enjoy this."