As fight week ended and Benson Henderson made his final preparations for his Bellator 165 lightweight title bout with Michael Chandler, he quietly celebrated his 33rd birthday. If it’s not an obvious milestone indicator, to Henderson, it privately serves as a reminder that he is rapidly approaching the end of a decorated career that has seen him win lightweight championships in both the WEC and UFC.
Saturday, he will attempt to add a third piece of hardware to that collection before he drifts off to the next chapter of his life: military service.
A few years ago, Henderson told MMA Fighting’s Ariel Helwani that he would only fight until he was 33. Earlier this week, on a conference call with media, Henderson reiterated that he was likely to follow through on that plan.
“It’s looking that way,” he said. “We’ll see how it all plays out but I do want to retire when I’m somewhat younger, to be able to speak coherently to my grandchildren and all that sort of stuff.”
Still, he plans to take himself out of one dangerous set of circumstances and into another by joining a military branch.
Michael Chandler has fought his way to being considered one of the best lightweights in the world.
Time is of the essence for him because most branches have maximum enlistment ages, with the Air Force, for example, accepting only those between the ages of 17-27. Henderson still has time left to join the Army or the Navy, which recruit those up to 34, along with the Coast Guard, which accepts individuals up to age 39.
“I would like to serve my country. I think serving is a lost art, giving back to the country," Henderson said. "Not just what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country.
“I think seriously we are lost today, our society today, something is wrong with us,” he continued. “We are jacked up in the head. We place our priorities extremely assbackwards. We celebrate morons who are focused on social media and this and that. So when I raise my kids, I’d like to express to them the importance of doing real stuff, giving back to your country, doing good, being a good person.”
While Henderson approaches that calling, his opponent, Chandler, has his mind focused on professional pursuits, namely elevating his position as one of the best lightweights in the world. A two-time Bellator 155-pound champion who holds a win over former UFC champ Eddie Alvarez, Chandler also suffered through a prolonged slump that spanned one year and three consecutive losses.
Since the last of those setbacks, however, Chandler has rallied, earning consecutive stoppage victories over Derek Campos, David Rickels and Patricky Freire, with the last of those earning him the belt.
Best fight this weekend is Michael Chandler vs. Benson Henderson. Two of the best lightweights in the world fighting for the Bellator title.
— Adam Martin (@MMAdamMartin) November 17, 2016
While Chandler has long been considered one of the best lightweights outside the UFC umbrella, he’s also faced his share of detractors who contend that he hasn’t faced the caliber of competition that a top UFC 155-pounder would.
Over the last 12 months or so, Bellator president Scott Coker has sought to change that rosterwide criticism by adding depth, and the signing of Henderson offers Chandler his first chance to face an opponent that’s been universally examined, dissected and championship-approved prior to the bout.
As a result, matching up with Henderson is not simply about a belt defense; it’s also an opportunity for Chandler to gain something.
“For me there’s still so much more to prove, and it’s not to prove to fans, it’s not to prove to Bellator, it’s not to prove to anyone but myself. I was put in this sport to be great,” he said. “I’ve made some mistakes in fights before, I’ve made mistakes in training. I’ve been deficient in certain areas, but right now I’m firing on all cylinders. This is literally the best I’ve ever been, and it’s not one of the things people say because they have a fight coming up. I really do feel like mentally, physically, spiritually, emotionally, I’m the best I’ve ever been. Finally, I have 100 percent given myself permission to be the best in the entire world.”
Confidence issues are hardly rare in a sport that forces its athletes to strip down to minimal clothing and compete with little more than gloved hands, and Chandler’s recent momentum certainly works in his favor, as he’s been installed as the favorite to win.
Conversely, Henderson has had a rockier go of it lately, getting walloped in his Bellator debut this past April against Andrey Koreshkov before escaping with a win in his follow-up against Patricio “Pitbull” Freire after Freire broke his shin during the bout.
Chandler said he hasn’t been impressed with Henderson’s early work, but given the challenger’s championship pedigree, he expects a better version on Saturday.
As pre-fight chatter goes, it’s a mild knock. So, too, was Chandler’s contention that Henderson is a “game-plan artist” who focuses on outpointing opponents instead of domination.
It’s certainly a grumbling that Henderson has heard before. But for a future military man, it shouldn’t be surprising that tactics focus on efficacy ahead of flash.
Sure, Henderson can engage in a firefight if the need arises, but he zones in when he’s mixing up his strikes with his takedowns, and is at his best when he’s racking up volume and forcing his opponent to keep up.
Chandler, meanwhile, likes to feature his hands, and while he has a stellar wrestling game and top conditioning, he trusts a blazing right hand as his go-to weapon.
Either Henderson will begin his farewell tour with a third belt in three organizations, or Chandler will leave with his signature win. They’re two men with two different callings, one heading toward a selfless act and the other chasing solo accomplishments. On Saturday, their intersecting paths will at least bring them together before their paths wildly diverge.