PHOENIX – Following his stunning upset of Islam Mamedov in January, rampant speculation suggested MMA legend Benson Henderson – who notably once worked as the janitor for the gym that he now owns – had put the final touch on a shining career.
The fight went down at the Footprint Center and saw the 38-year-old Henderson win in a split decision with friends, family and local supporters cheering him on. Many believed the triumph was the perfect way to cap an illustrious career.
Henderson, however, wasn’t one of them.
Instead, “Smooth,” as Henderson is known in MMA circles, inked a new four-fight deal with Bellator recently, claiming to have more left in the tank after defeating a fighter who hadn’t lost in more than a decade in Mamedov.
Henderson wasted no time before signing a lightweight-bout agreement to face Irishman Peter Queally in Dublin, Ireland in September – agreeing to fight in hostile territory after his last two bouts took place in his adopted hometown of Phoenix.
Henderson is determined to use the four-fight deal to put a stamp on his career, cementing his place as one of the greatest to ever set foot in the cage.
“These last four will be the best you’ve ever seen from me,” Henderson wrote on Instagram, adding a hashtag: “#ThirdBeltStillComing.”
Arguably the face of MMA in Arizona, Henderson began training at The MMA Lab in Glendale nearly 15 years ago. The sport has grown in leaps and bounds since then, and so has Henderson, winning the undisputed WEC lightweight title in 2010, before signing with the UFC and capturing lightweight gold in 2012.
When he started out at The Lab, Henderson performed janitorial duties in the gym in exchange for training sessions. He has come a long way since then and now owns and operates that same facility alongside his former coach, John Crouch.
Widely recognized as Arizona’s premier MMA center, The Lab is home to professional fighters from near and far, including UFC superstars Jared Cannonier and Sean O’Malley. The Lab was recently rated among the top 10 gyms in the world, largely due to contributions from Henderson, Crouch, and other coaches such as Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Keith Hagen.
“We live in a society that’s like ‘What did you do last for me?’” said Hagen, more commonly referred to among MMA followers as “The Seamonster.”
“They always want to look at what you did most recently,” Hagen continued. “Benson already trains like an animal, but I expect him to go twice as hard in the gym for these next few fights. His work ethic is unmatched.”
Hagen was in the crowd for Bellator 273, the event that saw Henderson defy the odds and defeat Mamedov, a fighter that others in the lightweight division had been avoiding for years. He had a feeling that it wouldn’t be the last time he watched Henderson make that walk to the octagon.
“I thought he looked amazing, to be honest,” Hagen said. “I wasn’t surprised by the new contract. He still has that fire in him. I see him being 80 years old, his kids all grown up and him still hopping in the cage to teach them things. He’s like Kobe (Bryant), Michael (Jordan) – he’s a competitor. He wants the ball in his hands. He sets goals and he gets after it.”
And like those two basketball superstars, Henderson is a gym rat.
When he isn’t training for upcoming fights and teaching classes at the Lab, he can be found at local MMA events supporting fellow members of his gym.
He attended RUF Nation, MMA’s RUF46 event, last weekend at the Celebrity Theatre in Phoenix, backing Roderick Agyeman, aka “Karate Roddy,” in his amateur fighting debut.
“It was nice to see Benson, all my teammates and training partners come out and show their support,” Agyeman said. “It was cool to be able to put on a show for them.”
Agyeman provided one of the highlights of the night, knocking his opponent out in the second round in stunning, one-punch fashion. He trained with Henderson numerous times leading up to the bout and was thrilled to hear that his role model isn’t hanging up the gloves just yet.
“Time gets to all of us, but I really believe him when he says these are going to be his best four,” Roddy said. “He’s got the kind of drive and mentality that you need to have if you really want to do something special in this sport … his career has definitely been special.”
With a win against Queally next fall, Henderson could be next in line for a shot at the coveted Bellator lightweight title – a belt that has eluded him thus far in his career.
It’s the one blemish on his résumé the one-time janitor would love to clean up, and with at least four more bouts ahead, he aims to do just that.