Reaching a position where the word "champion" is placed before your name is no easy task under the UFC banner. The feat becomes all the more impressive when such a label is obtained in the dog-eat-dog world of the 155-pound weight class, where over the past two years, the division has become jam-packed with championship-caliber contenders.
For UFC lightweight titleholder Benson Henderson, it is a position he has zero intentions of giving up any time soon. But despite having held the divisional strap since February, the buzz surrounding Henderson's remains moderate.
This is due, in large part, to the manner in which he claimed the crown from former champion Frankie Edgar. Over the course of 10 hard-fought rounds, and two close decision victories (one unanimous, one split) Henderson edged out the scrappy, Toms River native to earn and then defend the UFC lightweight title. The end result left "Smooth" claiming top status in the ultra-competitive division, but the feeling of a title reign in process, is seemingly yet to kick in.
While no one disagrees that Henderson has earned his place in the upper echelon of the lightweight division, the way his pair of fights with former champion Frankie Edgar played out, has lead many to wonder if the champion is truly the top fighter in the deep and talented 155-pound ranks.
The 29-year old MMA Lab product will have the perfect opportunity to silence the critics, and establish a dominant reign over the division when he steps into the Octagon against number one contender Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 5 in Seattle, WA.
Being able to move past the questions is certainly added motivation, but Henderson is not the first lightweight champion to be doubted in the court of public opinion. In fact, to have the MMA world question the legitimacy of your championship, is something the previous belt holder knew all too well.
The Frankie Edgar Effect
Before the days of immediate rematches and underdog champions, the lightweight division was ruled by B.J. Penn. A former welterweight champion turned 155-pound wrecking machine, "The Prodigy" logged the most dominant chapter of his storied career, reigning atop the lightweight division.
After putting a sound thrashing on Diego Sanchez at UFC 107, the list of proven contenders ran thin. For the next challenge, the UFC tapped rising prospect Frankie Edgar for a showdown with Penn at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi. It was a matchup the champion was heavily favored to win, but Edgar executed a near-perfect game plan en route to the upset.
Immediately following the victory over Penn, the biggest moment of Edgar's career came under fire as portions of the MMA world cried foul.
The noise generated was enough for the UFC to book an immediate rematch and give Penn an opportunity to regain the lightweight title at UFC 118. But rather than Boston being the former two-divisional champion's night for redemption, it became "The Answers" moment for validation.
Edgar left zero doubt, hanging in the balance, as he routed Penn for five rounds to earn the unanimous decision victory.
Unfortunately for Edgar, this trend would repeat over his next two trips into the Octagon. After a five-round war with Gray Maynard, which resulted in a majority draw at UFC 125, Edgar's title reign once again came under question.
But after closing the book on their trilogy in decisive fashion at UFC 136, Edgar finally appeared ready to move forward into the next phase of his title reign.
That progress would ultimately be halted by Henderson at UFC 144 in Japan, in a bout where Edgar's championship fate would be decided on the judge's cards. It was a great victory for Henderson but the immediate rematch granted to the New Jersey native, cast a shadow on the beginning of his title run, similar to what Edgar experienced following his win in Abu Dhabi.
The situation would only amplify after Henderson's split-decision victory over Edgar at UFC 150 in Denver. It was a fight where a dominant Henderson performance could have pushed the doubters aside. Instead, a controversial decision echoed through the MMA fanbase, slowing Henderson's transition into his new role as the man to beat in the lightweight division.
The Road Ahead
There is absolutely zero reason to believe any of the doubt or criticism has affected Henderson in a negative fashion. Since his days as a WEC champion, the Colorado native has consistently operated with both class and confidence as he's steamrolled his way from the "little blue cage" to the top of the UFC lightweight division.
Henderson's road to the title came against difficult opposition, and hard-fought victories over the likes of Mark Bocek, Jim Miller, Clay Guida and Frankie Edgar have made for an impressive resume. That being said, the stigma still lingers, and his upcoming bout with Diaz is the perfect opportunity to put a signature stamp on his title run.
The Stockton native is a unique obstacle, but should Henderson emerge with gold intact, the critics chipping at the legitimacy of his title will fall by the wayside. Diaz will be riding the momentum of three impressive performances into the Octagon when the two men throw down in Seattle and a Henderson victory will make a huge statement.
In less than two weeks that moment will come front and center. Henderson will have the opportunity to prove, beyond all doubt, the lightweight title is his for the keeping.
A victory over Diaz will make room for the next contender to emerge, but with his ambition set to challenge Anderson Silva's record number of title defenses; Henderson will be looking to keep things moving down the road.