Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis and the Art of Letting Go

Jeremy Botter@jeremybotterMMA Senior WriterJuly 17, 2013

Apr 20, 2013; San Jose, CA, USA; Benson Henderson celebrates after defeating Gilbert Melendez (not pictured) during the lightweight championship bout of the UFC on Fuel TV at HP Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Standing in the center of the cage, Benson Henderson wasn't quite sure what to expect.

He'd just gone five rounds with Anthony Pettis in the main event of the final World Extreme Cagefighting event. After this, he and his fellow WEC brethren would be absorbed into the UFC, a place where many said they would flounder. If you believed the Internet, Henderson, Pettis and the rest of the guys would quickly find out that they were big fish in a little pond.

But that was all in the future. Right now, the only thing that mattered was the verdict about to be handed down by three judges.

Henderson knew he'd won two rounds. He thought he was winning the final round until Pettis leaped off the cage and kicked his way into MMA immortality. That kick, he thought to himself, might have changed everything. It may have been enough to sway the judges toward Pettis.

Above all, Henderson knew it was a close fight. Even the rounds he thought he'd won were close, and he didn't know what to expect in the moments before the decision was announced.

"It's pretty nerve-wracking. For the most part, with all of my fights I'd felt pretty confident that I would win the decision," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "But even when you feel confident, when you know you're going to win, there's still that moment where you say 'oh, I hope they got this right. I hope they scored the right things.' There's still that thing in the back of your head, though."

Unfortunately, Henderson was right: The Showtime Kick was enough to sway the judges, who awarded the fight to Pettis. He, and not Henderson, would be forever known as the final WEC lightweight champion. Pettis would also receive a promised shot at the UFC belt, though that didn't quite work out the way he'd hoped. 

To the victor goes the spoils.

Many fighters seek change after suffering such a devastating loss. They change camps, coaches or training partners. They drop down a weight class. It's their way of reassuring themselves that the losses weren't their fault—of telling the public that someone else was responsible.

It wasn't their fault, and if they just switch camps, well, you'll see the real deal the next time around. 

Losing to Pettis hurt Henderson. But instead of dwelling on it, he used the experience as a way to grow. 

"I was able to stay mentally strong. Of course I was sad. I was unhappy and I was upset. But it wasn't over the top or anything. I wasn't about to commit suicide or move to another gym. A lot of fighters will lose one fight and then move to another gym or find new coaches," Henderson said. "I stayed at my gym, with all my same coaches and training partners. I was able to grow with it, to be a man and to move on. Everyone has experienced ups and downs in life. You do what you can do. You roll with the punches, you be a man and you go on. That's life."

Henderson moved on in emphatic fashion, rattling off wins over Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida before dethroning Frankie Edgar to capture the UFC lightweight title. His UFC career was off to a spectacular start.

Meanwhile, Pettis floundered. He didn't get the title shot that the UFC promised, so he decided to fight in order to stay busy. He lost to Clay Guida, which suddenly derailed the freight train that departed the station when he defeated Henderson so dramatically. 

But Pettis rebounded, as great fighters often do, and after three consecutive wins and a mysterious injury to T.J. Grant, Pettis finds himself in a familiar scenario: He'll step in the cage with Henderson on August 31 at UFC 164.

Deep thinkers will label this a moment of potential redemption for Henderson, a chance to make right what went so wrong for him three years ago. But Henderson refuses to assign more importance to this fight than any other fight. 

"Do I want to see Pettis again? For sure. Do I want to get my hands on him? I cannot wait to get my hands on this guy," Henderson said. "But do I need to fight Pettis again to cement anything, or put the final nail in a coffin or whatever analogy you want to use? Not really.

"I was able to, as a man, move on from it. It happened. It kinda sucked. It wasn't a good moment. But guess what? I learned from it, I grew from it and I got better. I was able to be a better fighter in however many fights I've had since then. It's one of those things in life. You have to man up and move on."

Moving on from such an important loss is tough, but it's even more difficult when the instrument of your doom is constantly referenced, replayed and salivated over. Pettis' Showtime Kick is a staple of UFC highlight reels. It has been used to show off the graphical prowess of the next-generation UFC video game, due next year for Xbox One and PlayStation 4. Everywhere Henderson goes, the Showtime Kick is right there waiting for him, as if to say, "Hey, remember me?" 

Henderson remembers. How could he forget? But he won't allow it to become his defining narrative. 

"I'm never happy when I see it. If you're a competitor and you're playing basketball, you're going to get dunked on a couple of times. Jordan got crossed up by Allen Iverson when Iverson first came into the NBA. Does that take away from Jordan's career and what he's done? No," he said. "It happens. He's a champion who can say 'I've got six rings. How many does he have?'

"It's the same thing when I see the kick. It happened, but I was able to move on, to man up and move on with my life. I was able to focus on beating Frankie Edgar, then beating Frankie Edgar again and beating Nate and Gilbert."

Later this summer, Henderson has the chance for a do-over. There's no time machine that can take you back to correct your mistakes, he said, but you can grow as a fighter and as a human being. And through that process of growing, you become a better person.

You learn to let go.

But even if that loss to Pettis three years ago no longer eats away at him, you can still sense excitement in his voice when he talks about the chance to face his conqueror one more time.

"I was definitely excited. I got the call and they said that T.J. was hurt, or that something came up," Henderson said with a laugh. "I was like, cool. That sounds good. I've been waiting awhile to get my hands on Pettis again, and I'm going to get my hands on him on August 31st."