SIDELINES: Benson Henderson’s rise to top in MMA is quite a story

Decatur graduate Benson Henderson hugs his mother, Song, after winning the UFC lightweight championship with a unanimous decision over Frankie Edgar in Japan.  - Courtesy of UFC
Decatur graduate Benson Henderson hugs his mother, Song, after winning the UFC lightweight championship with a unanimous decision over Frankie Edgar in Japan.
— image credit: Courtesy of UFC

Benson Henderson is the UFC lightweight champion. Am I the only one who thinks that’s a big deal?

Henderson grew up in Federal Way. He went to Lakota Middle School before graduating from Decatur in 2001. Henderson reps the “253” non-stop to his nearly 44,000 followers on Twitter.

In the ever-growing sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), only seven men hold UFC belts. Henderson’s name is now mentioned in the same breathe as Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva and Jon “Bones” Jones.

I don’t care if you are an MMA fan or not, it’s pretty cool to have a Federal Way native at the pinnacle of any sport. I’ll admit, I was pretty indifferent about MMA. I had been over to a buddy’s house and watched a UFC pay-per-view out of the corner of my eye. But it was more to participate in the post-fight poker game and to drink a few adult beverages with the boys, than to watch the fights.

That all changed that night when I saw a kid that looked familiar, fighting on the Versus Network April 5, 2009. After a little studying and a Google search, I figured out that kid fighting in the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) event in Chicago was Henderson.

Every once in a while, I put together a little something for the Mirror sports page called Tracking the Grads, where I detail the college exploits of athletes from the Federal Way School District. Over the years, I have written about dozens of collegiate standouts in pretty much every sport known to man.

But Henderson always stuck out during his days as a wrestler at Dana College, and it really had nothing to do with what he was doing on the mat.

Every week during the winter, without fail, I would get a letter from the athletic department at the Blair, Neb., school detailing the wrestling exploits of Henderson. The envelope always included Henderson’s mugshot, which is a photo I will never forget. He had long hair and glasses and looked more like a kid that was going to win a national title in “Dungeons and Dragons” than wrestling.

But looks can be deceiving. Henderson eventually went on to become an NAIA All-American and help Dana win the 2006 national championship.

As a reporter covering a “beat,” there’s a certain level of pride that goes along with people and teams you are writing about. I know it isn’t “journalistic,” but I do root for Federal Way teams and Federal Way athletes.

But, I have to admit, I root a little harder for Henderson. His meteoric rise to the UFC lightweight championship is nothing short of miraculous.

He wasn’t the toughest kid on the playground in elementary school. He wasn’t the kid everybody was afraid of when he strolled through the halls at Lakota, and Henderson definitely didn’t send kids scurrying while at Decatur.

“I have been in entirely one street fight in my life,” Henderson said when I first met him. “I would rather use my words to settle disagreements.”

His fists, elbows and legs do the talking now. A devastating up-kick to the face of former champion Frankie Edgar in the second round paved the way to a unanimous decision Saturday night at the Saitama Super Arena in Tokyo.

I have been to Sacramento, Phoenix and Anaheim to watch Henderson’s fights and I am excited to watch more. For some reason, The Mirror wouldn’t pick up the bill to send me to Tokyo.

As far as I can tell, the self-described “Christian nerd” hasn’t changed a bit, despite being the UFC lightweight champion. Henderson has never had a sip of alcohol or a puff of a cigarette, and would much rather watch a sci-fi movie than hit the club.

Thank his mother, Song, for that distinction. Henderson said his mother instilled his hard-working attitude. As a single mother, she owned three businesses during his childhood and worked 17-hour days, six days a week. Sundays were her easy day. She “only” worked 14 hours.

“She would leave at seven or eight in the morning and would be gone and not home until 2 in the morning,” he said.

Song Henderson now owns and operates a small convenience store, Peter’s Grocery, in Tacoma.

Henderson’s love for his mom was on display Saturday after he beat Frankie Edgar for the UFC lightweight title. As soon as he walked out of the cage, Henderson walked right past security and hugged his mother.

Following the hug, Song Henderson pulled back and grabbed his new belt, and you could tell she was very, very proud of her son’s accomplishment. Henderson even admitted that he did hear her cheering during his fight.

“My mom has a pretty distinct voice. I can hear her everywhere,” Henderson said.

Mirror sports editor Casey Olson:


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