Sports

UFC: Champ Benson Henderson not looking past Melendez at UFC on FOX 7 Saturday

Decatur graduate Benson Henderson will defend his UFC lightweight championship Saturday in San Jose against Gilbert Melendez starting at 5 p.m on Fox Channel 13.  - Lance Giles/For the Mirror
Decatur graduate Benson Henderson will defend his UFC lightweight championship Saturday in San Jose against Gilbert Melendez starting at 5 p.m on Fox Channel 13.
— image credit: Lance Giles/For the Mirror

Benson Henderson has learned a lot during his mixed-martial arts career. The biggest of those lessons is to never overlook anybody entering a fight.

And that’s exactly what is happening leading up to Henderson’s Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight title fight Saturday night against No. 1 contender Gilbert Melendez.

“I’m definitely not looking past Gilbert,” said Henderson, a 2001 Decatur High School graduate. “He’s tough as heck. I know how tough Gil is.”

Henderson’s strategy has been working to perfection. Since joining the UFC, he is a perfect 6-0 and 18-2 overall, including three victories in 155-pound title fights. Henderson took over the UFC 155-pound championship in February 2012 with a win over former champ Frankie Edgar in Japan. Since then, he beat Edgar in a rematch in August and won a unanimous decision over Nate Diaz in December 2012 in Seattle.

“I’m not too worried about proving this or that,” Henderson said. “I’m just worried about going out there and winning the fight. I’m a highly self-motivated person. I don’t care who the guy is. I just want to win, period.”

Melendez is an impressive 21-2 during his MMA career and was the final Strikeforce lightweight title holder, where he spent the last seven years of his career. Contractual champion clauses with the rival MMA organization kept him from making his long-awaited UFC debut, until Saturday.

The Henderson-Melendez will be the main event at the UFC on FOX 7 event inside the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. The nationally-televised card will also include a heavyweight fight between Daniel Cormier and Frank Mir and a lightweight tilt between Diaz and Josh Thomson. The card will kickoff on FOX Channel 13 at 5 p.m.

Adding to the intrigue Saturday night will be the fact that Melendez and Diaz, who Henderson beat in dominating fashion on Dec. 8, are training partners and best friends in the Bay Area.

“Of course I would love to avenge my friend,” Melendez said. “I got to see first-hand what Benson’s all about. When your buddies fight, you can’t help but get a little emotional. I wanted the opportunity to fight this dude. I’m just licking my chops.”

Melendez has been nursing a shoulder injury and hasn’t fought since May 2012, when he beat Thomson in a split decision. Melendez was supposed to fight in September, but an injury kept him from the card.

“This is a neat opportunity for me,” Melendez said. “I’m definitely prepared. I’m going to take full advantage of it.”

This will be the third time that Henderson will be fighting on national television on a non-pay-per-view card. He beat Clay Guida at the inaugural UFC on FOX 1 event in Anaheim and defended his title last month with a win over Nate Diaz at UFC on FOX 5 in Seattle.

Henderson, 29, began his wrestling career during his time at Lakota Middle School and continued wrestling at Decatur. He went on to wrestle at Dana College in Nebraska and started MMA fighting a year after a dare from a couple of wrestlers.

Friends in high places

Henderson is running with some pretty highfaluting company now that he is the UFC champion, most notably All-Pro Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald.

Henderson met Fitzgerald following his victory over Diaz in December. Henderson was staying in the same hotel as Fitzgerald and Cardinals in Seattle. Arizona was in town that weekend playing the Seahawks.

“I’ve been a fan of Benson for a long time,” Fitzgerald said. “I kind of just naturally gravitate to guys who are great people first and great professionals.”

The two have started working out together at Henderson’s home gym, the MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz.

“I knew he trained in Arizona, but it broke my heart that he was a big Seahawks fan,” Fitzgerald said.

“I was a huge Seahawks fan growing up in Federal Way,” Henderson said. “We were all go for the Seahawks.”

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