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World Extreme Cagefighting: Federal Way's Henderson rises to top of the MMA game
Ben “Smooth” Henderson isn’t what you think about when you picture a mixed martial arts fighter.
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 Middle School, and Henderson definitely didn’t send kids scurrying while at Decatur.
“I have been in entirely one street fight in my life,” Henderson said. “I would rather use my words to settle disagreements.”
But don’t let that intellectual approach fool you. Henderson is as tough as they come. The 26-year-old has developed into one of the best mixed martial arts fighters in the world. The 155-pounder is the undisputed World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) lightweight champion. Henderson will be putting his title on the line April 24 in the main event inside Sacramento’s Arco Arena against Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. The event is the WEC’s first pay-per-view event and will also include a title fight between 145-pounders Uriah Faber and Jose Aldo.
“Training has been going pretty well,” said Henderson, who now lives and trains in Glendale, Ariz. “Everything is going to plan. Some people in the media like to overanalyze everything about training. But it’s really not that complicated. He’s going to bring his best and I’m going to bring my best. There aren’t going to be any secrets and really no hidden moves. It will be the same old stuff and we’ll see who got better, who’s improved the most.”
Henderson’s April 24 fight is a rematch of an epic five-round battle between Henderson and Cerrone, which took place last October. Their first go-round, which Henderson won by a unanimous decision, was voted MMA’s Fight of the Year for 2009.
“No excuses. I take my hat off to the guy,” Cerrone said after the fight. “He did what he had to do. No excuses. It was a great fight and I’m ready to do it again anytime. I think he won the fight. Some people say it might not have gone that way, but he definitely won the fight.”
Like most other MMA fighters, Henderson’s journey into the sport started on the wrestling mat. Henderson began wrestling during his time at Lakota and continued at Decatur, where he competed under head coach Mike Bressler.
His prep career culminated with a second-place finish at the 2001 Mat Classic state wrestling championships inside the Tacoma Dome, losing to University’s Tommy Owen in the 135-pound title match.
“Decatur was awesome,” Henderson said. “It was a great experience. We were like 0-8 in my first year and then Bressler came in and completely changed the face of Decatur wrestling. We went on to being regional champs. It was cool. Some of my best memories in the world came at Decatur.”
Bressler remembers Henderson as a hard worker, who never thought he should lose a match, whether it was in practice or at a tournament.
“He was definitely confident in his abilities,” Bressler said. “There wasn’t anybody he thought was better than him. But that is a good quality to have.”
“I sometimes came off as brash or cocky,” Henderson said. “I’m a very confident person and very confident in my abilities and I was the same way back in high school.”
After Decatur, Henderson went on to wrestle at Dana College in Nebraska, where he earned NAIA All-American honors as a senior after finishing in fifth place at 157 pounds in 2006. Henderson’s performance helped Dana College win the NAIA national championship that year.
He graduated with a double major in criminal justice and sociology with the goal of becoming a police officer. Henderson was even offered jobs by the Omaha and Denver police departments right out of college.
“That was also kind of a reason why I started to fight, because I was already hired by Omaha and Denver,” he said. “Usually it takes a lot of time to get hired as a police officer. If I wasn’t any good, I could always go back and re-apply.”
Henderson hasn’t had to fill out any job applications yet and he can basically thank his MMA career to peer pressure.
“It was right in the time when MMA was becoming more mainstream and wrestlers were taking over the game a little bit,” Henderson said. “I was coaching at Dana a year after graduating and a bunch of us were sitting around after a hard practice. Someone said, ‘yeah, I would fight,’ then someone else would say, ‘No you wouldn’t.’
“So somebody said there is no way that Henderson would ever fight. I said I would and the guy told me that we could go to Omaha tonight and start fighting right now. I said ‘OK.’ Thankfully I won. But I never in my life thought I would be making a career out of it.”
But that’s just what Henderson has done.
“I didn’t even know how to punch,” Henderson said. “I took the guy down, he turned around, and I just started punching. The ref stopped the fight, and the crowd was going nuts. It was such a thrill.”
It’s a career choice that Henderson’s Korean mother didn’t approve of at first.
“She wasn’t exactly thrilled about that,” Henderson said. “Especially since I had a decent job as a police officer. She asked me how much I was making as a fighter and I told her that I made $300 and she told me, ‘that’s a sweet deal.’ Now she’s fully on board and happy.”
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.
Henderson’s mother now owns and operates a small convenience store, Peter’s Grocery, in Tacoma. His brother, Julius, assists with the business.
Henderson’s family has been instrumental in his progression as an MMA fighter. In the last three and a half years, he has compiled a 11-1 MMA record, including 10 wins in a row. Henderson won the WEC’s interim lightweight title with the victory over Cerrone and won the undisputed title in January by submitting former champ, Jamie Varner, with a guillotine choke.
Despite being a world champion in a relatively short professional MMA career, Henderson isn’t resting on his laurels. But he does have that killer instinct that can’t really be taught and the ultimate goal of being the best of the best.
“World domination one fight at a time,” Henderson said. “I understand that I’m not the best yet, but with hard work and time I will be. I’m not scared of hard work and want no ifs, ands or buts about it. I want to be the Michael Jordan of MMA. There were no ifs, ands or buts that he was the best basketball player when he stepped on the court. I want to be that in MMA.”