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MMA’s Alternative Path: Fighting Outside the Best

Benson Henderson UFC, MMA
Kelvin Ma/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Last Saturday, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson finished his time in the Octagon with a cryptic message.

“When I retire, it will be with the UFC,” he began. “But I’m going to test the market.”

The MMA Lab fighter may possibly be on his way out of the UFC, which will surely cause a significant rift in the MMA landscape.

If the former champion — who has fought and defeated only the best in former champion Frankie Edgar, Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone (twice) and Josh Thomson — books it from the company, it’ll be mainly for a path beyond simply fighting the stiffest competition. It’ll be a path back to the top.

Henderson moved up to welterweight after two consecutive losses in the division. He has since beaten Brandon Thatch and Jorge Masvidal, but given how stacked with talent and contenders the division is, Henderson is a distant title contender right now.

But there’s more to being a professional fighter than championships or pride. There’s money. At 32-years-old, “Bendo” is nearing the final years being a prime athlete and needs to maximize the fleeting years of his time as a top athlete.

Prominent South Korean MMA promotion ROAD FC already floated a $200,000 offer to “Bendo.” Under Zuffa’s sponsorship deal with Reebok, “Bendo”is set to make $20,000 for his 21st fight under the company. That will already be the third highest tier and highest in a non-title fight. The hunt for a better deal factors heavily as Thomson, who recently turned down re-signing with the UFC for a reunion with Scott Coker in Bellator, already reportedly mentioned making $35,000 in sponsorship money.

In terms of the talent level, Bellator’s lightweight division is pretty solid. A former titleholder like Henderson stands a good chance of getting an immediate title shot against the Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks or a contender’s fight against Michael Chandler. A rematch against Thomson makes sense, too.

If it’s at welterweight, Henderson can challenge a deep set of proven vets like former Bellator champion Douglas Lima, Paul “Semtex” Daly or a potential title shot against Andrey Koreshkov.

If he gets booked for squash-matches against lower-level fighters like Thomson has, a softer schedule could benefit him. Henderson’s seen his fair share of grueling five-round contests, as has Thomson.

When Fedor Emelianenko returned from retirement, he met criticism from fans. Instead of fighting in the UFC, Emelianenko announced he was signing with Rizin Fighting Federation with former PRIDE boss Nobuyuki Sakakibara. But it was the right move for his career. He gets to be showcased in a squash fight and paid handsomely for it.

Henderson can still just make a case like Gilbert Melendez did last year. The former Strikeforce lightweight champion was offered an undisclosed “multi-fight multiyear” deal until the UFC decided to match. The contract with Zuffa granted Melendez a PPV deal, a title shot and a spot as coach of The Ultimate Fighter 20 alongside then champion Anthony Pettis.

“Bendo” has been one of the UFC’s most active fighters, serving as a great last-minute replacement. He’s also capable of fighting in two divisions and consistently puts on solid performances. It’s hard to see the UFC letting him walk. But it’s also hard not to see him get some lucrative offers.

In baseball, David Price was signed to a record-breaking deal that set social media into a frenzy.

This could be Henderson’s chance to do the same, to get more of a choice on how he wants this chapter of his life to read. He could join Thomson in Bellator with Coker’s creative matchmaking.

Henderson’s competitive nature says he sticks around the UFC to compete against the best. Choosing another promotion essentially means competition doesn’t come first, but that’s OK. And whether that’s simply the financial aspect or something else is anyone’s guess. If nothing else, the alternative path reminds us that mixed martial arts is still a business after all.

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