SEATTLE Ė After it was all over but before it was official, UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson walked across the cage and put his face up against the fence to address the reporters as they were gathering up their laptops on press row.
"I don't talk; it's in here," he shouted. "Do you guys get it?"
Maybe Henderson (18-2 MMA, 6-0 UFC) didnít realize he was talking to people who make their livings with words, and who will therefore never stop trying to extract them even from people who cling to them like they cost money. But fine, even we can take a hint when itís shouted at us. And now, thanks to his thorough beatdown of Nate Diaz (16-8 MMA, 7-6 UFC) at Saturday nightís UFC on FOX 5 event at Seattleís KeyArena, maybe weíre starting to realize that thereís more to Henderson than what he is not.
If there was a knock on Henderson coming into his first non-rematch title defense, it was that he tended to play it too safe. He hadnít finished anyone in his unbeaten UFC run, had just barely taken and then defended the title in a couple of squeakers against Frankie Edgar, and the dreaded words "point-fighter" were being whispered behind his back. When those of us in the media took those whispers and presented them to his face, he claimed a mix of ignorance and indifference. He didnít care how he won, he said, so long as he did. It seemed like maybe the worst position he could adopt.
But then there he was, in the fifth round of a fight he was clearly winning on the scorecards, and he was doing anything but coasting. Henderson the point-fighter, Henderson the play-it-safe round-stealer, was still out there taking chances in order to put a beating on one of the most durable lightweights in the UFC. The guy who was supposedly out to do just enough to win was now pretty busy putting a violent stamp on his lightweight title reign. For a nice guy, he was starting to show a little bit of a mean streak.
If we didnít get the message after 25 minutes of that, we probably never will.
Of course, he still doesnít have a finish to point to. He still went from five straight decisions to six, which his detractors can always point to when they insist on denying the champ his due. But somewhere in there, probably while he was pounding the mean right off Diazís mug, he inadvertently proved that it does, in fact, matter how you win.
But just like all victories are not created equal, neither are all decisions. Turns out thereís a significant difference between squeaking by and dominating, and now that heís tried both as lightweight champ I think I can guess which one Henderson prefers. Hint: Itís the one where he doesnít have to wait for the decision to be announced before he feels confident enough about the victory to go and yell at reporters about it.
You could argue that the win over Diaz just reiterated what we already knew about Henderson. He proved once again that he knows how to stick to a game plan, and also that he has the very Georges St-Pierre-esque ability to match his opponentís strengths en route to exploiting their weaknesses. He may have also proved that those people who regard his title reign as a boring blip that must be temporarily tolerated will be in for a longer wait than they thought. Anybody who puts that kind of beating on a fighter the caliber of Diaz is a man who must be taken seriously, probably for a very long time.
That, too, is a point we may be finally starting to get now. It took some time, and it might require a few more beatings before it sinks all the way in, but itís gradually becoming clear that Henderson did not become a UFC champion thanks to some accident of poor judging. He got there by being very good at what he is and not trying to be what he isnít. As long as he seems so comfortable with that, the rest of us might as well get used to it too.