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By: Jamie Penick, MMATorch Editor-in-Chief
Ben "Smooth" Henderson had his fair share of exciting moments in the UFC's former sister promotion World Extreme Cagefighting, ending his time in the blue cage in an epic five round title fight with Anthony Pettis in the main event of that organization's last-ever fight card last December. Now, with the WEC merging into the UFC at the end of last year, Henderson finally gets his opportunity to step into the Octagon when he faces Mark Bocek next week at UFC 129.
Going from headlining a WEC event in front of 6,300 people in Glendale, Arizona to making his UFC debut in front of 55,000 fans in Toronto, Henderson is doing what he can to prepare for the crowd, but at the end of the day he's simply thankful for the opportunity to be a part of such a historic event.
"I've been truly blessed by god for all my life, and I consider this a blessing," Henderson told MMATorch on Wednesday. "It's a great opportunity for me to go out there and showcase my skills in front of what's guaranteed to be a record-setting crowd at the Rogers Centre, and what's [likely] going to be a record-setting [event for] pay-per-view buys, and I'm just thankful to the UFC brass for giving me this chance."
Henderson says they've been doing what they can to prepare for what is sure to be a crazy crowd at the Rogers Centre in Toronto. He's fought in front of the bright lights before, but never has he experienced anything like what he'll see on this card and in this venue. For Henderson, the important thing is to not get worried about the distractions and simply focus on the task at hand.
"We're aware of [the difference in atmosphere for this event]," he said. "John Crouch, my head MMA trainer and jiu jitsu instructor, he's a really smart guy. We're going to be well prepared for [the crowd]. It's hard to emulate that or recreate that, but we've tried as much as possible in our training sessions. Turn the volume up on the stereo real loud, have everyone yell as I tried to listen to his voice in particular out of the whole crowd.
"It is new [being in the UFC]. I did [take part] in some pretty big moments, some pretty historic moments in the WEC, [but] this is a whole new level. I think for me the key is to go out and do what I normally do, go out there and fight, do whatever it takes to get my hand raised. I just focus on that, focus on the fight itself. I try not to worry too much about the crowd, about the booing or whatever else is going on. I just worry about the fight, and normally, for the most part, my fights take care of themselves."
Following a UFC 124 submission win over Dustin Hazelett - his fourth submission win over his last five fights - Mark Bocek declared that he had the best jiu jitsu game in the lightweight division. Henderson himself is a submission specialist, picking up eight of his 12 career wins by form of submission, but he says he's not after that moniker.
"I think that if Mark Bocek wants to be known as the best jiu jitsu guy in the lightweight division, that's fine by me. I just want to be known as the best fighter," Henderson said. "He can be the best jiu jitsu guy, it doesn't really concern me too much. I'm going to go out there and do what I always do, and that's whatever it takes."
Henderson is well aware of the ground threat that Bocek presents, and with a hostile pro-Bocek crowd in Toronto facing him, Henderson knows what he needs to be aware of. At the same time, he says he's more than willing to go wherever the fight needs to go in order for him to pick up the win.
"I definitely have to be aware of his submissions," he said. "Not [just that], but his wrestling and his clock-eating abilities. He's known for getting on top of guys and wearing them down and wearing them down and wearing them down. He's actively working, he's trying to do stuff, but it takes him three and a half minutes to do whatever he's trying to do and then he's already taken up a large chunk of the clock. So we're definitely going to stay aware of his jiu jitsu game but also his clock-eating abilities.
"I'm absolutely comfortable wherever this fight goes. If we stay standing, if we're up against the fence, if we're on the ground, if we're doing whatever it doesn't matter to me. I'm completely comfortable in any position in the Octagon."
Coming from the WEC, Henderson knows full well the stigma that had been attached to him and his fellow colleagues in the sister promotion's lightweight division. While he has fond memories of his stint in the WEC, and knows it's the place that really introduced him to the MMA world for the first time, he's now ready to see just what he can do against the top tier of the lightweight division in the UFC.
"Overall the whole experience of the WEC was really awesome. I got to go to a bunch of big fights, I got to take part in a bunch of big fights... It was the first place where I got to be known on a national and international level. [Now, coming over to the UFC, the stigma against WEC lightweights is] not the biggest deal to me, but it is something I have taken mental notes on and
I am aware of. I am aware that former WEC fighters against UFC fighters are now 3-3 [inside the Octagon].
"For me it's been a long time coming, because for a longtime I had to hear about and was questioned by the media, the journalists, the fans and the critics, hearing about how WEC fighters would stack up in the UFC and how we were [supposedly] second-class fighters to the UFC guys. For the longest time my only answer was to say 'who knows, we'll see.' And now we get to find out once we actually get into the UFC and get into the cage, there's no point in talking about it. Who can predict the future? One way to find out is to actually get in there. And I'm excited because now it's my chance to get in there. It's a good question, let's find out how I stack up against some of those upper tier UFC lightweight guys."
Henderson is a man of faith, and you won't hear him speak of his accomplishments and his life in general without a continued acknowledgement of how and why he believes he's gotten to this point.
"First and foremost, as always, [I give thanks] to my lord god above on high," said Henderson. "He's blessed me every day of my life and I want to continue to praise his name and thank him. Not just after you win a world championship fight, not just after you win a Super Bowl, not just after you win an NBA championship, I want to thank him each and every chance I get. Every interview I make it a point to thank god and praise his name."
Though he's focused on getting through his first fight in the Octagon, and the tough task at hand in Mark Bocek, Henderson's ultimate goal is to be the best fighter in the division. For him, that means a willingness to take on any and all comers, and now that he's in the UFC he feels that option will be available to him.
"[I want to fight] everybody," he said. "I'm here for everybody. I want to be the best fighter at 155 lbs. I want to be the best fighter on the planet, period. I want to beat everybody, there's not any one guy in particular... but as a true competitor and a man who loves a challenge, I want to face everybody, I want to beat everybody."
Henderson and Bocek meet on the pay-per-view card of next week's UFC 129 event from the Rogers Centre. Follow Ben before and after the fight on Twitter at @SMOOTHone155, as well as his Facebook fan page at http://www.facebook.com/smoothbenhenderson. You can also follow his coach John Crouch's gym at JCBJJ.com.
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Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
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