Benson Henderson turned what many viewed as a potential “Fight of the Year” contender into a rout.
Henderson carved through “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner Nate Diaz, retained his Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight crown and tightened his hold on the 155-pound division with a unanimous decision in the UFC on Fox 5 main event on Saturday at the Key Arena in Seattle. The judges’ scores said it all: 50-43, 50-45 and 50-45.
“Smooth” was utterly exceptional. The 29-year-old MMA Lab standout struck for eight takedowns in the 25-minute clash and, according to FightMetric.com figures, out-landed Diaz by a staggering 124-30 count in terms of significant strikes. Henderson, who trains under Royce Gracie protégé John Crouch in Arizona, thwarted his challenger’s only two official submission attempts in the third round.
Nothing Diaz tried worked, standing or on the ground, and as his frustration grew, so did the champion’s confidence. He scored with only three significant strikes between rounds three and four. Henderson, by comparison, delivered 45 of them. He neutralized Diaz’s exceptional boxing skills by attacking his legs with ruthless kicks, smothering him with clinches and grounding him over and over again.
With 15 wins in his last 16 appearances, including six straight victories inside the hallowed Octagon, Henderson has cemented his place atop the lightweight division. However, his dominant performance against Diaz does not leave the UFC short on options.
While it could elect to pair Henderson with the last man to defeat him, provided Anthony Pettis gets through Donald Cerrone at UFC on Fox 6 in January, another potential foil comes with every bit as much intrigue attached: Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. A longtime Diaz stablemate and perennial Top 5 fighter at 155 pounds, the 30-year-old Melendez will arrive in the UFC next month with a seven-fight winning streak in tow.
In the wake of UFC on Fox 5 “Henderson vs. Diaz,” here are six other matchups that need to be made:
Gustafsson will likely get a title shot.
Alexander Gustafsson vs. Jon Jones–Chael Sonnenwinner: Gustafsson completed his evolution from prospect to title contender with a unanimous verdict over former champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the co-headliner. The 25-year-old Swede has pieced together an impressive streak of six consecutive victories, all while showing the kind of development one seeks in a mixed martial artist entering his prime. After a coaching stint on Season 16 of “The Ultimate Fighter,” Jones will defend his light heavyweight title on April 27. Gustafsson is next in line.
Nate Diaz vs. Anthony Pettis or Joe Lauzon: Even with his lopsided loss to Henderson, Diaz remains a major player in the lightweight division. The 27-year-old Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt simply found himself overrun by a superior athlete in Seattle — a fate he could share with many by the time “Smooth” calls it a career. Because of his exciting style, polarizing personality and undeniable toughness, the UFC could match Diaz with virtually anyone at 155 pounds without stirring much debate. After Lauzon collides with Jim Miller at UFC 155 on Dec. 29 and Pettis locks horns with Cerrone on Jan. 26, Diaz could have a new foe to scout.
Mauricio Rua vs. Dan Henderson–Lyoto Machida loser: Age, injuries and the wear-and-tear of a decade-long career in MMA may finally be catching up to the once-extraordinary Rua. The 31-year-old Brazilian has absorbed copious amounts of punishment in his last three outings against Gustafsson,Brandon Vera and Henderson, and that stretch does not include the three overtly violent rounds he spent in the cage with Jones in March 2011. Whatever gas “Shogun” has left in the tank may be best spent on tying up loose ends. Henderson and Machida will toe the line against one another at UFC 157 in February, and both men have unfinished business with the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships middleweight grand prix winner.
Rory MacDonald vs. Dong Hyun Kim: MacDonald was spectacular in dissecting former two-division champion B.J. Penn, but a reasonable cap ought to be kept on the superlatives. In reality, he defeated a man who no longer has any business competing at 170 pounds. MacDonald certainly has the look of a future champion, but with Tristar Gym teammate Georges St. Pierre firmly entrenched atop the division, the UFC has time to let the 23-year-old Canadian marinate. A brutish Korean judoka with plenty of game and experience, Kim has momentum to burn after running roughshod over Paulo Thiago in November.
Matt Brown vs. Jay Hieron–Erick Silva winner: Brown made the most of his opportunity under the bright lights of network television, as he leveled American Kickboxing Academy mainstay Mike Swickwith a series of second-round strikes. “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 7 alum has quietly rattled off four wins in a row, three of them finishes, and his propensity for violence makes him an easy sell. Hieron, the battle-tested veteran, will meet Silva, the can’t-miss prospect, at UFC 156 on Feb. 2.
Dennis Siver vs. Cub Swanson: No one did more to raise his stock at UFC on Fox 5 than Siver, who looks like a million bucks at 145 pounds. The 33-year-old Russian-born German was brilliant in his three-round decision over Nam Phan, so much so that he earned a 30-24 nod from one of the judges. Swanson has been equally impressive of late, as the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts export has knocked out George Roop, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 9 winner Ross Pearson and highly regarded Brazilian prospect Charles Oliveira in succession.