Unfortunately for Henderson, then man facing him inside the Bradley Center in Milwaukee was also the last man to defeat him, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis.
Pettis defeated Henderson at WEC 53 in December 2010, scoring one of the sport’s most polarizing highlight reel moments, when, in the fifth and final round, he leaped off the cage, spun in the air, and clipped “Smooth” in the face in a truly wild display of athleticism. The kick became known as the “Showtime Kick.”
Since that time, Henderson went on to become the reigning UFC champion after a stellar run in the company that included wins over Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone.
In the meantime, Pettis battled his way to the top of the ranks after suffering a loss in his promotional debut to Clay Guida at The Ultimate Fighter Finale 13.
The rematch that has been three years in the making finally happened on Saturday night. It was Henderson’s opportunity to erase the lingering memories from that infamous night and eliminate the “stain from (his) soul” that the Showtime kick induced.
But he may have to scrub a little harder.
The opening stanza saw Henderson pressure almost immediately. He jogged to the center of the Octagon and put his jab directly in Pettis’ face, and followed it up with a lightning quick double-leg takedown attempt.
Pettis sprawled the opening attack and the fighters exchanged strikes against the cage.
Shortly after the initial attempt, the fighters separated and Henderson attempted another shot.
Once again, Pettis displayed beautiful cage control, and sprawled almost effortlessly.
With just 120-seconds left in round one, Henderson was leading total strikes 27-4, and was working his jab and clinch in an effective manner.
Then it all unraveled.
Pettis landed one body kick that sent a muffled crack throughout the arena. Then another one. Then another one. Then another one.
Each body kick was quicker and more devastating than the previous one. Henderson retreated to the cage in obvious pain, as Pettis gained confidence.
With Henderson hurt and on the retreat, Pettis tried a flashy cartwheel kick that ended up with the hometown kid and Duke Roufus product flat on his back with about 60 seconds remaining.
To most, it seemed as if Pettis had just given the round away. Or, maybe, he just planned it that way.
As they grappled for control on the ground, Pettis snatched Henderson’s arm and began to strain for the fight-ending armbar.
Given Henderson’s uncanny ability to outlast submission attempts, it was realistic to think the champion would eventually find a way out. After all, there was roughly half a minute left in the round.
Henderson pulled and pried, he tried to step over, he tried to rip out – he tried everything.
With his opposite arm trapped, and with Pettis’ hometown fans holding their collective breath inside the Bradley Center, Henderson verbally submitted to referee Herb Dean, and Pettis leapt to his feet in exaltation.
It was a somewhat anti-climatic moment for the diehard Pettis faithful and the newly crowned champ, as the lack of visual tapping left many wondering exactly what had happened, but much like this writer’s beloved Chicago Blackhawks in the Stanley Cup finals in 2010, it didn’t take long for everyone to get the message loud and clear.
Post-fight, an elated Pettis thanked the city and fans that made him.
“I grew up coming to this arena right here,” yelled Pettis. “As a kid I would sit way up in the nosebleeds. So this is for all ya’ll up in the nosebleeds! You can do anything you want to do! I’m here!”
He continued, “Milwaukee, this is for you! I love you all! Milwaukee, you made the UFC lightweight champion!”
Although the armbar earned him UFC 164 Submission of the Night honors (to go along with his two Fight of the Night awards from prior UFC bouts), it was the brutal kicks to the body that the champ credits for defeating “Smooth” for a second time.
“The body kicks did it,” stated Pettis. “I’m a traditional martial artist. I’ve been throwing body kicks since I was five years old.”
Pettis then went on to describe the fight ending submission, “I felt his arm pop, and then I heard him say ‘tap, tap, tap!’”
When questioned what was next for the newly minted 155-pound king, Pettis wasted no time in calling out an opponent.
However, it wasn’t even a fighter in Pettis’ weight class that he called out on the mic.
“Jose Aldo, we have some unfinished business,” he declared.
“My belt for your belt.”
Whether the UFC makes a fight between the brand new lightweight champion and his featherweight counterpart – a fight that was already slated once, but Pettis had to withdraw from due to injury – is yet to be seen. One could argue that Pettis needs to defend his recently attained chunk of UFC gold before making a “superfight” with one of the longest reigning champions in the company currently, but one could also argue that the UFC posses no two other fighters with a more fan-friendly approach to MMA combat.
Whatever the case may be, Pettis and Aldo sit atop their respective divisions, as Benson Henderson will head home to Glendale, Arizona, and his team at the MMALab with double the load of soul scrubbing than when he left.
(Follow @RyanMcKinnell on Twitter)
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