It's no conspiracy: Benson Henderson has worked to become one of UFC's best

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! Sports

MILWAUKEE, Wis. – Meet Benson Henderson: conspiracy theorist, but not Illuminati; business owner, but not businessman; mixed martial arts champion, but not beloved.

The UFC lightweight champion is one of the sport's most engaging, complex and misunderstood figures.

He gets derided for his lack of finishes, though if he beats Anthony Pettis on Saturday at the Bradley Center in the main event of UFC 164, Henderson will set a record for most consecutive successful lightweight title defenses.

He's the co-owner along with his friends John Crouch and Joe Ervin of a highly successful gym, The MMA Lab, in Glendale, Ariz., but takes great pains to stress he's not a successful businessman.

Henderson, who once was so poor that he had to mop the floors and clean the toilets of the gym he now owns, has a unique theory on business success.

"I don't want to be a good businessman, because I think businessmen are low-down, dirty dogs," Henderson told Yahoo! Sports late Wednesday before one of his final workouts. "You can be a good businessperson, but to be good at business, I think you inherently have to become somewhat of a dirty dog. I don't want to be a good businessperson, but I do want to have good, successful businesses. For the Lab being a good, successful business, I am happy about that."

He landed in Arizona by accident, following Crouch, his best friend and longtime coach, and former UFC fighter Alvin Robertson to the desert.

[Anthony Pettis' coach: 'This must be what it was like to coach Michael Jordan']

When Henderson arrived in Phoenix, he had little but what he could hold in his bag. He didn't live day-to-day; he pretty much lived hour-to-hour.

The MMA Lab was under different ownership, and Crouch moved there to teach classes and train fighters. The then-owner agreed to allow Henderson to train for free and to have unpaid access to all of the facility's coaches in exchange for some manual labor.

"The old owner hooked me up, he helped me out," Henderson said. "I was able to train as much as I wanted to and use the gym all I wanted and have the time with all of the coaches – John Crouch, Adam Gillespey, Jarret Aki – and in exchange, I had to clean up the gym.

"I had to mop the mats, clean the toilets, take out the garbage, and I had to do that twice a day. I ended up doing that for two years. They ended up giving me a monthly [stipend] to help me out, and it was just barely enough to get by."

It wasn't a glamorous lifestyle, and it's typical of the sacrifice many fighters make in order to pursue their dreams. Most of them don't make it and the world never learns their names. Henderson is one of the few that did, but it wasn't easy.

"There were absolutely a lot of days where I wasn't sure where the next meal was coming from, no doubt," Henderson said, laughing at the memory. "My boxing coach, George Garcia, gave me money a bunch of times so I could eat. He'd yell at me, 'Hey, you look a little hungry, kid; here's 20 bucks. Go eat.' It was so nice of him to help me out, and that's the kind of stuff you don't forget.

"But at the time, man, it was hard. I'd have to look in the couch for change to have enough money for gas to get to the gym. I didn't have enough money for gas sometimes and I'd be like, 'Hey, it's a nice day outside here in Arizona in July. It's only 120! I'm going to ride my bike to the gym today.' I rode my bike a couple of times to the gym in that kind of heat, and I thought I was crazy, but it's the kind of thing you have to do to sacrifice to make it to the top."

Have no question, Henderson is at the top, despite the unfounded criticism he receives for his failure to finish fights.

Since coming to the UFC from the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting, Henderson is 7-0 and is 4-0 in title fights. But all seven fights have gone to decision and in a sport and a company in which finishes are prized, Henderson's success has been somewhat overshadowed by his lack of finishes.

His two title fights with Frankie Edgar and his last outing, a split decision over Gilbert Melendez, were razor-thin verdicts, but his other four bouts were one-sided wins.

He thrashed Nate Diaz for five rounds in a nationally televised bout in Seattle last year and in 2011, in his first three UFC fights, he pummeled Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida.

They weren't finishes, but they were dominant performances that left little doubt about the winner.

He'll defend the title a fourth time against Pettis in a rematch of their classic 2010 fight, the finale in WEC history. Pettis won that bout in the waning moments when he pulled off "The Showtime Kick,"a leap off the cage that blasted an unsuspecting Henderson in the head.

But if you watch the replay of that fight closely, you'll notice that after landing, Pettis' momentum carried him away from Henderson and that Henderson was in the process of getting up when Pettis then came over to try to get a ground-and-pound finish.

He's fighting in Pettis' hometown and has heard all the accolades that Pettis has received.

He's not angry or upset, but he grins devilishly as he talks of some of Pettis' recent statements.

"The way I am, I'll all about 'Don't believe the hype,' " Henderson said. "Good or bad, don't believe the hype. When you're winning and you're on top and things are going well, you're going to read stories and hear people tell you how great you are. And when you struggle, people won't hesitate to rip you and get really nasty.

"But the truth is, you're probably not as good as the good things they say and you're not as bad as the awful things."

Much has been said and written about Henderson, and volumes of it are untrue. He freely admits he is a conspiracy theorist, but he mostly has fun with it.

He laughed at chatter on the Internet that pegged him as a member of the so-called Illuminati, a secret society. It began because before and after his fights when the camera zooms in on him, he makes a triangular symbol with his hands.

Some see it as him flashing the symbol of the Illuminati, but the truth is much simpler. The MMA Lab's logo is a triangle and Henderson is paying homage to it.

"I am a conspiracy theorist and you hear a lot of crazy conspiracies out there, and they definitely make you think," Henderson said. "I know of a few conspiracies that I think probably are true, but at the same time I personally know of a few conspiracies that are completely bogus, such as me being part of the Illuminati.

"I know how completely silly they are sometimes and how completely out of left field they can be. I watched some videos on YouTube, which I probably shouldn't have, but I did. And they were like, 'Oh no, look at all these keys to indicate that Henderson's in the Illuminati. He wore this and he did this. That proves it!' I'm like, 'Man, dude, you guys are on that good stuff. What are you on?' I know personally I'm not in the Illuminati. I never really heard of it and I'm completely baffled by it."

Henderson doesn't subscribe to the conspiracy theory argument that man didn't walk on the moon. "Oh, no, no, I think we walked on the moon; I believe that," he says.

But as to the one about T.J. Grant pulling out of his fight with Henderson at UFC 164 to pave the way for the rematch with Pettis in Pettis' hometown? Well, Henderson is going to plead the fifth on that one.

Grant pulled out of the fight with a concussion. The UFC then replaced Grant with Pettis, who is from Milwaukee. That led to charges that it was planned by the UFC. On that one, Henderson played the diplomat.

"As far as T.J.'s injury, I said to that, it is what it is," Henderson said. "It's fine by me. It's not my call to say whether it's a legitimate or not legitimate injury. My job is to beat up whoever's in front of me, so at some point in time, if T.J. ever gets in front of me, I'm going to beat him up. As far as him having an injury, so to speak, or anything like that, it's not on me to call it."

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