One of the unfailingly endearing elements of MMA fighters are their personalities. For every brawler there is an Ivy League grad. For every member of the military there is an Olympian. For every NCAA champion there is a guy from the streets.
Then there is “Smooth” Benson Henderson. Henderson, the reigning UFC Lightweight Champion will take on Frankie Edgar in a rematch on August 11 at the Pepsi Center in Denver, with his title on the line. As appealing as that is for the core MMA fan, its Henderson’s background that has such wide appeal. The Colorado native is of Korean and African American descent, is a devout Christian and never indulges in alcohol or tobacco. He is known for his laid-back, tranquil ways and a ferocious style in the ring that has seen him rise through the WEC to the highest levels of success in the UFC.
Even with his success, Henderson has his sights set on the big picture, including sponsorships and being a strong role model for others.
We caught up with “Smooth” to talk about his lifestyle, his businesses, the UFC and even Tim Tebow.
The success of athletes like yourself and Jon Jones should help grow the African-American following of the UFC, have you seen or experienced a larger more diverse audience at your fights or appearances to date?
— One of the great things about the UFC is its diverse fan base. It’s truly a global sport, so when you’re at an event, you see all races in the crowd. African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians and Caucasians fill the stands. I was at a fight earlier this year and got to meet Larry Fitzgerald. I’m a Cardinals season ticket holder, so that was a neat experience for me. I think we’re seeing more of those celebrities and athletes from other sports get more into MMA and the UFC. I think where the UFC has really become more diverse in the last couple of years is with the female audience.
While many casual viewers may see the UFC as all brawling, you don’t drink, don’t smoke and lead a passive lifestyle outside the cage. How do you mix those two areas?
— I would definitely say that those harder lifestyles from some fighters are promoted and in some cases, even encouraged. To be honest, those are things I’ve just never had an interest in throughout my life. It’s an honor for me to be able to be in a position to act as a role model for others. I want to stay as true to that as I possibly can. I think people try to equate that with me not being able to have fun. I enjoy concerts, comedy shows and movies. I love to hang out with my friends. I just don’t see how adding things such as alcohol or tobacco to my life can benefit me.
You are also a devout Christian, how does that mix with making a living as a fighter?
— It can be tough because I think there is more of a microscope on someone like me in this sport. Part of living a strong Christian life is understanding that we all sin. What makes you strong in your faith is learning from those sins, and working to not let them happen again. If I make a small mistake, I feel like it’s magnified because a lot of people expect athletes of faith to live this perfect life, which just isn’t possible. If other athletes not so strong in their belief in God made the same mistake, there wouldn’t be a word said about it. It feels like people are sometimes just waiting for me to mess up. It’s really not any different than fans of my opponents not believing I will win my next fight. I just have to prove people wrong.
Tim Tebow has been a vortex of controversy with his open views on using his success to spread his faith. How do you feel about his position and is it something you consider doing with your success?
— I have a lot of respect for Tim Tebow, both as an athlete and as a person. He’s an athlete I would love to be able to meet and speak with one day about his faith and how he handles the pressures of staying true to his faith while playing football. I think he uses his platform to spread his faith, but I also don’t think he pushes it on anyone. Most of the criticism you read about him and his faith comes from opposing players or the media. He is just there for his teammates, fans or whomever to be able to look to for inspiration. I am very strong in my faith and love for God, but I don’t necessarily push my beliefs on others. My coaches, teammates, friends and those in the MMA world know that my door is always open, though, and if there is some level of guidance or inspiration I can provide for someone, that is just a bonus.
Where do you see the UFC as a business these days?
— The UFC is becoming a global brand. It probably has a little ways to go in order to catch up to some sports that have been around for close to a century, but the strength of the UFC is in its diversity. Men and women of all races, shapes and sizes can compete in the UFC, which can’t be said for most high-level professional sports. With the FOX network deal, you’re starting to see more exposure of the fighters with more recognized brands and companies. It’s going to take some time still to become fully mainstream, but I believe the UFC is on the right track.
Are there brands which you can bring to the sport because of your diversity that may not have considered the UFC before?
— I don’t know if there are specific brands, but I think there is more widespread exposure from it. I won my title in Japan, and I had an opportunity to go to Korea as part of that as well. The fans and media were incredible, and you could tell they truly had a passion for this sport. One of my favorite fighters is the Korean Zombie. As you see the success of fighters such as us that can bring in an audience from another continent, opportunities for all fighters are going to increase.
Do you think Frankie Edgar deserves an immediate title match considering how stacked the division is?
— Frankie granted enough rematches himself when he was the champion that I had no problem accepting one as well. He has earned that right, and he was a great champion. Personally, I think I clearly won our first fight. However, Frankie things he won it. I think the fans wanted to see a rematch. There are some strong up and coming fighters in the Lightweight division, but I think the UFC made the right call on this fight.
Would you consider a title for title fight with Gilbert Melendez of Strikeforce?
–I want to beat every Lightweight fighter in the world. I want to compete in big fights. My goal is to break Anderson Silva’s streak of title defenses someday. To do that, I need to fight all challengers to the belt. I’ll fight whoever the UFC puts in front of me.
How has success in The Octagon changed your professional life to this point?
— Outside of the obvious financial differences, my life really hasn’t changed much. When I first came to Phoenix and was training in MMA, I was mopping the floors of the gym so that I could help pay for my training. Now that I own the gym, I don’t have to mop the floor as much anymore. Really, I have a close circle of good friends and I’m a pretty boring guy. I try to workout 3-4 times per day year-round, and after that I’ll either go home or to a book store to read. I’m a big fan of comic books and sci fi. Overall, I would say I’m doing pretty much the same things I was doing a few years ago.
Are there other business opportunities you would like to pursue?
— Right now I am a minority owner in Bueno Burger, which is in Scottsdale, and I am a part-owner of The MMA Lab, Arizona’s largest MMA training facility. Since I am kind of a nerd, I would really love to own a dollar movie theater one day and play movies that are a few years old. I am a big movie buff, and am always going back and re-watching movies years later. I think a lot of people would enjoy to re-live that movie with the theater experience too.