In the morning hours here in North America, former UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson fought Jorge Masvidal in the main event of the UFC’s debut in Seoul, South Korea -- the last fight on his UFC contract. Now a free agent, the 32-year-old veteran is near the peak of his game and will be either an attractive acquisition or solid re-signing for the company that manages to secure his services.
In the past few years, many fighters considered top 10 in their weight class have been cut loose by UFC much to the outcry of hardcore fight fans who felt that if UFC was to be taken seriously as a sport, they shouldn’t let top tier talent walk away. But with Henderson, it's different. Guys like Phil Davis, Jon Fitch, Jake Shields, and Yushin Okami were still top contenders but didn't move ratings or PPV buys (proven when they went elsewhere), weren't serious title contenders, and carried high price tags. While UFC runs a lot of cards and could use the depth that these guys provide, they also have a future to think of and names like the ones I’ve listed here were essentially roadblocks for younger talent to make their way to the top.
This is why someone like Henderson is very important. He could arguably be a top 10 competitor at either 155 or 170, and is someone that can very easily headline an FS 1 or Fight Pass card. He also fits in nicely in a co-main event position on a FOX show or PPV. The top of the show is familiar territory for him as in 14 UFC fights, he has been in either the main or co-main event position all but two times. And on one occasion, it could be argued that he was in the co-main (UFC on FOX 1), since only the main event fight aired on television.
On those shows, Henderson has delivered in terms of ratings or PPV buys...for the most part. Here's a look*, listed by most recent appearance:
- Fight Night 60 (main event vs Brandon Thatch) – 913,000 viewers on FS 1 (above average vs. an opponent with very little name recognition)
- Fight Night 59 (co-main vs Donald Cerrone) – 2,751,000 viewers on FS 1 (record number obviously powered by Conor McGregor, but this was a strong co-main)
- Fight Night 49 (main event vs Rafael Dos Anjos) – 689,000 viewers on FS 1 (below average,, but this was a very weak undercard and during a very down period for UFC)
- Fight Night 42 (main event vs Rustam Khabilov) – 1,217,000 viewers on FS 1 (2nd highest FS 1 number at the time against an opponent with no name recognition)
- UFC on FOX 10 (main event vs Josh Thomson) – 3.2 million viewers on FOX (above average)
- UFC 164 (main event vs Anthony Pettis) – 270,000 PPV buys (the second highest number for a show headlined by a lightweight title defence that didn’t involve BJ Penn up to that point)
- UFC on FOX 7 (Main event vs Gilbert Melendez) – 3.7 million viewers on FOX (well above average)
- UFC on FOX 5 (main event vs Nate Diaz) – 4.4 million viewers on FOX (3rd highest number ever for UFC on that station)
- UFC 150 (main event vs Frankie Edgar) – 190,000 PPV buys (very weak number for the period. Probably too soon after their first fight, which did very well
- UFC 144 (main Event vs Frankie Edgar) – 375,000 PPV buys (still the highest number for a show headlined by a Lightweight title defence that didn’t involve BJ Penn)
- UFC on Versus 5 (co-main vs Jim Miller) – 766,000 viewers on Versus (second highest number of the year on the station for a show with a weak main event of Dan Hardy vs Chris Lytle)
*His other two UFC fights were on the undercards of the first UFC on FOX show and UFC 129, both of which did monster numbers that had next to nothing to do with him.
Clearly, he’s made a difference for a number of years and should continue to do so as his skills haven’t diminished and as recently as this year, he was still doing very strong numbers for UFC. He'd be valuable for Bellator as they hope to bring bigger TV ratings to Spike TV, and would likely be favored in a fight against either their welterweight champion Andrei Koreshkov or lightweight champion Will Brooks. A win by either of those champions would legitimize those divisions in the eyes of fans and a win by Henderson would give them greater exposure and provide marketability that no fighter still in his prime has had for the company.
Asian MMA company ONE Championships would be another viable option. They run shows that draw big crowds in southeast Asia on more or less a monthly basis but have yet to make any real kind of dent in the North American market despite their shows being available on iPPV. A star the level of Henderson could help them get that foothold there while also helping ticket sales in that region, where he is very popular due to his maternal family being from the area.
Henderson is in a rare position where the UFC needs him as much as the outside companies do, maybe even more. Many cards that the UFC runs are somewhat skippable these days but having someone of his caliber on the marquee makes his fight almost a must-see. He almost always has the best fight on the show, and is one of the more skilled fighters in the world in two different weight classes.
Fighters like this do not become available all the time and Henderson should be in a position to almost name his price.