It hasn’t always been pretty, but Benson Henderson is slowly becoming one of the greatest champions in lightweight history.

Since winning the 155-pound strap from Frankie Edgar back at UFC 144, Henderson has quietly built up a solid resume in title fights. He has won three straight decisions—over Edgar (again), Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez—to solidify his spot as the top lightweight in the world. While “Smooth” has been far from dominant in the majority of those bouts, he’s done enough each time to earn the nod from the judges, and in the process has moved closer and closer to becoming the greatest lightweight in UFC history.

However, Henderson’s tendency to let fights come down to the wire has hurt the significance of his title reign, and no fight proves this theory more than his most recent bout against Melendez at UFC on Fox 7. Henderson and Melendez fought five extremely close rounds, with no clear winner emerging by the time the fight hit the scorecards. “Smooth” ended up walking away with the split decision victory, but there was plenty of support for “El Nino” to get the decision. Talks of an immediate rematch started the second Bruce Buffer proclaimed Henderson the winner of the bout.

Many fans likely felt an immediate rematch was inevitable. The lightweight division has been filled with closely contested title fights over the last few years, and the UFC had never been hesitant to book rematches. However, UFC President Dana White quickly defused talks of a rematch between Henderson and Melendez at the post-fight press conference following the bout and instead awarded the next shot at the belt to the winner of the UFC 160 match-up between Gray Maynard and T.J. Grant.

There’s no doubting how talented both Maynard and Grant are as fighters, and both men would likely produce an exciting title fight against Henderson. Still, after B.J. Penn, Maynard and Edgar all earned a quick rematch for the title after coming up short in title fights, it seems hypocritical to deny Melendez another crack at Henderson and the lightweight belt.

The fight between Henderson and Melendez was extremely close, and no matter who the judges had announced as the victor, fans could easily make a case for the losing fighter. Much like previous title fights between Henderson and Edgar or Edgar and Penn, there was no clear-cut winner in this bout, but while the losing fighter in those bouts got another chance to try to prove they were worthy of the strap, Melendez is getting left out in the cold.

It seems pretty clear that the UFC is no longer willing to let the lightweight division become log-jammed while the same two fighters repeatedly vie for the belt. The UFC missed out on a potential champion vs. champion fight in the lightweight division when Anthony Pettis decided to fight Clay Guida instead of waiting for a title fight against the winner of the trilogy between Edgar and Maynard a couple of years ago. It appears that the promotion, taking a lesson from that scenario, is now going to force fighters to earn another chance at the belt by climbing back up the divisional ladder, no matter how close they come to winning the title fight.

Although this seems unfair to Melendez, it’s probably necessary. Henderson’s fighting style focuses on scoring points far more than it does on finishing opponents, and as long as “Smooth” remains at the top of the division, we’re probably going to see even more close decisions. Nearly all of Henderson’s title fights have been razor-thin verdicts, and the UFC can’t continue to give the challenger another chance to take out the champion every time they come relatively close. To quote the immortal Ric Flair, “To be the man, you got to beat the man.” So far, no one has done quite enough to beat Benson Henderson.

Even though it seems unfair to “El Nino” on paper, the UFC’s decision to give the next title shot to the winner of Maynard and Grant does make sense. Either fighter would be riding a multiple-fight winning streak with a victory at UFC 160, and the more fresh faces the promotion throws at Henderson during his title reign, the more dominant he is going to appear. A few years ago, Melendez probably would have had no problem getting an instant rematch and would already be training for his second chance at a belt. Instead, “El Nino” is going to have to work his way back up the ladder with the rest of the contenders if he wants another shot at UFC glory.

Photo: Gilbert Melendez (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.