Former UFC and WEC lightweight champ Benson “Smooth” Henderson has fought against a lot of marquee opponents over the last five years. Between Frankie Edgar, Donald Cerrone, Jamie Varner, Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and, of course, his kryptonite, Anthony Pettis, the Phoenix-based fighter has pretty much entered the cage against the who’s who of the best lightweights in the world, including nine title fights in 16 bouts under the Zuffa banner.

Henderson’s resume may be long and distinguished, but his next opponent, Rustam Khabilov, a new face in the fray, is no walk-through opponent. If Henderson plans to make another run at the title, he is going to need to go through the Russian prospect, who trains one state over at Jackson’s MMA in New Mexico.

Khabilov does not have near the opponent list that Henderson has, but he is 3-0 in the UFC. He’s also a World and Russian National Combat Sambo champion, and he won a M-1 Challenge championship back in 2009, fighting five times that year alone. His sole loss came in 2011 in a hotly contested split decision, but Khabilov has never been close to being stopped. Henderson, on the other hand, was stopped for a second time by Pettis in his second-to-last fight, and three of his last four wins were split decisions by nothing more than a hair.

On Saturday night, the UFC makes its debut in Albuquerque, N.M., home of Khabilov’s training camp, for UFC Fight Night 42, as the Russian faces off against the No. 1 lightweight contender. A win for Henderson will likely get him right back in for another title shot, but a win for Khabilov will mean a top-10 spot, putting him one fight away from a title shot of his own in an extremely stacked division.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up, and as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Henderson  10, Khabilov  9

Both of these fighters are solid on their feet, but in very different ways. Henderson may be one inch shorter, but he fights very rangy and will do most of his damage from the outside. The only problem with Henderson is that he lacks knockout power and has been unable to finish anyone with his striking since his TKO of Shane Roller in April 2009.

Khabilov is not as accurate as Henderson, and, statistically, absorbs more punches, but he does most of his damage from the inside and carries a great deal of knockout power. The former sambo champ is a close-in type of striker, and in a clinch, he possesses some qualities of a Randy Couture type of dirty boxing style.

Although Khabilov is the more powerful striker, with more finishes under his belt, Henderson is more technically proficient, which partly goes back to his roots as a black belt in taekwondo. In a close-in battle, Khabilov will be more dangerous, but Henderson is likely to keep it on the outside, which will give him the advantage in points scored on the feet.

Submission Grappling: Henderson  10, Khabilov  10

Henderson recently earned a black belt under The MMA Lab’s head coach John Crouch, and submissions are by far his finish of choice. With seven chokes under his belt, he has displayed the ability to get his long, rangy arms locked around his opponents’ necks, spelling certain demise to anyone that gets in this unfortunate position. Henderson has been stopped twice, once as recently as last August by that Pettis armbar that cost him his title. Nobody has ever stopped Khabilov in any capacity.

The Russian sambo champ is a dangerous ground fighter. With five tapout wins under his belt, he has muscled his way into four armbar victories and one by choke. Combat fighters and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu practitioners are very different creatures. BJJ guys practice a lot of high-level slickster moves, most of which aren’t as applicable in a MMA setting as the simple, yet life-defending moves that the well-rounded sambo practitioners are training.

The biggest challenge for Khabilov on the ground will be Henderson’s amazing fleibilty, which he displayed in both Cerrone fights. Meanwhile, the biggest challenge for Henderson will be overcoming the sheer power that the Russian brings along with his skilled ground fighting. The submission game is a toss-up in this battle.

Wrestling: Henderson – 9, Khabilov – 10

Henderson is a NAIA All-American wrestler who represented the now-defunct Dana College in Blair, Neb. His takedown defense is about the only thing he has going for him in the wrestling department.

In his UFC debut, Khabilov earned his second knockout by suplex, which is something more of WWE lore, rather than UFC. In that fight, the sambo specialist slammed Vinc Pichel and followed it up with a pounding to make a big statement to the organization’s brass. In the clinch, he’s more powerful, and on the ground, he has the upper hand in positioning capabilities, which spells big trouble for Henderson, who would be wise to keep this on the feet to earn points.

Khabilov is, by far, the superior wrestler in this match-up.

X-factor

As is always the case with Henderson, his flexibility is a huge x-factor. His flexibility in both mind and body make him a tough competitor, which is why he has so many wins by decision. Henderson’s joints are flexible, his physical brain is flexible and he has yet to be knocked out. If it was hard for all of the top guys in the world to stop him, this fight will be no cake walk for the Russian.

Total: Henderson – 29, Khabilov – 29

Verdict: Henderson goes to decision a lot, and with so much at stake for him in this fight, he will not be doing himself any favors if he tries to get all cavalier and take the fight to Khabilov. That being said, Khabilov is not one to back off and play point games like some of Henderson’s opponents have done in the past. The Russian most certainly will take the fight to Henderson. Khabilov knows how stacked the division is, and that, when it comes to points, he won’t stand a chance.

Henderson will try to stay on the outside, and Khabilov will try get in while sustaining some damage. Ultimately, this one will end up in the clinch, with the Russian getting the American to the ground. There is no way the Henderson decision train can go on forever, and the time to hit the brakes is now.

Khabilov by second-round TKO.

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator