(This story appeared in today’s print edition of USA TODAY.)
Ten minutes into Saturday’s five-round main event, UFC President Dana White already knew what was coming.
That is to say, he had no idea how it would end up, but he knew one way or another someone would go to bed feeling cheated.
“Literally, going into the third round, I said, ‘This fight’s going to be controversial,’” White said of the lightweight title bout between champion Benson Henderson (19-2 MMA, 7-0 UFC) and challenger Gilbert Melendez (21-3 MMA, 0-1 UFC) at UFC on FOX 7 at HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif. “I gave the second round to Ben – I had it 1-1. I’m like, ‘Here we go again.’”?
Sure enough, there we went. For 25 minutes, Henderson and Melendez struggled back and forth in a fight so close the judges might as well have flipped a coin to determine the winner. In the end, Henderson retained his title by the slimmest of margins, winning his second split decision in three outings as the UFC’s 155-pound champion and leaving fans to wonder whether this is just part of the bargain when they sit down to watch the Arizona-based lightweight work.
As White said when shrugging off the immediate debate over the wide-ranging tallies on the judges’ scorecards, “It’s a Ben Henderson fight.”
It didn’t sound like a compliment.
Of the champions who manage to hang on to their titles long enough to do more than enjoy a cup of coffee with the belt, there seem to be two distinct varieties: the champions who beat their opponents, and the champions who beat them up.
Henderson is among the former. He squeaks by challengers. With a slightly less favorable outlook from the judges, he easily could have lost three of his past four, just as he could have easily dropped his title to Melendez if one judge had scored one round differently.
Then it would be his turn to bite down on his fist at the postfight news conference, as Melendez did, before shaking his head and saying, “I’m just heartbroken.”
That’s different from what we’re used to hearing from those who have tried and failed to take titles away from dominant UFC champions such as Anderson Silva or Jon Jones, who have a way of breaking their opponents’ faces along with their hearts.
Jones, the light heavyweight champion who Saturday takes on former middleweight contender Chael Sonnen at UFC 159 (10 p.m. ET, pay- per-view), is a perfect example of a champion with a knack for erasing all doubt by the time the last blow has landed.
He and Henderson both wear gold belts emblazoned with the same company logo, but there’s a clear difference between them.
One clings to his title by gradually persuading judges to lean his way.
The other makes the outcome so clear they can’t possibly miss it.
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(Pictured: Benson Henderson)