Saturday Night: Benson Henderson vs Nathan Diaz

On Saturday night, Benson Henderson will defend his 155 lbs title strap against one of the most unique fighters in MMA, Nathan Diaz. Both fighters, long time contributors to great MMA fights, will meet for the first time in a battle for the lightweight crown.

When Rory Macdonald ragdolled Diaz at UFC 129 (April 2011), it seemed like Diaz may never be considered an elite fighter. Diaz made the decision to drop back down to his rightful weightclass, 155 lbs. His first fight back was at UFC 135 (September 2011) against former PRIDE lightweight king – Takanori Gomi. At the time, I imagined a fun little scrap that would hopefully be reminiscent of Gomi vs Nick Diaz at PRIDE 33. We didn’t see that on that night, instead we saw Nathan flat out dominate Gomi. Dropping him with his boxing and then finishing him off with his BJJ skills.

Some thought, Gomi isn’t what he used to be, let’s wait and see until Diaz faces a top fighter. He did that next, at UFC 141 (December 2011), he stepped into the cage with top ten fighter Donald Cerrone. Cerrone was riding on a career high point, he was on a six fight win streak and was favored to beat the Stockton badboy. As they faced off while the referee gave the final instructions, Cerrone flipped off Diaz. What we saw next was one of the greatest one sided performances in UFC history. Diaz dominated him for fifteen minutes, returned the double bird that Cerrone threw at him, and broke FightMetric records by landing 238 significant strikes. Diaz walked away with a clear unanimous decision win.

Then we got some other critics saying Jim Miller is going to grind out Diaz, work him out and use his wrestling to defeat the young Diaz boy. They faced off on Cinco de Mayo, live on Fox. Diaz showcased his much underrated clinch game, working Miller from the clinch with a variety of different strikes. When they were separate from the clinch, Diaz still outlanded him while Miller swung wildly. In the 2nd round, Diaz became the first man to ever finish Miller – via tongue biting guillotine choke. With that win, it’s clear that Diaz has improved dramatically in the past year and that he’s a very, very, very serious threat to Benson Henderson.

Henderson has had a different road to the top in the UFC. He lost a WEC title fight/UFC title eliminator in the final WEC event to Anthony “Showtime” Pettis in December 2010. He then came back and defeated Mark Bocek via unanimous decision at UFC 129. Pettis, lost his shot to Guida while Henderson went on to defeat Jim Miller in one of the greatest one sided fights in MMA history in August 2011. Miller valiantly threw up submissions, but Henderson made him pay with vicious ground and pound to win a unanimous decision. Henderson then faced Guida in remarkable fight that aired on Facebook and Fox Deportes in November 2011 (under the Dos Santos vs Velasquez headliner). Henderson defeated the man (Guida) who defeated the man (Pettis) who defeated him, and earned his first UFC title shot.

Benson Henderson faced off with division kingpin Frankie Edgar in Saitama, Japan in a thrilling battle at UFC 144 (February 2012). During the course of the close contest, we saw enziguri attempts, upkicks from hell, great takedowns, guillotine choke attempts, a knock down and a genuine “Fight of the Year” candidate. At the end of the fight, Henderson had his hand raised and was awarded the lightweight championship of the world. They rematched at UFC 150 (August 2012), while it was not as good as their previous bout, it was still a good fight between the top two lightweights in the UFC. I felt Edgar clearly won three rounds, and Henderson just won two. The judges disagreed with that, and Henderson retained his spot on the lightweight throne.

Now we get to the fight this Saturday night. Some people have made the argument that Henderson has the wrestling element that might give Diaz some issues. While it’s true, Diaz has gotten so much better at finding his way back up to his feet (he quickly swept Miller to get back up). Not only that, but I’m not sure Henderson has the style of wrestling that would work on Diaz longterm. Henderson, is pretty aggressive on the ground, even in fights in which he is dominating he still has submissions attempted on him (like in the Miller fight). In Henderson’s first fight with Cerrone and Pettis, Henderson also found himself in vulnerable positions, almost being the victim to near finishes. Some people felt (including myself) that Cerrone probably won their first fight based on his submission attempts.  Both guys are really great in the clinch, Henderson has some absolutely brutal knees (he landed some nasty ones on Guida) and great elbows (showcased against Guida, Miller, and Bocek), but Diaz proved that he’s fantastic in the clinch too (Miller was worn down by those strikes). Diaz might have more volume in the clinch but I favor Henderson because of the pure brutality of his strikes in that position. I feel this is stating the obvious, but BJJ goes to Diaz. It’s true that Henderson has escaped from an incredible amount of submissions (FightMetric lists him as having escaped from “28 serious attempts”), but if someone is going to catch Henderson, it’s Diaz. Like the clinch game, the striking element is a bit close. Henderson has some awesome kicks (Edgar was hurt from those in the 2nd fight), but he was also getting tagged with punches by Edgar throughout their rematch. Diaz at times leaves himself open, but his boxing, his offensive output, and his reach, I think Diaz takes it when it comes to striking and I feel the kid from Stockton has enough of an overall game to win the fight.

It’s going to be chaos in the octagon on Saturday night, it might even be fight of the year. The best man will walk away with the crown to the deepest division in MMA.

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