Entering Friday's Bellator 243 card, the prominent storyline has centered around former three-time lightweight champion Michael Chandler's future plans entering the final fight of his deal, it surely isn't the lone one to keep an eye on.
Chandler (20-5) will look to enter free agency with his brand positioned at its highest value when the 34-year-old takes on former UFC champion Benson Henderson (28-8) in a 155-pound rematch that headlines the Mohegan Sun Arena in Uncasville, Connecticut (DAZN/Paramount Network, 10 p.m. ET). But the 36-year-old Henderson needs a win just as badly.
Riding a four-fight win streak, Henderson appears reborn following a 1-3 start to his Bellator MMA career upon joining the promotion as a prized free agent in 2016. Two of those losses came in title bouts in two different divisions, including a split-decision loss to then-lightweight champion Chandler four years ago.
The lone victory for Henderson during that span, however, came against current two-division champion and reigning 155-pound titleholder Patricio "Pitbull" Freire and a win over Chandler likely catapults Henderson into a rematch for the title once Freire first defends his featherweight belt within Bellator's World Feather Grand Prix tournament.
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So, what's exactly at stake in Henderson's opinion entering this weekend's return?
"Everything. At a certain point in your career, from the very first fight, every one you have is the most important fight of your career," Henderson told CBS Sports on Wednesday during the Bellator 243 virtual media day. "It doesn't matter what you did before. The world we live in, our attention span is pretty short. You are only as good as your last fight so, for me, this is the most important fight of my life and I trained that way."
Chandler has won four of six fights since he edged Henderson at Bellator 165 in San Jose yet surrendered his lightweight title for the third time in May 2019 when Freire finished him in just 61 seconds.
Given the current standing of Chandler's contract entering free agency, there will be no shortage of emotion for the fighter who debuted with Bellator for his fourth pro fight in 2010 and has arguably been the enduring face of the franchise. He's also very fond of continuing said relationship as long as everything makes sense.
"Michael Chandler wouldn't be who he is without Bellator promoting him and us having a symbiotic relationship," Chandler told CBS Sports' "State of Combat" podcast in April. "It's exciting for me and this is the business aspect of fighting but you still have to keep the main thing the main thing. What happens inside those 15 minutes, inside that cage is what really counts. It's on me and my shoulders and the onus lies solely on me. If I do my job, I have no doubt we will put ink to paper."
The 25 minutes Chandler shared inside the cage with Henderson in their first outing was an exciting one, but also one in which observers were split.
Chandler started fast and took home scores of 48-46 and 48-47 in his favor but Henderson, thanks to his menacing leg-kick attack, was clearly the fighter who exited the fight peaking after winning Round 5 handily. The third judge awarded his scorecard to Henderson, 48-46, furthering the debate over who deserved to have won the competitive middle rounds.
The biggest lesson Henderson learned from the experience is that he needs to be more assertive off the top.
"The biggest thing was that Chandler had a big first round," Henderson said. "All the highlight clips from the fight and every positive thing people said was from Chandler's first round but the rest of the fight was leaning my way. So I need to go out there and start with a gangbuster of a first round and set the pace and make him tired and exhausted. Fighting from there should go my way but I have to bring the fight to him and fight at such a high level. I can't give him those 20 or 30-second breaks that he's used to."
Chandler was much more cryptic when identifying the advantages he held in their first bout and what he needs to do to win the second one.
"Benson Henderson is a guy that I fought before. He has two arms and two legs," Chandler said. "He has certain patterns, mannerisms and tendencies that I know I can go out there and exploit."
Henderson acknowledges the challenges and new sets of pressure he faced when entering Bellator as such a big-name acquisition in 2016. But he doesn't believe there's any difference between the fighter who lost to Andrey Koreshkov, Chandler and Patricky Freire during his first two years with the promotion and the one who has subsequently rebounded with four straight wins.
A slight step down in competition level certainly is part of it as Henderson submitted Roger Huerta in 2018 before claiming decisions over Saad Awad, Adam Piccolotti and fellow UFC-alum Myles Jury. But anyone looking for a turning point or reason for Henderson's change in fortune, he maintains it's not there.
"[There's] no difference. Sorry to have the coach speak for you but you get up and get ready every day," Henderson said. "You have the same preparations and you trust the process and your coaches. Sometimes the fights go your way and sometimes they don't go your way. There was no revolutionary new yoga program I tried or new breathing exercises."
In the co-main event, a pair of former UFC heavyweights will link up for the first time when Matt Mitrione takes on Timothy Johnson. Mitrione's last win came in February 2018 by majority decision over Roy Nelson. He has since lost to champion Ryan Bader and Sergei Kharitonov. Johnson, meanwhile, is 1-2 since joining the promotion but coming off an impressive knockout win over Tyrell Fortune.
Plus, it's the return of a few of Bellator MMA's top prospects. Adam Borics will take on Mike Hamel in a catchweight bout after both were eliminated from the Featherweight Grand Prix. It was Borics' first loss as a pro after scoring five straight highlight-reel knockouts to kick off his Bellator career. And Valerie Loureda is back when she takes on Tara Graff in a women's flyweight bout. Loureda is 2-0 in her budding career.
Fight card, odds
- Michael Chandler -230 vs. Benson Henderson +190, lightweights
- Matt Mitrione -125 vs. Timothy Johnson +105, heavyweights
- Myles Jury -230 vs. Georgi Karakhanyan +190, lightweights
- Curtis Millender -360 vs. Sabah Homasi +280, 175-pound catchweight
- Adam Borics vs. Mike Hamel, 150-pound catchweight
- AJ Agazarm vs. Cris Lencioni, featherweights
- Valerie Loureda vs. Tara Graff, women's flyweights
- Grant Neal vs. Hamza Salim, light heavyweights
- Charlie Campbell vs. Nainoa Dung, lightweights
- Mark Gardner vs. Dalton Rosta, middleweights
One can expect a track meet between these two elite fighters, similar to their first meeting, that's heavy on technique and game-planning in Friday's rematch. The difference this time likely will center upon whether Henderson, known for his consistency and gas tank, can slow Chandler down early enough by removing some air from his tires.
Henderson is the naturally bigger fighter and one whose leg strikes can quickly become a problem if allowed to take over the fight. But if he allows Chandler to become the aggressor with his flashier style, it's something the judges may end up favoring more.
Chandler is the bigger puncher and will need to gain respect early by discouraging Henderson from getting into a confident rhythm. Given what's at stake for Chandler and the possibility that a win lifts him to a big contract with a rival promoter, one has to believe his conditioning and focus will be at an all-time high.
For whatever advantages Henderson holds in technique and higher-level experience, Chandler can close that gap with explosiveness and activity. Expect him to do just that. You can also expect Henderson to make it to the final horn regardless of what happens given his cardio and reputation for never being knocked out in 36 pro bouts, including most against world-class competition.
Pick: Chandler via UD