If Benson Henderson were in the throes of a weight cut, a night at a restaurant would be one of those experiences filed under "Reasons why it sucks to be an MMA fighter."
There's a little less than two months until his title fight with Nate Diaz, however, and Henderson has the freedom to be a little more liberal than usual with his diet. He polishes off an entree, finishes a neglected appetizer and orders dessert during an interview at Elliott's Oyster House in Seattle.
Comforts like these offer a brief respite from the grind of fight camp, and Henderson (17-2 MMA, 5-0 UFC), who defends his UFC lightweight title against Nate Diaz (16-7 MMA, 11-5 UFC) at UFC on FOX 5, appreciates comfort, though not to the point where he could be accused of gluttony. He tells MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) his diet is always kept relatively in check. He might be a few weeks away from a weight cut, but that's not an excuse to go hog wild. He isn't 21 any more.
"When I was in college and wrestling, I would wrestle all day long and not get tired," he said. "I remember wrestling hard for five hours – literally five hours hard – and be just fine. I would eat friggin' Taco Bell, be fine, and wrestle again."
Aging is a process he's seriously thought about in the past four years of his life, and Henderson, 28, has always anticipated a moment when all of his less-than-constructive habits would become a hindrance, like a restaurant bill coming due. Older fighters in his gym used to say that time would catch up to him, and all the things that came easy to him as a youngster would be doubly hard at 30. Being a natural study, Henderson tried to cut that moment off at the pass.
"I read articles about guys like Steve Nash, who's 37 and made decisions 10 years ago to take care of his body and eat smart or healthy," he said. "Because of that is why he performs at an all-star level at the age of 38, and the same thing of Grant Hill. Reading that at 24 or 25, I thought, 'Hey, I should probably do that.'"
So Henderson indulges, but never too much. He listens, begrudgingly, when his coaches tell him he's tired and he should take the rest of the day off. It's hard, he said, when your idea of normal is training seven hours a day. But in the past 24 months, time has made its presence known.
Put it this way: If the interview were conducted on fight week in a bustling restaurant, he might find it difficult to be a good Christian. Henderson said he cuts from "a little too much" to make the 155-pounds-on-the-dot required as champion of the lightweight class. How much, he doesn't say. The impression he gives is severe, like he's starting from north of 190 pounds. A source close to him said the process is less a taper than a crash, with the cut starting at around 178 pounds and the majority of the weight coming off in the 36 to 48 hours before a fight.
Any way you slice it, it's hell. But for an aging athlete, the possible physiological problems from rapidly losing weight compound.
"I'm growing, but as far as maturing and getting thicker, I think I'm getting older right now, and it's getting harder for me to lose the weight … and it's harder for me to keep the weight off," he said. "All these desserts aren't helping."
The competitive advantages of weight are, well, huge for Henderson in his current class. At 5-foot-9, he's rangy with a 70-inch reach. If he were to fight in the welterweight class, he'd give up a lot of that length. Georges St-Pierre and Carlos Condit, the UFC's 170-pound champs, boast 76-inch wingspans, which would make getting inside on them more difficult should Henderson ascend a weight class. What's more, St-Pierre and Condit cut from north of 190 pounds, meaning he would have to bulk up, or suffer a disparity in strength.
Diaz's suffering, meanwhile, is well documented. In a previous interview with MMAjunkie.com, the Stockton, Calif., native, who's six feet tall with a 76-inch reach, railed at the caloric deprivations required to fight at lightweight. He subsequently fought at welterweight and hit a glass ceiling when he met bulky top-tier fighters Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim.
"To a certain extent, yes," is Henderson's response when asked if there might come a moment when he simply won't be able to cut the weight any more. That moment might not be for another couple of years. It might be right down the road. But for now, the lightweight champ is fighting the good fight with the scale, and his performance has, at least outwardly, yet to suffer the consequences.
As he's repeatedly stated, he wants to beat middleweight champ Anderson Silva's record of title defenses, which would put him on the hook for at least three or four more years. Whether he would stay at lightweight or do what B.J. Penn twice tried in resting the belt from Matt Hughes (success) and St-Pierre (fail) is uncertain. What's clear is that he doesn't plan on letting the scale forever make him miserable.
Part of Henderson's life as champion, of course, is adapting himself to the future. Despite the caution in his tone around weight, he seems resigned to the fact that if it's time to move up, it's time to move up.
"In life, you go through different phases of maturing," he said. "Some people have a maturation of how you act with other people, and how they conduct themselves and how they treat themselves as professionals. A part of that maturation process that every athlete goes through is taking care of yourself and being smart with your body."
Henderson vs. Diaz headlines UFC on FOX 5, which takes place Dec. 8 at KeyArena in Seattle. Main-event fights air on FOX following preliminary-card fights on FX.