Bellator 196: Another Shot at Redemption for Henderson and Huerta

Roger Huerta returns at Bellator 196
Roger Huerta Credit: Dave Mandel/

Both Benson Henderson and Roger Huerta have struggled to have a successful second chapter to their careers, which makes their Bellator meeting the perfect pairing.

When James Gallagher fell out of his bout with Adam Borics in the main event of Bellator 196, it was thought the card would very likely be in jeopardy.  Instead, an even more intriguing fight takes place between former UFC stand-outs Benson Henderson and Roger Huerta.  Both men are in desperate need of a career resurgence, and on just a few weeks notice they will have a chance to rejuvenate their careers in Budapest, Hungary.

For Benson Henderson, it is no secret that his Bellator run has not gone as hoped when he joined the promotion in 2016.  In the last two years he has amassed a 1-3 record that’s included losses to then champions Andrey Koreshkov and Michael Chandler.  Furthermore, his lone victory over Patrício Freire was highly criticized as it was unanimously felt he was losing the bout until Freire suffered an injury.

The run was a far cry from his time as UFC lightweight champion where he was one victory away from tying the legendary BJ Penn for title defenses.  He left the promotion riding back-to-back victories, but in 2018 has said he is aware that he has not been able to produce the performances that were expected of him.  He has made no excuses for the setbacks, although it is now common knowledge that he fought through several injuries to his knee and only recently underwent surgery to help correct the issues.  Henderson has said he wants to prove he can win the lightweight title in Bellator, but on short notice he is facing an opponent arguably even more desperate for victory than he is.

(Roger Huerta became the first MMA fighter to grace the cover of Sports Illustrated in 2007)

Roger Huerta will always be remembered for two gritty performances in 2007.  His three round battle with Leonard Garcia was long regarded as one of the best battles in the Octagon in the lightweight division.  However, it was his war with Clay Guida that went down as an all-time classic.  His thousand yard stare after losing the first two rounds preceded a lights out third frame where Huerta hurt Guida and secured a rear-naked choke for the victory.

But after an impressive 4-0 mark in 2007, his career took a sharp turn.  He would not return until a year later where he lost to top contender Kenny Florian.  It would be another year before he fought again, this time losing to surging contender Gray Maynard.  He would sign with Bellator in 2010 where he went 1-2, notably losing handily to then champion Eddie Alvarez in a non-title bout.  He would be released from the promotion and went on to fight on the Asian MMA circuit.  He admitted that after losing via soccer kick KO in 2011 under the ONE banner that he thought his career was over.  He stated “I was already willing to call it quits.  After that soccer kick, I was like ‘Alright, that’s it for me.”

The most interesting part of his return to a major US promotion is his activity.  Huerta has fought only five times since 2013 and has mounted a 3-2 record against less than stellar competition in ONE and Phoenix FC.  Most recently, Huerta’s last victory came by disqualification in the United Arab Emirates when his opponent landed illegal elbows in the second round and lead to a stoppage due to the severity.  The circumstances have not disheartened Huerta who has said he feels rejuvenated and hopes to use a victory over Henderson to negotiate a deal with Bellator.  Via MMA Junkie, Huerta revealed he was offered a four-fight contract that he was disappointed with.  He countered that offer with a one-fight deal — if he impresses, Huerta can then negotiate a better contract.

Stylistically, it comes down to effort and ability at this stage of their careers.  On paper, Benson Henderson has more shown more tools and technical prowess throughout his career.  The question will be, is he able to utilize all of his abilities?  Henderson should look to work behind his jab to set up his heavy kicks.  Also, he has shown a very competent submission game and may look to get Huerta to the mat where he can neutralize “El Matador’s” striking.

Huerta’s performance in 2017 showed he still posses the same threats as earlier in his career.  He is a game opponent who likes to control the center of the cage and look to set up his kicks or his left hand.  The key to victory will be to apply forward pressure.  Huerta still throws at a high output and he should look to crowd Henderson so he can create exchanges in the pocket.  As Rafael dos Anjos exploited, taking space away from Henderson removes his ability to throw his kicks and shoot for takedowns.

At this stage of either man’s career, losing is not an option if they intend to remain relevant in the mixed martial arts landscape.  For Huerta, a loss would likely write him off from ever returning to prominence.  For Henderson, a 1-4 mark will raise questions of whether or not he can still compete at the elite level in mixed martial arts.  With countless battles between the both of them, another war is nearly guaranteed in Budapest.