Maria Henderson returns to action for her second professional bout on March 31, taking on Mackenzie Stiller at Bellator 293.
Henderson (1-0) last competed for Bellator MMA as an amateur, but despite some time away — she made her pro debut under the LFA banner — the whole experience has become familiar to the strawweight.
“Bellator’s like calm with my husband being there. I know the all the people, I know how it’s run, I know how it works so it’s kind of just like jumping back in the gym,” she told Cageside Press in a recent exclusive interview.
And so with that in mind, there are no jitters heading into pro fight #2 for Henderson. “No nerves, really. If anything we’re just excited. All those nerves turn into excitement. Excited to get to do this, excited it’s finally getting going for me and my kids get to see the hard work I put in, and see why I’m not home all the time. So it’s just exciting, no nerves.”
And yes, as noted, Maria Henderson is wife of UFC and WEC lightweight champ Benson Henderson, a Bellator contender who retired earlier this month.
Believe it or not, Henderson wasn’t expecting her partner to call it a career, though at least in part that was due to her faith in him winning his Lightweight Grand Prix fight with the formidable Usman Nurmagomedov.
“I don’t think any of us thought he was going to lose. I think nine out of ten times he beats Usman, Usman just had a great night, a great moment that led to another great moment,” Maria explained. “And that’s what MMA is all about, those moments. If you can capitalize in those moments, that’s it.”
“None of us thought Ben was going to lose, so I didn’t know he was going to retire. I knew after he lost, I knew as soon as I saw what his hands were doing, I knew what was gonna happen, but I wasn’t expecting him to retire this week.”
It’s been hard, thus far, to separate Maria Henderson and her famous husband. Headlines surrounding her often trumpet Maria as “Benson Henderson’s wife,” but she’s now carrying the flag for the family in active competition— and believes Bellator sees something more in her than just a recognizable last name.
“Win or lose, you want a great performance. So that’s what I want for this year, is a great performance. Is every single performance great. To prove to everybody, to Bellator, I’m not just Ben Henderson’s wife. Because I think that’s how people see me, but I don’t have enough behind me for Bellator to sign me for that reason. I think they see something in me, see a great performer, see someone who can bring in some new fresh eyes, and that’s why they signed me, and I want to prove that if that makes sense.”
Being looked at through the lens of her husband’s career is nothing new, mind you. “Even in just jiu-jitsu, I think it was a girl had posted, ‘oh Ben Henderson’s wife beat me.’ And I was like ‘Ben Henderson didn’t beat you.’ I didn’t start training because of my husband. We met in training. so I do think it’s a little bit of a back-and-forth kind of battle. I’m proud to have my husband’s name, I’m proud of my husband, I’m proud to be married to him, and I think that will paint a huge target on my back for the rest of my career.”
That said, Maria Henderson told Cageside Press that the family name does not bring added pressure with it. “All in all there’s no pressure. I’m just grateful for the opportunity I’m given. [Benson]’s given me a great, not view but a layout, a map of what it takes to be great. I know what it takes, I know what it looks like at home to be great, I know what it looks like in character, mentally, in the gym. If you lost every single round in your camp, it doesn’t mean you need to tear yourself down. It doesn’t matter. In camp, in training, you can lose every single day, but you want to perform and be great in the cage. And so I do think it’s going to create a target on my back, but I do think that the pressure that the people think that ‘oh no she’s going to be so over-pressured, blah blah blah,’ I don’t think that’s there.”
“There’s a lot of people who don’t get to do what they want to do because of other things,” she added later, “and my husband’s built a really good life for us, and I get to start making my dreams come true now. So more just grateful, no pressure.”
Against Mackenzie Stiller, who carries the nickname “MacJudo,” Henderson has an idea of what to expect, and has considered what might happen if the pair wound up in a stand-up battle.
“We’ll see. I actually thought that would be pretty interesting to see. All of her fights, she’s rushed in to the clinch right away to try to take her girls down,” Henderson noted.
That said, “I don’t think jiu-jitsu-wise we’re going to cancel out, I do think I’m superior in that aspect,” Henderson suggested. “I think I will be superior on the ground; I’m biased but I think I’m very good on the ground, and it’s where I shine. And if it’s something she wants to bring a fight to, then even better for me. If we’re gonna be scrappy and stuff like that, I’m going to shine way brighter than her in that aspect.”
Watch our full interview with Bellator 293’s Maria Henderson above. The event takes place Friday, March 31, 2023 in Temecula, CA.