The changing of champions is always an emotional time, and the aftermath of UFC 164 was no different. The exhilaration of Anthony Pettis was obvious and very well deserved. The story was gone over a hundred times coming into the fight -- Pettis defeated Ben Henderson for the WEC Lightweight title and a shot at the UFC belt. But circumstances conspired against Pettis, and he was forced to work his way back to the belt. Pettis earned his shot at UFC gold and used a combination of dynamic athleticism, perfect technique, and fearless aggression to defeat Henderson for a second time.
While Pettis' excitement poured out of him, on the other side of Herb Dean there was disappointment, pain, and the empty feeling of defeat. Ben Henderson took the loss of his title in stride and was gracious in his interview, making light of the injury to his arm and giving an appreciative play-by-play of the armbar that forced him to submit. The book is closed on the Ben Henderson era in the Lightweight division, and now the question can be posed: how will it be remembered?
For the short term, when MMA fans think of Ben Henderson, many will immediately bring up his religious statements after fights or the razor-close nature of his wins. The dislike of his post-fight worship is something that will not have a major impact on how he is remembered as champion. The narrow margin of victory or the fact that the victories were contested will always be a footnote in his legacy, but in the end winning title fights is the name of the game and Henderson is not to blame for any judging errors that took place. In fact, convincing the judges he won the fight is his job.
Many threw out the idea that Henderson was merely a placeholder champion; someone there to fend off pretenders to the throne while the division awaited a true transcendent champion, which Lightweight has lacked since B.J. Penn's fall from grace. But this is an unfair characterization of Henderson.
Henderson's short title reign contained impressive, resume building wins. Sending Frankie Edgar packing to Featherweight, easily turning aside Nate Diaz's challenge for the UFC belt and then unifying the Strikeforce and UFC belts with his win over Gilbert Melendez makes for an impressive and busy year-and-a-half as champion.
While this may not seem like very much, the Lightweight title has a turbulent history as the division was discontinued at one point, champions have taken long breaks between defenses and there is also the stripping of Sean Sherk's title due to a positive drug test. With all this, the most tenured UFC Lightweight title reign is a three way tie between B.J. Penn, Frankie Edgar, and Benson Henderson.
Clearly Penn remains the top champion despite the long break in the middle of his reign, the dominance he showed in those title fights standing as yet unmatched by any Lightweight. Beyond Penn, it is very easily argued that Ben Henderson is the second best Lightweight champion in the history of the UFC, as one of Edgar's defenses includes the draw with Gray Maynard and in four title fights Edgar only faced two fighters.
Henderson's reign, while somewhat marred by close, contentious fights, featured a greater variety of styles and elite fighters in his reign than Edgar. And the only real knock on Henderson is that he may have gotten a little help from poor judging, a charge Edgar is not immune to either.
Now clearly that will change as Anthony Pettis has all the tools to be a special champion. After the first time Henderson lost a title, he responded with clear improvements in his game and ran off a seven-fight win streak against some of the best Lightweights the sport had to offer. Ben Henderson will more than likely be back in the title picture again, and this fight will not be remembered as the passing off the torch but, rather, a chapter in a Lightweight rivalry that played out in excellent championship fights.