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UFC Lightweight Champion Ben Henderson Competes In AZ Grappling Tournament

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This wonderful Henderson/Edgar punchface photo was taken by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting.
This wonderful Henderson/Edgar punchface photo was taken by Esther Lin of MMA Fighting.

On February 26th, Benson Henderson wrested the UFC lightweight championship from Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 in a thrilling five round main event in Saitama, Japan. One week later, on March 4th, Henderson entered the lists in the middleweight brown belt division and the open brown belt division at the 7th Arizona International Open in Phoenix, Arizona. The second Sunday was not as good to him as the first.

To put the big news up front, Daniel Grippaudo of BJJ Revolution beat Benson in the Absolute - with a submission no less. Check out the nifty straight armbar after the low pressure pass attempt by Henderson in the video below.

However, the full story is more complicated than that reductive summary. The results (available here in PDF form) show that Benson won the middleweight division he entered by defeating James Guyton of Cobrinha BJJ, who was the sole other competitor in that division. Having a small brown belt or black belt division in a regional tournament is by no means unusual and Benson deserves a ton of credit for being ready and willing to contest both his weight division and the Absolute. Grippaudo competed in the lower weight class (167 lbs) and won silver there, as well as silver in the Absolute. Jacob McClintock of Gustavo Dantas JJ (and once a Bellator welterweight) won the Absolute and a bronze medal in his heavyweight division (207.5 lbs).

After the jump, more background on Benson's grappling tournament results and speculation on which UFC, Strikeforce or Bellator champions and fighters would be open to doing similar tournaments. Credit to BE reader Forbidden Psychological Technology for coming up with the Grippaudo/Henderson clip above. Excellent work, FPT.

Entering a regional tournament may seem like insane risk-taking to some, but this type of tournament competition and willingness to chance being humbled is how fighters improve.

The grappling competition environment brings both unfamiliar opponents - always good for exercising mental flexibility and implementing game plans - and provides a focused, more intense environment for grappling than the home gym, which prevents stagnation and rewards technical execution against all manner of opponents. In gi competitions, heel hooks are often banned, which is a relief for promoters, agents and coaches worried about potential knee injuries. Furthermore, the one on one match environment with a referee specifically charged with preserving fighter safety means that the likelihood of a Rashad Evans-like injury (one was sustained when a pair of other grapplers fell on his leg from behind during a wrestling bout) is much lower. There is risk of injury still, but grappling is already part and parcel of MMA training and the trade-offs can be worth it in the long run.

Benson has competed in many other grappling tournaments - although at lighter weights than the sub-181 lbs category in general. He took away a bronze medal in the 2011 Mundials at the weight of 167 lbs and lost only to Jordon Schultz, an elite competitor coming from the Alliance Atlanta factory. Before tapping out to Schultz's triangle, Benson had beaten Rafael Costa and Matt Darcy, two well known and respected competitors. The video of the Darcy match is a decent time-passer:

Plenty of the fighters that aren't UFC champions do these tourneys. The Diaz brothers will throw in a few big tourneys now and then into their busy schedules. Nate Diaz was doing very well at the 2011 Mundials until he ran into Jimmy Harbison, a super-elite competitor who won the Grand Slam of brown belt titles that year and is a mainstay in the black belt division now. Cristiane Santos did the Mundials last year and won her purple belt heavyweight division. Jacare Souza did the ADCC superfight with a possible rib injury after losing his Strikeforce title to Luke Rockhold barely two weeks prior. Roger Gracie plans to do a couple tournaments here and there, but pinning him down on an exact date is always difficult. Fedor Emelianenko often did sambo competitions with great success and beating Fedor in one such tourney let Blagoi Ivanov develop an MMA career.

However, once the title belt goes around the waist of MMA fighters, it seems like they lose that adventuresome spirit.

You won't catch Anderson Silva doing these because his jiu jitsu is not that good - servicable for MMA, but not competition level by any means. Jon Jones probably never will do a high level tournament. I had high hopes for Cain Velasquez getting a wild hair someday, but he injured his shoulder and subsequently lost the championship to Junior dos Santos (who probably will eschew grappling tourneys also). The competition days of Gilbert Melendez and Luke Rockhold seem to be over. Dominic Cruz probably will not enter these competitions. His wrestling and herky jerky style seems to depend far too much on striking to yield the type of success he wants to always have. It would be terrific to see the future UFC flyweight champ do an ADCC or Mundials, but that is unlikely unless Formiga works his way into the division and snatches the title from the current king of the hill.

Among the current UFC champions, I have some hope that Jose Aldo might do a Mundials or ADCC for the heck of it. His grappling is still high level and he does have a victory over Cobrinha (back at brown belt and before Rubens Charles truly became Cobrinha). Eduardo Dantas, Aldo's teammate, has an outside chance of doing such tourneys, but his MMA career takes priority right now. Joe Warren, the self-proclaimed "baddest man on the planet", frequently talked of his Olympic ambitions in Greco-Roman wrestling, but seems to have dropped out of true contention in the Qualification process. Who knows with Joe though? Ben Askren broke quite a few hearts with his departure from wrestling to the more lucrative fields of MMA, but his continued strong ties to wrestling still give people hope. However, his demolition at the hands of Marcelo Garcia a while back show some considerable room for improvement in his submission grappling.

In short, none of the current champions in any of the biggest MMA organizations looked likely to compete against the wrestlers or submission grapplers in those sports. The once blurry lines between the three sports may have solidified for most of the MMA elite and Benson Henderson bucking that trend is newsworthy and commendable.

Why am I pushing these grappling tournaments so hard?

In a roundabout way, the cachet of medals won at an elite level can positively buoy marketability. Look at Fabricio Werdum, Ronaldo Souza, Demian Maia and Vinny Magalhaes. All have been promoted to the audience as grappling wunderkinds (which they are) and their ADCC or world championship titles have been mentioned time and again. Once upon a time, fighters like Jake Shields or Georges St. Pierre entered the lists at ADCC. They were beaten decisively at times, but earned respect for showing up and trying their best against the best of the best. Rousimar Palhares was the only full-time male MMA fighter to enter ADCC 2011 and he wrecked shop for a while. Despite being perhaps the scariest grappler on the planet and getting several brutal finishes, Palhares was eventually outsmarted and outshone by Andre Galvao, a full-time professional grappler and once a Strikeforce fighter himself. Palhares made a name for himself at the ADCCs and earned the respect (and perhaps fear) of future opponents, fans and fellow competitors.

Benson has made it a habit to seek these competitions out to test himself and his dramatic improvement in grappling has powered his rise to the top. The same can and should happen for other MMA fighters. Sitting on the shelf to do MMA only makes no sense. Get out there, take risks and improve. That permanent improvement will more than make up for any temporary losses in marketability or naysayers jumping all over the fighters.

Now to end with some fun grappling by showing the Smooth One winning his weight division at the AZ Open against a very game James Guyton.