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UFC Fight Night Henderson vs Dos Anjos Judo Chop: Ben Henderson's Wall n' Maul

Benson Henderson isn't always exciting these days, but he's always imposing. BE's striking specialist Connor Ruebusch breaks down the rough 'em up, cage-based clinch game of the former WEC and UFC champion.


Ben Henderson might be one of the most enigmatic fighters in the UFC. There are very few fighters who seem as capable of physically dominating their opposition, and yet so entirely uninterested in doing so. Since gaining the lightweight title in February of 2012, Henderson seems to have transformed from reliable action fighter to--well, someone who doesn't always seem interested in fighting. Effortless win over Nate Diaz and devastating loss to Anthony Pettis aside, Henderson's post UFC-belt fights have rarely amounted to more than five rounds of hair-fixing and no-selling. Granted, Henderson excels when it comes to making opposition look ineffectual, but it's a strange change of pace for a man who, prior to 2012, was positively renowned for the pace and intensity of his fights.

It was quite refreshing, then, to see Henderson get his first finish since 2010 (after ten fights and eight wins by decision), with a slick rear naked choke against multi-faceted Dagestani Rustam Khabilov in his last fight. Whether this is indicative of a complete return to the ways of old is not yet clear, but any glimmer of the old Ben Henderson is surely a positive for fight fans.

I've written about Henderson's striking in the past, and not always in flattering terms. While much of Henderson's striking game is still, to put it kindly, rudimentary, there are phases of Henderson's style in which his striking really shines. The most prominent of these is the clinch, particularly when Henderson has his opponent pressed up against the fence. This type of striking perfectly suits Henderson's very physical style of fighting, allowing him to augment his strikes with his considerable strength and underrated wrestling skills.

Unlike other fighters for whom striking at the fence is merely a stalling tactic, Henderson is capable of doing real damage when his opponent is stuck between him and the cage. The phrase "wall n' maul" seems to me a fitting description of Henderson's style, and that's exactly what we're examining today in preparation for Smooth's upcoming bout with Rafael Dos Anjos this weekend in Tulsa.

Let's get to it.


Fighting in the pocket is, for Ben Henderson, an entirely physical affair. There's little subtlety to Henderson's method of alternately winging right and left punches at any opponent bold enough to stand in range and trade (GIF). Nonetheless, the fact is that not many opponents are capable of dealing with a huge, powerful lightweight slinging leather at their heads from two feet away. So when Ben starts swinging, his opponents almost always react in one of two ways: 1) they cover up, or 2) they desperately swing back. And regardless of which option they choose, Henderson will take advantage of the opportunity to attack the other man's legs.

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1. Henderson secures a bodylock from behind while Jim Miller struggles to stand from turtle.

2. Henderson gives up his grip with his right arm to land a punch to Miller's temple.

3. After another short right hand, Bendo switches to a side clinch, placing his right forearm across the back of Miller's neck.

4. Henderson skips into a knee to the head of Miller . . .

5. . . . landing him in southpaw.

6. Henderson smashes Miller with a wild left elbow.

7. A right hook follows up . . .

8. . . . and then another left elbow, which misses badly.

9. Nonetheless, Henderson simply follows through on the miss, changes levels, and takes Miller down.

Again, there's more strategy than technique at play in this exchange. This kind of trading is both a boon and a flaw for Henderson--his willingness to fight back just to prove that he can means that anyone without his same supreme self-confidence (like Jim Miller) will quickly learn his lesson and fold; on the other hand, Henderson's lack of regard for technique (note, for example, the way his left foot rolls completely over in frame 6) allows disciplined opponents a risky but very real chance to hurt him. This kind of trade-off is also evident in Henderson's experience with opponents' submissions. While he was able to defeat most of Jim Miller's submission attacks simply with coll-headedness and patience, the equally confident Anthony Pettis managed to catch him in an armbar the moment their fight went to the ground.

Still, while Henderson's style is often more heart than art, his rough cage tactics are not to be underestimated. Against all but the most elite of opponents his physical and mental strength are enough to cover the holes in his defense, and once the gap is closed, Henderson's strength plays an even greater role in his wrestling game.


As the sequence above indicates, Henderson's clinch game against the fence is built around underhooks. For takedowns, he prefers the bodylock--meaning two underhooks, hands clasped together--but once Henderson has one underhook most opponents put up quite a fight to keep him from pummeling the second hand through. Henderson has a very deep bag of tricks for getting that second underhook.

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1. To keep him from pivoting out, Henderson pins Diaz's left shoulder to the fence with his right hand.

2. Henderson pulls away and, with Diaz still up against the fence, cracks him with his right forearm.

3. Diaz tries for a collar tie to limit Henderson's striking ability, and Henderson slides his hand down for the sought-after underhook.

4. Diaz gives up on the collar tie and goes back to fighting Henderson's right arm.

5. Diaz tries for a right collar tie now, pivoting to his left to create space and get off the fence; Bendo drives forward and sneaks his right underhook through at last.

6. Henderson gains double underhooks and bends his knees to try for a lift takedown.

Battling Henderson in the clinch is always, as you can see, a highly demoralizing affair. Pressed against the fence, his opponents have no choice but to fight his grips and attempt to pivot out, while Henderson uses the angles of the fence and the threat of his strikes to slowly tighten his control until, having achieved his beloved bodylock, he can take the fight to the ground.

In his WEC days Henderson used to struggle with wrestlers skilled enough to prevent his underhooks, but nowadays his fixation with that grip has receded somewhat. As I said above, Henderson's grappling game is still built around the underhooks, but in recent years he has learned to succeed in the clinch whether his opponent allows it or not. You see, even when the actual grip cannot be achieved, Henderson is still able to occupy the opponent's arm by appearing to go for it, creating opportunities for striking attacks.

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1. While Henderson attempts to finish a takedown by attacking Guida's right ankle, Guida attempts to sneak in an underhook with his right arm (circled).

2. Henderson kills the underhook by gripping Guida's wrist (circled).

3. Henderson gets to his feet.

4. A quick swivel of the upper body allows Bendo to free his head from the weight of Guida's torso, and he stands up straight.

5. Guida takes advantage of the opportunity by launching a knee to Henderson's torso . . .

6. . . . and then changes levels for a takedown; Henderson stops him by changing levels and pressuring upward with head control.

7. Eager to prove a point, Henderson now launches a knee of his own, right to Guida's liver. Three more knees follow.

Again, we see Henderson butting heads with a fighter, not necessarily escaping unscathed, but effectively proving his physical dominance. Any opponent pressed against the fence is necessarily at a leverage disadvantage, meaning that, even when they do land strikes on Henderson, he can easily answer back with a much more meaningful strike of his own.

This integration of damaging strikes actually turns Henderson into a more effective wrestler. Even when the opponent is good enough to fight off his underhook, the sudden threat of damaging strikes changes the complexion of the fight entirely. Seconds after the sequence above, Henderson fully established an underhook and, pressing Guida into the cage, began to work a phase-shifting attack.

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1. Henderson has a right underhook while Guida exerts pressure with a tight overhook. Meanwhile, Henderson fishes for the underhook with his other arm.

2. Guida releases his overhook in favor of a cross-face, still denying Bendo's left arm by keeping his right tight to his ribs (circled).

3. With Guida's right arm lowered, Henderson gives up on the underhook and opts for a big left elbow to the head.

4. And he follows through with the strike, transitioning smoothly to a single leg while Guida is busy covering up.

In short, Benson Henderson's use of the fence has, over time, turned him into a far more varied and multi-faceted fighter. Once a dynamic but high-risk submission grappler, Henderson's UFC run has seen him develop into a fearsome, dominant wrestler with a penchant for battering adversaries against the sides of the cage.

Will we see these skills from Henderson this Saturday, or will we be treated to another so-so performance from the man who sometimes seems too cool to even care about his fights? Only time will tell, but if the fans get their way, Rafael Dos Anjos will wind up on the receiving end of a little bit of the Ben Henderson specialty: wall n' maul.

Stay tuned to BE for all of your MMA and UFC coverage. Don't miss T.P. Grant's own Ben Henderson breakdown tomorrow, which focuses on Bendo's back-take game.

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