No shortcuts on Bendo's road to greatness

Despite all his success, UFC champion Benson Henderson feels there's still room for growth. Ron Chenoy/US Presswire

Benson Henderson didn’t begin preparing for his showdown Saturday night with Gilbert Melendez a few months ago, when the UFC officially announced the fight.

That process started six years ago, when Henderson trained for the first time in mixed martial arts. It was at that moment that he took the initial step toward achieving his ultimate goal: of one day being recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist ever.

In every training session, Henderson visualized himself competing and winning fights. Sometimes he’d put a face on his imaginary foe. On a few occasions, the foe would be Melendez.

And in every one of those imaginary battles, Henderson would walk away victorious.

Although Henderson was just a wannabe mixed martial artist at the time, he never doubted that, with extra hard work, his goal could be achieved. Then he turned pro and racked up a few wins, and the visions of defeating future opponents, including Melendez -- a guy who was already manhandling some of the sport’s top fighters -- became more pronounced.

So when Henderson steps inside the Octagon to defend his UFC lightweight title Saturday night in San Jose, Calif., against Melendez -- the former Strikeforce lightweight champion -- he's sure to recall the many hours spent getting ready for this moment and those visions of having his hand raised afterward. He can take solace in knowing that his years of preparation for this battle serve as the great equalizer. Those years of training for this bout will play a part in lessening Melendez’s distinct experience edge.

Melendez began his professional career in 2002, four years before Henderson participated in his first MMA training session.

“I was in college watching him fight in Japan,” 29-year-old Henderson told ESPN.com. “I wasn’t even fighting then. He has so much more experience than me. I have so much more room to grow.

“When you look at my career, I’ve only been fighting for [a little more than] six years. Gilbert Melendez has 20,000 hours of boxing practice. I have maybe 10,000 hours of boxing practice. I’m OK now. But I’m nowhere near as good as I will be three years from now, four years from now, five years from now.”

Stylewise, there isn’t much that separates Henderson and Melendez. They are similar in many ways. Each possesses a strong wrestling foundation. Both are aggressive fighters who pack power in their hands and legs.

There is, however, the perception that their careers are heading in different directions. Henderson admits he is still in the learning stages. He is far from his fighting peak.

“I’m just getting started,” Henderson said recently.

It could be argued that Melendez, 31, is in his prime. He’s pretty damn good, but has had his share of very violent battles. His fight with Henderson is expected to be the latest in a long line of brutal encounters.

They are sure to leave one another battered and bruised because neither is a backward-step type of guy. In a matchup like this, between two very aggressive, hard-nosed combatants, something has to give.

When the smoke clears Saturday night, one fighter will have paid a hefty price. This is the kind of bout fans are likely to remember for many years -- the type Henderson craves.

It fits right into his master plan of one day being recognized as the greatest mixed martial artist ever. But if Henderson is to accomplish this goal, he must defeat the likes of Melendez. There can be no setback; claiming to have an off night won’t cut it.

Come up short Saturday night to Melendez and the possibility of one day being classified the greatest ever gets greatly diminished.

With so much at stake, Henderson isn’t looking past Melendez. The road to greatness, where there are no shortcuts, doesn’t allow him that luxury. It’s always going to be: defeat this great opponent, then the next and the next.

Melendez represents the current hurdle, albeit one that has been visible for many years. This isn’t just another title fight for Henderson, however -- none is, at this point; it’s the latest block that’s necessary to build his legacy of greatness.

“There is a much bigger picture,” Henderson said. “Too often people forget about the bigger picture and focus on the little things. And they forget about the bigger picture, the master plan.”

Henderson never removes his eyes from the big picture. His destiny is at stake each time he steps in the cage, and Saturday night is no different. He vows not to stumble; he’s had more than enough time to get ready for this showdown.

“Life is like a roller coaster, you’ll have ups and downs,” said Henderson, the former WEC champion who works diligently to never again taste defeat in a title fight. “Every time I step into the Octagon, I want to be fully prepared as a champion emotionally, spiritually, physically.

“I’m fighting Gilbert Melendez on Saturday night. I’ve been preparing six years for this.”