Benson Henderson driven by goal of being champion in third organization

Benson Henderson, who fights Saturday against Adam Piccolotti, has won two straight fights with Bellator. Ed Mulholland/Getty Images

Benson Henderson is one of the most accomplished mixed martial artists of his generation, a lightweight champion with both the UFC and WEC. But one thing in recent years has evaded him: a Bellator MMA championship belt.

Henderson (26-8) fought twice for that honor in 2016 and both times fell short. It's driven him since.

"If I get the Bellator belt around my waist, it'll be the first-time-ever three-organization world champion," Henderson told ESPN. "Whether you want more money, whether you want more fame, whether you want more attention, whether you want a bigger house, whether you want a bigger contract, whatever it is you want, you have to win your next fight. That's it."

His next fight -- and the matchup that puts him closer to that coveted third shot -- is against a rising contender in Adam Piccolotti (11-2) at Bellator 220 on Saturday night in San Jose, California. It's his first bout since signing a new long-term contract with the promotion in November.

When he left the UFC in 2016 and signed with Bellator, Henderson was brought in as a potential face of the organization. It didn't go as planned. He dropped three of his first four bouts, two of which were by split decision. Now with a 3-3 record under the Bellator banner, Henderson says consistency is the most important thing heading into this next chapter.

"What will be a successful 2019 is winning," Henderson said. "Not just at MMA, but all my jiu-jitsu competitions, all my wrestling competitions, [an underground] kickboxing match if I go to Thailand -- Bellator said that's cool, I can go do that."

He said physical-cost-to-financial-benefit analysis is all that kept the kickboxing fight unchecked on his bucket list.

Standing in his way in sanctioned, domestic mixed martial arts is Piccolotti, likely to garner the hometown support Saturday. Piccolotti grew up an hour west of the SAP Center -- coincidentally the site of Henderson's last two losses -- and trains at famed American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose.

Henderson credits Piccolotti, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, for refining his jab and kicks in recent years. But more than in-cage development, Henderson complimented Piccolotti's resiliency.

"He was a really big name coming out of AKA, young and undefeated -- he was 9-0," Henderson said. "He was supposed to be the next big thing. He took two losses in a row. That's hard for an athlete to come back from, hard for a lot of guys to come back from. ... But since then, he's had two wins in a row.

"He's getting better; he's getting stronger. He shows that mental toughness that you need to be successful in this sport."

"If I get the Bellator belt around my waist, I'll be the first-time-ever three-organization world champion." Benson Henderson

Fighting a younger, rising opponent is often a risky proposition for someone in Henderson's position. A loss hurts more than a win helps. Conversely, Henderson's popularity and résumé only incentivize the matchup for an up-and-comer like Piccolotti.

Henderson stresses the two fighters would inevitably meet either en route to, or in defense of, the lightweight title, given Piccolotti's trajectory. The 35-year-old Henderson does not seem picky about his path to a rematch against Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler.

A peek across promotional lines suggests a return to welterweight could prove a viable option, too, if Henderson so desired. UFC middleweight champion Robert Whittaker, Kelvin Gastelum and Anthony Pettis are just a few who successfully moved up in weight in recent years.

Henderson himself went 2-1 at welterweight three years ago, including a decision win over UFC contender Jorge Masvidal. The one loss -- what Bendo called a "butt-whooping" -- was enough to convince him the 170-pound division might not be his best avenue. In his Bellator debut, Henderson failed to win a round against welterweight champ Andrey Koreshkov in a unanimous decision loss.

Henderson says the obsession over caloric intake and caloric output is worth hitting the lightweight limit, even if it means sacrificing time otherwise spent on valuable technical development.

"You can just concentrate on getting better. How awesome is that?" Henderson said. "At 170 ... I need to have a 97 percent performance. And some of the guys at 170, they need to have maybe an 85 percent performance. They need to not be at their best for me to beat them."

Henderson, coming off two big lightweight wins against Saad Awad and Roger Huerta, respectively, says his confidence heading into Saturday is as strong as it's ever been. And if he eventually claims that coveted third belt, he would be just the second fighter ever to win world titles in the UFC and Bellator, joining Eddie Alvarez. Add his 14-month stint as WEC lightweight champ, and it would be an unprecedented collection of gold.

"I think I'm still the best on the planet at 155," he says. "I don't care who you put me in there against right now, five rounds against whoever, on the entire planet, I get my hand raised. Done. Easy."