Benson “Smooth” Henderson is a professional mixed martial artist whom currently reigns as WEC Lightweight Champion. He is on a 10 fight win streak with only one professional loss (11-1 record overall).
On January 10, 2010 at WEC 46, Benson unified the Lightweight title with a victory over Jamie Varner. Since turning pro in 2006, he has experienced a steady rise in the MMA lightweight division and 2009 marked his arrival to the upper echelon of WEC’s lightweights with 3 victories at WEC 38, WEC 40 & WEC 43. The highly regarded WEC 43 fight against Donald Cerrone happened to be voted Sherdog.com’s Fight of the Year in 2009. This match was also where he won the interim Lightweight title.
Benson is currently training for his next fight at WEC 48 in Sacramento, CA on April 24, 2010. This will be his first title defense as the undisputed Lightweight champion and also happens to be the anticipated rematch against Cerrone.
HalfKorean.com is pleased to present this interview with one of the rising stars of the MMA world.
Please note that HalfKorean.com comments/questions are in BOLD.
Background: The Basics on Benson
Where were you born, raised and currently reside?
I was born in Colorado Springs, Colorado on an army base. My hometown that I claim is Federal Way, Washington. I moved there when I was in kindergarten and was raised in Federal Way and Tacoma my entire life. I currently reside in Glendale, Arizona.
How did your parents meet?
My dad was in the army and was stationed in Korea and met my mom.
Do you have any siblings?
I have one brother who is a year and a half older than me.
How’s your Korean?
If I got lost in Korea somewhere I would be fine and could find my way around. I’m not as fluent as I would like to be. I can read it but not know quite all that it means.
What is your favorite Korean food?
I just love regular rice and kimchi and I’m good to go. I could eat, like every sitting, 3 bowls of rice and kimchi and I’d be in heaven. Of course, I also like dweji bulgogi, kimchi jigae and all the different banchan.
I know that in Federal Way and Tacoma that there is a pretty good size community of mixed Koreans. Did you grow up around other half/mixed Koreans?
Actually, I didn’t know too many. I did know a few. Like my emos and their kids. Not real aunts but my mom’s friends. They were half White half Korean and a couple who were half Black half Korean like me. There were some full Koreans also. There was like 5 or 6 emos/ahjoomas that met in America and came from Korea and were living on their own. They became best friends and were like sisters. We all kind of grew up with their kids.
Did you ever experience any identity issues while growing up?
No, not really. I’m not sure exactly why. I always knew that I was half Black and half Korean. I believe most people would just call my American. So it’s never been a problem for me.
When was the last time you have been to Korea?
I’ve actually never been to Korea. My brother was born there and he was there, I think, one time after he was born. But, I’ve never been there and have always wanted to go.
What do people who meet/see you think your ethnicity is?
I get a little bit of everything. Generally, whoever was asking would assume I was that race. A Guamanian might ask me if I was Guamanian. I get Samoan and Hawaiian a lot. A couple times when my head was shaved I would get Mexican or some sort of mixed Mexican & Black. I get quite a bit of everything.
Mixed Martial Arts
How did you initially get involved in MMA?
Well, my mom put my brother and me both into Tae Kwon Do when we were young. We were kind of knuckleheads and were just little boys running around. She wanted us to have some discipline and a little more of the traditional Korean aspect. She kept pushing the Tae Kwon Do when we were younger. My brother and I are both black belts. We stopped that early on when we were about 14.
I got into MMA after graduating college. I thought I’d give it a shot. It was already mainstream at the time. Matt Hughes and a lot of other fighters were wrestlers going into MMA. So I figured why not. I was an All-American and went to Dana College in Nebraska.
How supportive have your mom and family been in your career pursuit?
She’s been real supportive. My mom has been really happy. When I first started fighting and told her I was going to be a fighter she wasn’t very happy. I had been hired on to the Omaha and Denver police departments right out of college. Sometimes it can be kind of hard to find a job the first few years out of college. But, I was hired on by the Omaha and Denver police departments. She was excited that I got a job and that I’d start making good money. All parents are happy about that. And then I told her that I’m not going to do that and that I’m going to try fighting. She was like, “What?” She asked me how much I would make doing that and I told her that the last fight I had gotten $300. So, yeah, she wasn’t very happy.
So, it’s grown on her?
It’s definitely grown on her now. Now she knows that I was serious about it and wanted to make it my career. She knows that I can be successful, have the tools to be successful and that I will be successful. She definitely jumped on board and is now completely 110% supportive of me.
Do you still happen to use Tae Kwon Do nowadays?
No, not really. I mean, to completely honest, I don’t. Every now and then, strangely enough, I will catch myself doing something not the wrong way but the “Tae Kwon Do” way which isn’t the way I’m supposed to do it now.
What martial arts have you trained in and which do you consider your strongest?
My strongest would obviously be wrestling. I’ve been doing that a long time for about 12 years. Another big strength for me is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
Has the Korean media picked up on you yet?
Yeah, when I first got to the WEC I got a bunch of phone calls from some Korean media. One guy in particular, Jun Soo, is a good buddy now. He calls me up every now and then just to talk because I always do interviews and stuff. He’s the one who’s been pushing and promoting me over in Korea.
Do you think you might eventually fight out in Korea?
I would love to. That would be great. I told my mom that is definitely one of the things I want to do (to fight in Korea).
So where does the nickname “Smooth” come from?
Smooth kind of came out just because how wrestlers are when they do jiu-jitsu. Wrestling is all about attack and being aggressive and constantly going. Sometimes when wrestlers do jiu-jitsu it’s kind of, not ugly looking, but so aggressive and so hyper. Not relaxed and just so intense. So when I started doing jiu-jitsu, for whatever reason, I was a little more natural with it and smooth. When I would do moves my coach would say “That’s smooth, Henderson.” And my boxing coach would say “That’s smooth” and “You’re smoothing it out” and that it wasn’t herky-jerky. That’s kind of how it came about.
I’ve noticed that in some of your interviews and photos that you have a toothpick in your mouth. Is there any story behind that?
No, not really. My mom says that I got it from my dad and that he always had one in his mouth. I don’t really remember it. But that is what I’ve been told.
I also noticed that you throw up the “Diamond Cutter” hand signal. Is there any particular meaning to it?
It has a couple different meanings to me. It’s for my gym, MMA Lab here in Glendale, Arizona. All of the original Gracie school’s symbol was a triangle. That would be their symbol to signify that they were a Gracie academy. So we use it to signify us. That’s where we got it from. That and also the thought on the Holy Spirit. It also has a religious undertone.
It’s recently been announced that your next fight will be a rematch w/ Donald Cerrone at WEC 48 on 4/24/2010 in Sacramento, CA. How do you feel about it?
I’m excited for the rematch. It’s going to be an all-out war. I think a lot of times the reporters and analysts will tend to over analyze and say “Donald is going to do this and Ben is going to do that.” There is no need to over analyze. Plain and simple, Donald is going to bring his best. I’m going to bring my best. We are going to get it on and put on a great show.
Your first fight with Donald Cerrone at WEC 43 was selected by Sherdog as fight of the year for 2009. Is that your favorite fight you’ve had so far?
That would definitely be up there as one my favorite fights. I definitely showcased a lot. It was the first time I fought 5 rounds and lasted all 5 rounds which is a long time to be fighting. But, one of my personal favorite fights was my fight against Diego Saraiva in Phoenix, Arizona because, to me, it signified that I could be successful. I am a very confident man, as most fighters are. I try not to showboat or be too cocky or anything. But I am very confident and it is one thing to prove it, show it and back it up. It was the first time I was fighting in front of a home crowd. All the other fights I was always the away guy and on the other guy’s home turf. It was the first time I was fighting a UFC fighter. Not only did he fight in UFC, but he was tough guy. It was the first time going 3 rounds and knowing I could go 3 rounds and that this guy is tough and legit. After that I was like this is for me and that this was for real.
Staying on the WEC 43 fight with Cerrone; how tight were those submissions that you got out of and did you ever feel that you were in any danger of not getting out of them?
None of the submissions were really that close or that tight. The one that was the closest was in the first round in the first 30 seconds and the first submission attempt where he slipped and I went for the take down and I was up against the cage. I was going for the take down and then the guillotine got kind of tight all of a sudden so I had to give up the take down and start to defend. That was probably the closest one.
It was amazing because you stayed so calm during those submissions.
It’s pretty important be able to stay calm. That is a big key in fighting and being successful. Not only in fighting but in life. Certain situations can happen and if you can stay calm and relaxed and react accordingly and not just be freaked out.
2009 was the year that you moved quickly up the WEC ladder. How have you been able to handle the increased recognition and fame?
Every person has to be able to find their own way to handle the fame and attention from other people. Everybody is different. It takes a while to get used to it. I just try to be level-headed and humble. I don’t go around and say “I’m the WEC Lightweight champion” and walk around with my belt on or nothing like that.
I’ve read that you helped fellow mixed Korean MMA fighter BJ Penn train for his match against Diego Sanchez. How did you guys hook up and what was that experience like?
It was a great experience. In my opinion, BJ is the best fighter pound for pound. He is tough as nails. We were in Vegas for the WEC/UFC fighter summit. We were in a class and I kept an eye on him out of the corner of my eye. If BJ was taking notes then I better take notes. BJ is really paying attention now then I better pay attention. This is BJ Penn. All of a sudden BJ got up and I thought he was going to the restroom and he started walking towards me. I was thinking, “Oh my God, BJ Penn is walking towards me!” He came over to Efrain Escudero and I and he told us his next match was against Diego Sanchez and that he needed some tough wrestlers. He asked us if we didn’t mind to come out and help him train. I was like, “Heck yeah! Come out and help you train? How long can I stay for?”
From what I’ve read, you are a devout Christian. Does your faith ever come up in the MMA world?
It has a few times by fans. They will ask me “How do you reconcile your faith in this sport?” I never try to get too complicated about it because to me it is pretty simple. MMA is a sport just like basketball, football, tennis, golf or whatever else.
MMA is fairly diverse (ethnically). Has there ever been any issue with your ethnic background?
No, not really. It’s never been an issue. I mean a couple times fighters would ask me what ethnicity I was but only out of curiosity.
Since you have a collegiate wrestling background, what is your take on collegiate wrestlers who have become professional wrestlers and then eventually MMA fighters? A couple major examples are Brock Lesnar and Bobby Lashley.
First and foremost, they are very great athletes. It’s hard to argue that they are not great athletes. Obviously I’m a little biased. But, I think wrestlers are some of the best athletes on the planet. He’s a guy who didn’t play any football in college and played a little professional football. He is not the only one as you have a guy like Stephen Neal who actually beat Brock Lesnar when Brock was a junior and Stephen was a senior for the National Championship. He plays for the New England Patriots and has won 3 Super Bowl rings and never played collegiate football. That just goes to show what great athletes that wrestlers are.
Bobby Lashley actually wrestled for a Missouri Valley College. They are a rival of my school, Dana College. He was older than me so I never met him. One of the seniors and assistant coaches of the team knew Bobby when he was a senior and they were freshmen. So we did talk about him and he came up at times.
They are tough guys that are making a living.
Who would you consider you “dream” opponent to be?
My dream opponent would be anyone ranked above me in the world right now at 155 pounds. I want to fight all of them and beat everybody.
What do you listen to during training? Is there something specific that you listen to right before you fight?
On fight day, it is a little more mellow stuff, chill, laid back. You don’t want to get too worked up too soon. You have plenty of time. Just rest, relax until it is time to actually go. I don’t listen to anything in particular. Just some smooth R&B type stuff.
During training in the gym I play a lot of Hawaiian reggae and gospel music. I like Kirk Franklin, Da’ T.R.U.T.H. or Lecrae. I walk out to a lot of that upbeat gospel music.
What are your short & long term goals?
My goal is to be the best fighter on the planet, period. I don’t want to be “one of the best” or “arguably the best” but the best pound for pound fighter on the planet.
I want to fight until about 32 or 33. I don’t want to fight forever as this sport is really tough on the body. A lot of people have no idea. It’s really hard on the body mentally, physically and emotionally. I am not going to be doing this forever. Like most sports, the window of opportunity isn’t super long. So I’m thinking I’ll be doing this until my early 30s and then call it quits and move on to my second career.
Congratulations on your recent engagement! Did you ever have any specific dating preferences?
Thank you. I appreciate that. I never had any specific dating preferences. I was an equal opportunity dater I suppose. I didn’t have any particular preferences; blondes, brunettes, White girls, Asian girls, Black girls, Mexican girls. It didn’t matter.
What are some of your interests that you do to relax?
To be honest, I’m a bit of a loser and a dork. I don’t really go out. I like to stay home and watch movies. I wouldn’t say I’m a movie buff but I do enjoy watching movies. I read a lot. Most Saturday nights I’m at Barnes & Noble. I enjoy reading sci-fi and fantasy. Those are my genres of choice.
I noticed that you have some tattoos in Korean. Can you tell us what you have?
On my left arm is 핸더슨 (Henderson) and my right shoulder is 전사 (jun-sa) which is for champion. On my right side ribs is 힘 (heem) and 명예 (myoung-yeh) for strength and honor. Also on my hand I have Psalm 144.1, “Blessed be to the LORD my Rock, who trains my hands for war, my fingers for battle.” I got that about 3 months ago.
Anybody you respect/look up to?
I really look up to and respect Alvin “Kid” Robinson. He has fought in UFC a few times. He really showed me what it takes to be a professional fighter and not just a cage fighter or billy bad ass. He showed me how to talk to people, how to conduct myself, how to treat other people and how to take training seriously and not as just a hobby. A lot of fighters think it is just a hobby and go train to have a good time. To me this is a job and this is how I make my living. He showed me how to be a strong and devout Christian and how to live in this fight world, which can be full of shady characters. He showed me how to not only talk the talk but to be able to walk the walk.
I know you said you don’t really go out much, but have you tried or enjoy soju?
Like I said, I’m a bit of a dork and have never had soju. I have actually never had a drink before.
Have you heard any Korean Hip Hop?
Yes, I have. My cousins were really in to it when they were younger. They played it a lot when I was growing up. I’ve heard a lot of songs but can’t really remember names.
What was your take on Korea’s reaction to Hines Ward after he was MVP of Super Bowl XL?
I thought it was awesome and I loved it! I love how he plays football. He just loves to play and is hardnosed and aggressive. I just love it!
Do you get on the Internet often and, if so, what are some of your favorite websites?
Lately I’ve gotten into this kick of online shopping, which is bad because I don’t see the money. It just goes in and then out. I waste a lot of money on that. Of course all the social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter. I spend a lot of time on my sponsor’s site like MTXMMA.com blogging and keeping in contact with fans. For my website, SmoothBen.com, I post blogs and video blogs. Every fan that writes to me I always make sure to write back to them personally and not someone else writing for me. I’m big on fantasy football with my boys from the gym and do that a lot online when the season is going.
How did you find out about HalfKorean.com and what did you think about HalfKorean.com when you first saw it?
I actually saw it on Facebook and joined the group and added a comment. I thought it was cool. Not to be too prideful or arrogant or anything but I do like the whole “half Korean” thing. I think it is kind of cool and nifty. It is something to be proud of. There is nothing wrong with being proud of your ethnicity. There are a lot of people, nowadays, who are not proud of one of their ethnicities like “I’m this but not that.” I say be proud of who you are. I’m Black and I’m Korean. A lot of people tell me, “You’re Black.” I make it a point to correct people and I tell them that “I’m Black but I’m also Korean. I’m half Black and half Korean.” I think it is something to take pride in.
Any words that you would like to pass on to the community?
First and foremost, thanks for all the love and support. I’m a big fan of HalfKorean.com as everybody else is. Thanks to all the half Koreans, all the Koreans out there and the Korean population and fan base. Like I said before, it’s a hard job to do and I definitely couldn’t do it without the love and support.
Be sure to check out out the WEC 48 fight on April 24, 2010 and cheer on “Smooth” has he defends his title. It will be available live on pay-per-view on most major providers.
To keep up with Benson, please check out his official website SmoothBen.com, his MySpace or Twitter.
I also want to acknowledge and give special thanks to Rakaa Iriscience and Helicon Kuan for contributing additional questions for this interview.
Interview by: David Lee Sanders