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How will MMA’s hottest free agent Benson Henderson fare on the open market?

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If you didn’t watch this past weekend’s UFC event from Seoul, South Korea, I can’t hold much against you. Call me picky, but fights between guys like Ning Guangyou and Marco Beltran don’t get me out of bed at 4am.

In fact, I’m not sure there’s much in this world that could do that.

That’s not to say the card was worthless, though. Fans who did set their alarms early on Saturday were treated to more than a few fun fights.

Veteran Sam Sicilia was met with the business end of Doo Ho Choi’s vicious punches, while later on the main card “Stun Gun” Kim finished Dominic Waters from a suffocating crucifix position.

The most intriguing part of Saturday night morning, however, was former lightweight champion Benson Henderson’s main event performance against Jorge Masvidal.

Though not fight of the night by any means, Henderson and Masvidal combined for a gritty 25 minutes of action that ended in a split-decision win for the former champ.

As unremarkable as the win was, it has heavy implications for not only Ben Henderson, but potentially the entire sport of MMA.

Last Saturday was Henderson’s final fight on his UFC contract. An “independent contractor” for Zuffa since early 2009, Henderson hasn’t fought outside of a UFC owned organization for nearly seven years.

During that time, “Smooth” has enjoyed as much success as any fighter could hope for. He was hands down the most dominant lightweight champion in WEC history, and his three UFC title defenses are tied with BJ Penn for the most in divisional history.

Though he was on the receiving end of one of the most iconic knock-downs in MMA history, Henderson has been essentially unstoppable against all but the very best opponents in the world over the last decade.

But after failed bids against both former and current lightweight champs, Henderson is now trying his hand at welterweight, a weight class that seems to suit him as he matures in the sport.

And with wins over Brandon Thatch and now Jorge Masvidal, Henderson is clearly a force in both weight classes.

The question now is where does he go?

It’s no secret Henderson hasn’t had the best of relationships with his employers contract providers; of his 20 fights under the Zuffa banner, only six have resulted in finishes.

While there have certainly been worse finishing rates, Henderson only just notched his first non-decision UFC win a year ago.

What’s worse, most of the decisions Henderson has been winning have been “split”, meaning he’s only managed to convince two out of three judges he’s winning in four different main events.

Had those four fights gone the other way, Henderson might have been cut from the organization several years ago. But he has a knack for winning the fights he needs to, especially this past weekend.

Very few fighters even end up in the position Henderson is now enjoying. The UFC purposely tries to get athletes and their managers to agree to contract extensions while their existing agreement is still around; to allow fighters to consistently fight out their contract would create a mess of free agency for Zuffa.

With all the fights completed on his existing Zuffa contract, though, Henderson now has the option to either re-negotiate with the UFC, or test the waters as a free agent.

Years ago, there would have been no question as to where a fighter of his caliber should end up. The UFC was, and still is to a certain extent, the preeminent MMA organization on the planet. It’s the NFL, NBA, and NHL of our sport. Henderson signing with a Bellator or WSOF type organization would be akin to Peyton Manning skipping Denver for the CFL; it just doesn’t make sense.

But that was then.

Today the MMA market is seemingly much more lucrative outside of the UFC confines. Since the Reebok deal, fighters and other organizations have made it clear the grass may indeed be greener on the other side of the cage. The ability to wear outside sponsors in the fight might be enough to sway Henderson outside of the UFC.

In fact, the UFC might not even put up that much of a fight. As a former champion and with so many Zuffa fights on his record, Henderson is among the highest paid athletes on the UFC’s roster. Much like Jon Fitch, Henderson might just be “too expensive” and “too boring” to keep around.

Conversely, though, Henderson has enough of a name and look for him to be a marquee fighter in almost any other organization should he choose to dip his toe in the free-agency market. And with his clean-cut, media friendly image, it’s not crazy to imagine Henderson picking up several blue-chip sponsors along the way.

So now we wait. Will the UFC pony up the dough to keep “Smooth” around? Or will free agent contract offers from outside organizations be too good to turn down?

Several other former UFC athletes have found success under other promotional banners, but how much success remains to be seen. Phil Davis, Jake Shields, Josh Thompson, Jon Fitch, Yushin Okami, Josh Koscheck, and others have all already bid adieu to the UFC, though not all under their own terms.

Henderson would be the first former champion, and arguably biggest name, to jump the UFC ship and test his value. How he fares in the open water could prove to be the impetus other athletes have been waiting for to do the same.

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