Somehow, someway, this fantastic 155-pound showdown, which has major implications on the lightweight class, has taken a back seat to a welterweight fight -- Dan Hardy vs. Chris Lytle -- that has none.
Regardless, it is an important match up, which will likely either determine the next top contender (Miller) or establish another formidable force (Henderson) in the crowded division, which will seemingly only continue to get tougher thanks to the recent acquisition of Strikeforce.
Jim Miller (20-2 MMA, 10-1 UFC):
Big wins: Matt Wiman, Charles Oliveira, Kamal Shalorus
Bigger losses: Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard
Biggest strength: Wrestling
Biggest weakness: Striking
What you need to know: Always game, nearly impossible to finish, 15 minutes away from his 15 minutes
What's at stake?: Number one contender status
Ben Henderson (13-2 MMA, 1-0 UFC)
Big wins: Diego Saraiva, Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone
Bigger losses: Rocky Johnson, Anthony Pettis
Biggest strength: Resilience
Biggest weakness: Recklessness
What you need to know: Spiritual, confident and eager to impress inside the Octagon
What's at stake?: Breaking into the UFC lightweight "mix"
Miller is a workhorse, competing four times in 2010, with little more than two months between his back-to-back wins over Duane Ludwig (submission) and Mark Bocek (unanimous decision). UFC matchmaker Joe Silva has his number on speed dial. He never turns down opportunities to fight, even if they don't really make much sense. While World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) champion, Anthony Pettis, was being gifted immediate title opportunities, which never came to fruition, and B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard have monopolized division champion Frankie Edgar's time for nearly 24 months, Miller has kept his mouth shut and nose to the grindstone. Just win, baby.
Henderson wasn't expected to be this good, this fast. He's been a professional mixed martial arts fighter for less than five years; however, in that short amount of time he's captured a major world championship, as well as been in two amazing fights (Donald Cerrone in 2009 and Anthony Pettis in 2010) that have been categorized as "Fight of the Year"-worthy. He emerged from the shadows that the so-called best WEC lightweights, Cerrone and Jamie Varner, cast in 2009 to beat them both (Cerrone twice). Despite a small setback in his thrilling five-round war with the aforementioned Pettis, Henderson made a "Smooth" transition to the UFC with a dominating win over Mark Bocek in April 2011. The sky appears to be the limit for Henderson's potential.
How they stack up:
Miller and Henderson are actually a lot alike. Both are very well rounded, prefer to push the pace and dictate where their fights take place. Cardio and endurance will not be a factor for either man once the cage door closes. Miller is adept at finishing opponents with submissions, while Henderson is the Houdini of escaping them.
The secret to Miller's success actually really isn't a secret. He uses his stand up to set up takedowns, which he often secures, and then beats his opponents to a pulp and/or softens them up to a point where he can sink in a fight-ending submission. His striking is decent, but certainly isn't his bread and butter. In fact, the New Jersey native has finished just three opponents in 22 career fights via (technical) knockout. He'll definitely look to stay close to Henderson all night, stack him up against the cage and wail on him until the referee says stop ... or "Bendo" tells him to (fat chance).
Henderson is about as aggressive as they come. He never stops coming forward, unless it is to unsuccessfully avoid "Showtime" kicks to the grill. He's flashy, unpredictable and the kind of fighter who can give a guy like Miller fits ... as long as he can remain upright. Henderson is no slouch on the ground -- he's an above average wrestler and a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu. His "go,go,go," "in your face" style, however, leaves him susceptible to submission attempts and other dangers. Fortunately, he's very good at getting himself out of trouble, but that's a place he's going to want to avoid at all costs against a guy like Miller. He'll look to avoid the ground in favor of confusing Miller with his dynamic array of strikes, which come from all sorts of odd angles. Henderson is also a natural southpaw, adding another wrinkle to his ninja-like abilities.
It's difficult to pinpoint an area in which, or a possible reason why, this fight would not be good. Both men are talented, hungry and realize they are on the verge of something special.
Miller clearly has the most to lose. But that's par for the course for him. He's a relentless grunt who never takes a round off. He knows only one way to fight: Hard. It's in his DNA. And with all the blood, sweat and tears he has dripped to date, and with the bright gold glow now beaming at the end of the tunnel, it's hard to imagine him switching up his gameplan this weekend.
Even if he wanted to coast to a victory and preserve his top spot, Henderson probably wouldn't let him. He, too, knows only one way to fight: Possessed. He runs around the cage with no fear whatsoever. He's the Troy Palamalu of MMA. And now that he's got a "stepping stone" who can immediately vault him to the front of the 155-pound line, he'll likely emerge from his corner crazier than an outhouse rat.
The only real concern, I imagine, would be that their similar styles cancel each other out and the fight devolves into a technical battle for position for 15 full minutes. But I doubt it. Highly.
Miller has been real busy lately and hasn't taken much time off to "re-charge" his batteries. He's slowed the pace coming into this fight with Henderson, but one has to wonder if, and when, all the activity will finally catch up with him. Miller is also a new father and has another bambina on the way. He's now got several mouths to feed, which becomes much harder to do without those win bonuses. Pressure.
Henderson is relatively green when it comes to Octagon experience. Sure, he got the initial "jitters" out of the way already, however, Jim Miller is a much bigger prize, and a much better talent, than Mark Bocek will ever be. He'll certainly be looking to avoid the sophomore slump. Like the plague.
Decision for either fighter. Both men can absorb a ton of punishment and neither of them have ever been stopped because of strikes. A (technical) knockout result would be an enormous surprise. A submission, for Miller, probably wouldn't.
It's a shame that this is just a three-round fight because it will likely not only be very close, but also super fun to watch. Even though it is not the main event, the fight still has that type of feel -- there is a lot at stake for both fighters, as well as the rest of the division.
If Miller wins, he has to be next in line for a title shot. No one else is more deserving. However, if Henderson pulls off the upset, he will turn the division upside-down and bust it wide open.
Regardless of the outcome, Miller and Henderson will have bright futures in MMA moving forward. Sunday is the start, not the end, of something special for both men.