Korean American UFC Champ shares the secrets of his success

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UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson(Photo by Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

Mixed martial arts fighting is the fastest growing sport in the country. How did a hard working Korean American from Federal Way became an MMA champion?

Life is demanding for Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight champion Benson Henderson.

His daily workout routine is practically non-stop. Monday through Friday, he trains three to four times a day, with strength conditioning in the morning, cardio and more endurance training in the afternoon at Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) Lab, in Glendale, Arizona, where he lives. And then there are evening workouts, and sparring on Saturdays to sharpen his agility.

Since winning the lightweight UFC belt in February 2012 in Saitama, Japan, Henderson has reasserted himself as an internationally acclaimed superstar. He even has his own celebrity diet.

In a recent phone interview with our friends at the International Examiner, Henderson took a small break from hours of training and fighting to talk about—well, training and fighting. The highly disciplined and astute Henderson, a Korean-American hailing from Federal Way, knows every great fighter needs a formula for success—one that includes the daily discipline and sacrifices, as well as the more intangible qualities that characterize a great fighter.

Henderson shares some of what he’s learned and what ultimately takes a fighter to the top:

1.  Be Adaptable and Open.

Benson Henderson after winning the UFC Lightweight Championship belt in Saitama, Japan. (Photo courtesy UFC)

Benson Henderson after winning the UFC Lightweight Championship belt in Saitama, Japan. (Photo courtesy UFC)

One of the greatest assets in fighting is adaptability: “Just the ability to not be the same,” always try new things and bend to accommodate a new physicality, style or new situations, says Henderson.

“I don’t know how many guys I hear say, ‘I know everything,’” says the humble 29-year-old. But in a fast-moving and diverse fighting world, this attitude of inflexibility reflects the antithesis of a great fighter.

Bodies and contexts are always changing so “We’re not rigid” in training regimens, says Henderson of his work with legendary MMA coach John Crouch.

And having the opportunity to be exposed to different fighting styles internationally has strengthened him as a fighter. A couple of months before winning the lightweight championships and knocking Frankie Edgar out in Japan, Henderson had the unique opportunity to spend time with the wild UFC world champ Chan Sung Jung, “The Korean Zombie,” and train in the style of South Korean fighting.

“[Jung’s] old coach helped me out, showed me a few things,” says Henderson, who saw fighting differently after leaving South Korea. “They approach the math problem from another angle that we just don’t see”—a clear advantage for fighters who always have to be on their feet.

2. Sacrifice and Eat to Win.

A burger and shake is out of the question for Henderson, who joins a slew of UFC fighters in adopting a lean, mean diet. This is just one of the daily sacrifices he must make to be a champ.

On a regular training day, he starts his morning with plain oatmeal with nothing on it or egg whites just to provide fuel for his first workout. After his first workout, he eats plain, dry chicken breast and steamed veggies with nothing on them, works out for two hours, then eats brown rice with the same plain chicken and veggies. His last workout of the day? Same plain chicken with salad and no dressing.

Henderson ingests food robotically eight times a day. “It’s like eating cardboard,” he says. “I’m not excited to eat. You’re eating just for energy for your next workout.”

But an arduous physical regimen demands an equally rigid and nutritious diet to keep a champ going.

3. Fight Hard and Take Advice from the Experts.

Henderson in a 2011 UFC fight in Toronto. (Photo courtesy UFC)

Henderson in a 2011 UFC fight in Toronto. (Photo courtesy UFC)

Henderson’s rise to the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) and UFC championships didn’t happen in a vacuum—nor did it happen overnight. He had plenty of support, development and expertise around him his whole life.

Raised by a strong Korean mother who worked day and night to support her two sons and a ring of “imos” or Korean “aunties” in Federal Way, Henderson got his start in taekwondo to honor his Korean culture.

After advancing quickly to a black belt, his mother could not longer afford taekwondo lessons for Benson and his older brother Julius. Fortunately, Benson was recruited and adopted by the Decatur High School wrestling team in Federal Way to win second in the state in his weight class, earning him a wrestling scholarship to Dana College in Blair, Nebraska, where he eventually climbed to fifth in the nation as a college wrestler.

When he decided to pursue professional fighting right out of college and delay a promising career in law enforcement, Henderson moved to train at the lauded MMA Lab in Glendale, Arizona, which he now owns. There, he had the experts at his side, including his boxing coach George Garcia, a veteran trainer of MMA fighters and Olympic-level boxers; John Crouch, who trained Henderson to a brown belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu in a short time; and Adam Gillespey, Henderson’s  expert kickboxing trainer.

To those who aspire to be world champion fighters, Henderson advises: “Make sure you find a good gym, not some ‘rink-a-dink’ gym in someone’s garage. Find a good, respectable gym with guys who have been there and know what they’re talking about. Keep your eyes and ears open, and work hard.”

4. Be Mentally Tough.

One of Henderson’s popular mantras he shares in interviews is that 80 to 85 percent of fighting is mental. He uses wrestling as a prime example.

“To be successful in wrestling, you have to have that mental toughness,” he says. “It’s hard to always to be the fastest and strongest. … You’re never going to have the best technical skills, but even if you’re not the best, being mentally tough will help you survive.”

This is coming from someone who went from getting beat up every day at wrestling practice in college, to becoming an all-American wrestling champ on the same team. This type of endurance is how Henderson defines success.

“The fortitude I’m talking about is you and I holding onto some burning coals, and I can hold them in my hands longer than anyone else,” he explains.

5. Show Your Asian Pride.

Benson Henderson with his mother and older brother. (Photo from HalfKorean.com)

Benson Henderson with his mother and older brother. (Photo from HalfKorean.com)

“I am pretty proud of my background and heritage,” says Henderson, who is Korean and African American. “When I get mad, I get mad like all Koreans do very quickly…When I do walk out with a Taegeukgi and American flag back-to-back, I’m showing my pride as a Korean American.”

Henderson has also professed his love for kim chee, rice and banchan, and frequently mentions being raised by a strong, supportive group of Korean women—his mother and “aunties” in Federal Way. He’s even etched in his skin permanently the words “champion,” “strength” and “honor’ in Korean.

“[The Korean tattoos] are special to me,” says Henderson. “I can’t really see another language getting tattooed on me.”

And the fact that Henderson has now become a huge source of pride for South Koreans is a source of joy for Henderson, who gained even more popularity in South Korea since visiting twice with his mother these past two years. That’s where he met 50 of his cousins for the first time, further reinforcing his cultural roots.

“It’s nice to have a large group of people [rooting for me] in my mother’s home country,” he says. “I have a lot of pride in the fact that I do make them proud.”

Henderson will continue to take his Korean pride to the ring, fighting three times every year—hopefully undefeated. He’s been UFC champ for 15 months so far, and with six titles and 18 wins—interrupted by only two losses since 2006—he’s already a well-decorated fighter with world-record breaking potential. By the time the 29-yearold reaches 32, he plans on retiring.

Afterwards, he’ll continue to maintain and open up more MMA gyms and sees himself putting his fighting prowess to good use—this time, behind a microphone.

“I’ve thought about being a commentator or analyst,” says Henderson. But for now, his daily regimen and the promises that come with them are more than enough.

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This story was originally published in the International Examiner

Christina Twu has been a journalist, collaborator and youth and family advocate in Seattle for nearly a decade. She loves her Central District - Jackson Place neighborhood and hopes one day to journey to her family's homelands in China's Hubei and Yunan provinces to find greater truths about her ancestors. Most recently, she served as Editor in Chief of Seattle-based newspaper, the International Examiner, the first nonprofit, pan-Asian newspaper in the country.

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