Breaking down Ben Henderson’s free agency

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Ben Henderson stepped into the cage against Jorge Masvidal a UFC fighter. He walked out a free agent and confirmed suspicions that he would test the market. It’s fortunate for Henderson, then, that he also walked out victorious.

While Henderson will be shopping his value as a known commodity for the first time in his career, this is not the first time he’s benefited from competition between organizations. Back in January 2013, Henderson, then the UFC lightweight champion, signed a new eight-fight contract after details emerged of the UFC’s offer to Eddie Alvarez. That is the deal that just expired.

Henderson will look to both the deal Alvarez eventually signed with the UFC (Alvarez ended up back in Bellator for two fights after the promotion “matched” the UFC deal caused a legal snafu) and the deal Gilbert Melendez signed with Bellator that the UFC wound up matching themselves (without any legal snafu). Before we take a look at what Alvarez and Melendez brought in for themselves, let’s breakdown Henderson’s disclosed UFC base pay earnings thus far.

Note: WPS = win plus show

Henderson earned $34,000 WPS at UFC on Versus 5, $60,000 WPS at UFC on Fox 1, and $78,000 WPS at UFC on Fox 5. His UFC 144 and UFC 150 purses were not disclosed. He signed his new deal following UFC on Fox 5 and earned $200,000 WPS at UFC on Fox 7 and $110,000 to show at UFC 164, where he lost the title. His Fox 10 payout was not disclosed, then he earned $90,000 WPS at Fight Night 42 and $48,000 to show at both Fight Night 49 and 59. His last two payouts, including the Masvidal fight have not been disclosed.

We can see that the UFC gave him a big raise with his new deal, likely to makeup for the fact that they offered Alvarez more than what Henderson was making as champion. We can also infer, however, that the UFC handcuffed that raise to Henderson holding the title, as his last two reported payouts coincide with what he was making prior to UFC 144.

We’ll start with Alvarez for comparison. The UFC’s first offer included the following: “intent” to match him up with Henderson for the title; PPV points starting at 200,000 buys; a $70k/$70k base salary with a $5,00 raise for each win (capped at $210,000); a $250,000 signing bonus; booking on a UFC on Fox; three “commentator” appearances on “UFC-branded” media.

Alvarez wound up signing a deal with the UFC in August 2014, calling it “better” than the original 2012 offer. Specific terms of that deal have not been released. We do know that Alvarez made $100,000 to show in his debut against Donald Cerrone at UFC 178. We also know that both of Alvarez’s UFC fights have taken place on what were expected to be bigger PPVs.

We have a little more information on Melendez’s current deal. It was reported that Melendez’s deal guarantees 75% of his fights take place on pay-per-view; PPV points would kick in at a lower threshold than any other fighter had negotiated to-date; and he would receive those points no matter where his fight was placed on the main card. In addition, we know that he made $200,000 to show at UFC 181, the first fight on his deal. (Melendez and Alvarez fought each other at UFC 188. Payouts were not disclosed for that event.) Melendez made $175,000 to show at UFC on Fox 7, when he was still working on his old Strikeforce deal. There’s no indication whether Melendez’s current deal also includes a win bonus. (His Strikeforce deal did not.)

Henderson enters his free agency in a noticeably different position than Alvarez or Melendez. The UFC had coveted Alvarez for years before finally securing his services, and Melendez was likely seen as a key component of the promotion’s expansion into Mexico.¬†Both were also seen as potential title challengers in the near-term.

Henderson is half-Korean, explaining his position headlining a card in Seoul, though the UFC has established Korean fighters in Dong Hyun Kim and Chan Sung Jung (currently on hiatus due to military commitments) in addition to newcomers like Doo-ho Choi. And while Henderson now has a two-fight winning streak at welterweight, it comes off a two-fight losing at lightweight, and he’s not seen as an immediate challenger in either division.

He does have options, though. Bellator is the obvious one, with fresh matchups against lightweights Will Brooks, Michael Chandler, and a rematch with Josh Thomson and welterweights Andrey Koreshkov and Paul Daley. Bellator also has access to the pockets of Viacom, who may be itching to snag legitimate talent away from the UFC. For Henderson, fighting in Bellator would also open the sponsorship market for him (for better or worse).

In addition to Bellator, ONE Championship could offer Ben Askren and/or Shinya Aoki. A deal with ONE could also give Henderson the chance of a payday for Rizin’s New Year’s event, should he be willing to turn around so quickly.

It’s likely, however, that Henderson winds back up in the UFC for a few reasons. First, when Henderson announced he would test the market, he preceded that with a statement about being sure he would retire in the UFC. But more importantly, Henderson brings more value to the UFC than other organizations, and the UFC brings more value to Henderson. This doesn’t look like a Jon Fitch/Yushin Okami/Phil Davis situation where the promotion is willing to cut him or let him walk. Henderson is a former champion with three title defenses, seven WEC/UFC performance bonuses, and claim to three legitimate fight of the year contenders. Letting Henderson sign elsewhere wouldn’t be a seismic shift in the MMA landscape, but it would do more harm to the company’s image as housing the world’s best fighters than the aforementioned situations.

Expect Henderson to sign a long-term deal (eight fights or more) with the UFC. Whether that covers the rest of his MMA career is up to him, but at 32, that’s not inconceivable even if he continues fighting 3 times a year. He’ll likely earn close to six-figures per fight, though that’s not a guarantee given how the Alvarez and Melendez deals have played out for the company. Other terms will likely go undisclosed, but it’s also likely we’ll be seeing Henderson back on Fox or a PPV as well.

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