Korean American wins WEC Title
By Jason Cruz
Northwest Asian Weekly
“Decatur Gator, baby!” shouted Ben Henderson into the phone during a recent interview before his championship fight. Henderson’s message is a familiar chant from his Federal Way alma mater. A former Decatur High School wrestling standout, Korean American Henderson won the World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) interim lightweight title on Oct. 10 in San Antonio, Texas. WEC is owned by the Ultimate Fight Championship (UFC). With only three years of experience in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA), the 25-year-old is heading to the top.
Born in Colorado Springs, Colo., Henderson’s family moved to Tacoma when he was in the first grade. At Decatur High School, he was a standout wrestler. Henderson’s abilities earned him a scholarship at The Dana College outside of Omaha, Neb. After graduating, Henderson served as a volunteer coach for his school while applying to become a police officer.
In 2006, a bet changed Henderson’s life. Henderson was challenged by some of the wrestlers he coached to compete in a local mixed martial arts show in Nebraska. He decided to do it.
“I had fun and enjoyed it,” Henderson said. It was his first fight and first victory in the MMA. Henderson’s career had begun. And he still had to let his mother know.
After being accepted by both the Omaha and Denver police departments, Henderson had to tell his mother that he was turning down both offers to give MMA a shot.
“She wasn’t too happy,” Henderson said. “In fact, she gave me a thorough tongue-lashing for about an hour or two. [But] once she realized that I was serious and saw my success, she was happy. When Korean news reporters began to request interviews [with] me, she broke out in tears.”
Henderson left his coaching position at Dana College and moved to Colorado and then to Arizona to train for MMA. “This is not a hobby. I had to learn to be a professional,” said Henderson.
Henderson’s talent and dedication lead him to train at The Lab in Glendale, Ariz., where he is sponsored to train by MTX Audio. The company has placed Henderson as a salaried employee. “The occupational hazard is getting punched in the face,” joked Henderson. “[I] am thankful for MTX Audio for its support.” Henderson can focus on training without having to work a regular 40-hour-a-week job.
“I am proud to be Korean,” Henderson said.
Growing up, Henderson recalls his mom cooking traditional Korean dishes, and Korean was spoken at home.
Henderson is fluent in Korean, although he admits to understanding it better than he can speak it. To get in touch with their Korean heritage, urged by their mother, Henderson and his brother, Julius, took Tae Kwon Do lessons when they were kids. Henderson holds a black belt in Tae Kwon Do.
“My mom was the hardest worker. She was a single mother raising two knucklehead kids.” His mother, Song Hwa Graves, came over from Korea with no knowledge of the English language.
Henderson said his mother worked three jobs a day and worked 17-hour days. “She would leave at seven or eight in the morning and would be gone and not home until 2 in the morning.”
Henderson’s mother now owns and operates a small convenience store, Peter’s Grocery, in Tacoma. His brother Julius assists their mother with the grocery store.
Origin of the “Smooth” Nickname
“I didn’t want a nickname, but when ‘Smooth’ stuck, I could dig it.”
“I’m the anti-tough guy,” he said. “I didn’t want to be known as the ‘Skullcrusher’ or something like that.” Smooth comes from his ability to pick up martial arts techniques with ease.
Henderson sports long curly hair, which he does not out of superstition but out of frugality. “I don’t like paying for haircuts. The last time I cut my hair was the fall of 2006,” explained Henderson. “[And] I don’t have plans to cut it.”
Henderson’s commitment to his MMA career included eye surgery to correct his near-sightedness. Prior to his eye surgery, Henderson showed up in eyeglasses to weigh-ins. He could not see his opponents very well as he did not fight with his eyeglasses or contact lenses.
Henderson is thankful for his fans and will continue to represent Asian Americans in Mixed Martial Arts. ♦
Jason Cruz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
*Edited to change Henderson’s weight classification.