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Fighting:

Toothpick or not, Henderson open to any competitor after victory

Henderson outpoints Diaz in every round at Key Arena

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ASSOCIATED PRESS

Ben Henderson celebrates after the end of the fifth round of a lightweight championship mixed martial arts bout against Nate Diaz at a UFC on Fox event in Seattle, Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. Henderson won by unanimous decision to retain his championship.

UFC on Fox 5

UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson, left, in action against Nate Diaz during their mixed martial arts bout at a UFC on FOX 5 event in Seattle on Saturday, Dec. 8, 2012. Henderson retained his title via a unanimous five-round decision. Launch slideshow »

Controversies cling to combat sports like pieces of chicken wings stick in between teeth.

Post-fight discourse regularly revolves around a judge's poor decision, a referee’s missed call or whom a champion does or doesn’t want to fight next. UFC on Fox 5, therefore, accomplished the near-impossible Saturday evening by finding a way to be controversial in a completely unique fashion.

The clamor at Key Arena consisted of whether Benson Henderson defended his lightweight championship belt, and battered Nate Diaz for 25 minutes en route to a unanimous decision (50-45, 50-45, 50-43), with a toothpick in his mouth.

Yes, a 3-inch strip of wood more fit for hostess stands than eight-sided fighting cages.

“I cannot confirm nor deny that,” Henderson said when first asked about the toothpick at the post-fight press conference. “I normally do, yeah. I have been through practices, when I spar and when I fight. It’s a bad habit, but whatever. I’ve gotten away with it so far.”

Henderson, who’s rarely seen without a toothpick when not fighting, later denied it all. The confusion started when the champion was spotted with the perceived contraband sticking out of his mouth while celebrating immediately after the conclusion of his main-event bout.

UFC commentator Joe Rogan confronted Henderson with a question about it in the octagon, but Henderson had even less to say in the moment.

UFC President Dana White wasn’t available to comment on the rumors after the fight, as spokesman Dave Sholler ran the press conference.

“For starters, I can’t even tell if he’s serious or joking,” Sholler said. “But I’m sure the commission wouldn’t want a piece of wood in his mouth during the fight.”

Diaz had the last, and arguably best, word on the toothpick saga: “I don’t know if he did, but that’s weird.”

The challenger had some eccentric moments of his own in the fight, though. Despite getting pummeled with ground-and-pound strikes while on his back late in the bout, Diaz flipped off Henderson and continued to mouth off to the champion.

Diaz congratulated and embraced Henderson multiple times after the fight, pausing the trash talk for all of about a half-hour before he went back to it. His remarks were subtle and not about himself, but Diaz shared some words of warning for Henderson in front of the media.

“No one’s stopping Gilbert Melendez,” Diaz said of his training partner and Strikeforce lightweight champion.

“I don’t think there’s any reason why Gilbert Melendez hasn’t shown enough over the years," Diaz said. "He has the most perfect record, he’s beaten all the best guys, and I think that he’s definitely the next guy in line. It’s not my call, but if not, he’s coming, so watch out.”

Strikeforce is expected to dissolve after a final event on Jan. 12 in Oklahoma City. Diaz unofficially restarted the campaign to get Melendez, who’s on a seven-fight win streak and unanimously considered one of the top three lightweights in the world, an immediate UFC title shot.

Henderson shook his head in agreement while Diaz raved about Melendez. Either Melendez or the winner of the UFC on Fox 6 bout between Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone, scheduled for Jan. 26 in Chicago, looks like Henderson’s next opponent.

He’s fine with any of them.

“I don’t have a preference for anybody,” Henderson said. “The best fighters on the planet will work their way up, get to the UFC contender, and we’ll line up and see who’s better. I don’t care who they are. It really doesn’t matter to me.”

Henderson will be favored over any of them, especially after Saturday night. “Bendo” made oddsmakers and sports bettors look foolish for making the bout with Diaz close to a pick’em.

The former WEC champion used his strength to dictate where the fight took place and severely out-struck Diaz, who said he had blurry vision from early in the first round when Henderson hit him with a big shot.

By the end of the night, Diaz’s right eye was a palette of all different shades of purple, black and blue. Henderson’s second defense was nothing like his two floss-thin decision victories over Frankie Edgar.

Henderson attempted to temper the excitement, downplaying the credit he deserved for demolishing a fighter of Diaz’s ilk.

“Every fight is a close dogfight,” Henderson said. “Sometimes, you go out there and get knocked out in the first seven seconds. That might be one out of 10 times, but that is why we fight. This might have been more of a case of stylistically (matching up well).”

Henderson compliments his opponents, ducks no one and tries hard to secure his place as a positive role model. He’s not going to summon uproar through traditional methods.

Henderson will do it in an original way, with a toothpick, in this case.

“Majority of the time, I have it in,” Henderson said of his toothpick with a grin. “Sometimes, I don’t.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at twitter.com/casekeefer.

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