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Ben Henderson says nothing has come easy in his MMA career

Hard work pays off as Henderson prepares for WEC title defense

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Ben Henderson celebrates after winning the WEC interim lightweight championship in this file photo.

It's good to be Ben Henderson right now.

The WEC lightweight champion has the opportunity to win the last fight in WEC history Thursday when he faces Anthony Pettis in the main event of the organization's final show — which happens to be in Henderson's hometown of Glendale, Ariz.

A win would put him in line for a shot at the 155-pound UFC title, after the two organizations merge in 2011 — which is perfect because, after Pettis, there weren't many challenges left for Henderson there.

With the way everything has played out, it would be easy to say that fate has smiled on Henderson lately.

But, as the champ says, that's a naïve assumption. Although Henderson is a spiritual man who says he's been blessed his entire life, he has to give himself some credit for where he is today.

"Everything I've gotten in my career, I've earned," Henderson said. "No one has ever given me anything in this."

Henderson (12-1) isn't one for naming names, but in his experience in the fight business, some roads to the top are easier than others.

In his case, the road involved two years of fighting in smaller promotions before breaking in to the big show that is the WEC, only to have people tell him he wasn't in the big show just yet.

It's fine. He doesn't complain. Actually, Henderson takes pride in his belief he's worked harder than most and deserves to be fighting in front of his hometown in the last WEC ever.

"It's just the way it is," Henderson said. "If you have the right connections you can get a lot of publicity. You can get, 'Oh, he's the next big thing,' and get an easy shot into the UFC.

"Some guys are just given an easier way. In my opinion, I've definitely worked hard for everything I've gotten."

Despite winning each of his five fights under the WEC banner and ascending to the top of the company's lightweight division, Henderson still is fighting to be recognized as one of the best in the sport.

Although many hardcore mixed-martial-arts fans feel the WEC puts on the best shows, the organization's lightweight class has been hampered by a perception that the best 155-pound athletes compete elsewhere.

Henderson will look to end that belief as one of the more recognizable WEC fighters set to join the UFC next year.

As the 155-pound champ, Henderson has been the focus of many debates regarding how good the WEC lightweights really are — debates he's chosen to stay out of.

"I hear it quite a bit as the champ," Henderson said. "But it's somebody's opinion. I'm not real big into telling people what they think is wrong. You can think what you want.

"I don't get frustrated. It's mildly annoying, I'd say. I hear it most from media, those questions you hear over and over. It's fine. We're going to answer those questions."

Before Henderson can prove he's the best fighter in the UFC, however, he needs to prove he's the best in the WEC, which will take a terrific performance against Pettis.

Pettis (12-1) has stopped his last three opponents, earning a shot at the title and showing the ability to end a fight with both his striking and grappling.

Henderson doesn't hesitate in giving Pettis his due and says the hungry 23-year-old might represent his toughest test yet.

Considering how he's had to earn everything in his fighting career, it's fitting then that the WEC would save Henderson's such a challenge for the end.

"The best thing (Pettis) brings is that he's unpredictable, and that's hard to emulate in practice sessions," Henderson said. "He's the toughest opponent to date, for sure. He's earned his way to the title shot, and I'm not taking anything away from him."

Even if Henderson passes his last WEC test with flying colors, he knows he probably won't be considered the best lightweight out there until he gets to battle the UFC roster.

It's an opportunity he's looking forward to once Pettis is behind him. He's put in the work to be where he is now, after all. He'll just continue doing the same.

"I hear, 'We'll see about Ben Henderson in time,'" he said. "That's fine. I'm here to prove it. I want them to think that."

Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter at LVSunFighting

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