Saad Awad will try to solidify his claim as a Bellator MMA lightweight championship contender when he meets former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder Benson Henderson at Bellator 208 on Saturday in Uniondale, New York. It represents the single-most important opportunity of Awad’s career.
“Biggest fight? Yeah. Hardest fight? No,” Awad told Sherdog.com. “No disrespect to Benson at all, but I feel like I’ve had tougher opponents.”
Despite Henderson’s exceptional resume -- it includes wins over Frankie Edgar, Gilbert Melendez and Nate Diaz -- his 2-3 record inside the Bellator cage has taken some of the luster off his once-shiny reputation. This is not to say Awad does not respect his prowess. He sees Henderson as a well-rounded and durable fighter with excellent conditioning. However, Awad has grown ever confident in his punching power, especially after putting together the four-fight winning streak on which he now rides. With that said, Henderson has been stopped by strikes only once in his 33-fight career.
“I throw with bad intentions, [and] I always come to try and knock people out,” Awad said. “If I touch him and touch him in the right spot, I do believe I can finish him.”
A gym change has also galvanized a deeper self-belief in Awad. Before his last fight against Ryan Couture on June 29, the 35-year-old joined Sam Calavitta and Mark Munoz at the Treigning Lab. Awad sees such change as a must for fighters who want to continue to grow.
“I do believe you should switch it up every couple of years, whether you are winning or losing, because you do become stagnant,” he said. “It’s very hard to get better when you’re around the same group of guys.”
At the Treigning Lab, Awad works with a number of high-profile fighters such as Georgi Karakhanyan, Cub Swanson and Juan Archuleta. He feels Munoz has helped reconnect him with a base skill he had neglected in recent years: wrestling.
“I love wrestling. I grew up wrestling, [and] I kind of shied away from it when I started boxing,” Awad said. “Treigning Lab is all built around a wrestling base [mixed] with striking.”
Awad claims his conditioning has never been better, thanks to the diet and training programs Calavitta has implemented during his last two camps.
“I think that was one of my downfalls,” he said. “Guys would kind of push on me and then my body would start giving up, and I wasn’t able to keep up.”
With improvement in his wrestling and overall conditioning, Awad believes he has developed into a legitimate contender at 155 pounds. Now Henderson stands in his way.
“Coming into this fight,” Awad said, “[it’s] like a new me I guess you could say.”
Awad finds the lightweight title situation in Bellator perplexing. The 155-pound championship has remained in limbo since June 2017 for various reasons. Brent Primus captured the lightweight crown with first-round technical knockout against Michael Chandler at Bellator 180 but has not competed since. Watching it all unfold made Awad’s blood boil.
“It was extremely frustrating,” Awad said. “It was just like, ‘Dude figure it out or put the belt up and let us fight for it.’”
There is no shortage of contenders at 155 pounds, though Awad and Patricky Freire appear to have separated themselves from the pack. Freire also finds himself on a lengthy winning streak, having defeated Henderson, Josh Thomson, Roger Huerta and Derek Campos in succession. If Awad beats Henderson, he would welcome a rematch with “Pitbull” -- a man he outpointed across three rounds in August 2015 -- to determine a true No. 1 contender while the division waits for Primus and Chandler to settle their score.
“If we have to wait for a title fight, I say me and [Freire] scrap it out,” he said. “I’ve been here longer than 90 percent of the staff in Bellator, and I haven’t gotten a title fight. Don’t make me wait around. I’m the last person that should be waiting around.”
If a title fight or Freire rematch fails to materialize, Awad will take the next man up, as long as he does not have to sit on the sidelines for too long.
“I’m not waiting longer than four months for a fight,” he said. “I want to fight every month and a half or two months, if I’m capable.”
Awad would also be open to the idea of competing in a tournament at 155 pounds.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if they announced a lightweight grand prix next year,” he said. “I don’t see why they wouldn’t do it, and if they do, I’m going to be the first one to jump on it [and] sign up. I would like to fight the best of the best.”