Henderson earned a split-decision win over former Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez in the main event of Saturday's UFC on FOX 7 event at HP Pavilion.
It was Melendez who controlled the fight in the early going, outworking Henderson on the feet and adding in takedowns to score points. But as the fight wore on, Henderson seemed to pick up the intensity as Melendez's output slowed.
Henderson (19-2) used powerful low kicks to slow and wobble Melendez (21-3), and he remained upright while shucking off takedown attempts and landing counterpunches as they flurried.
While the San Jose crowd was firmly behind their hometown fighter, two of three judges disagreed, rewarding Henderson for his late work, and Henderson retained his belt with a split-decision win.
After the victory, Henderson used his post-fight speech to propose to his longtime girlfriend.
"I knew it was close," Henderson said of the fight. "I thought perhaps I had lost the first round. I thought I won the next four, but I knew it was close. I didn't think it was going to be a split."
At the evening's post-event press conference, UFC president Dana White revealed the winner of a May fight between former title challenger Gray Maynard (11-1-1) and Cole Harbor, N.S., native T.J. Grant (20-5) will earn the next crack at Henderson's belt. The pair meets at UFC 160, which takes place May 25 in Las Vegas.
In the night's co-feature, former Strikeforce heavyweight grand prix winner Daniel Cormier (12-0) enjoyed a successful UFC debut with a unanimous-decision win over former UFC heavyweight champion Frank Mir (16-7).
After training for the first time with New Mexico's famed Team Jackson-Winkeljohn, Mir looked to be in prime physical condition, and he opened the bout with several flashy kicks. But Cormier, a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic wrestling team, used superior grappling to control the pace and positioning of the contest from start to finish.
While the bout took place largely in the clinch and failed to provide much action, Cormier proved he's capable of competing in the UFC's heavyweight division by shutting out a former champion and taking the bout with three 30-27 marks.
"I'm not happy with my performance," Cormier admitted after the fight. "I was nervous, and I can't explain why. It must've been this big-fight feel. I didn't fight how I wanted."
In lightweight action, Josh Thomson (20-5) returned to the octagon for the first time since 2004 with an emphatic second-round TKO of the always-durable Nate Diaz (16-9).
Thomson used rapid movement and a steady stream of low kicks to frustrate Diaz throughout the contest, but it was a flush high kick that earned him the win. The blow rocked Diaz, and Thomson pounced with a brutal barrage of punches that saw Diaz's corner actually throw in the towel just as referee Mike Beltran was moving in to make a stop at the 3:44 mark of the second round.
"There's nothing like fighting in San Jose," Thomson said. "I was fighting in UFC before it was cool. I started my career here and I'm so happy that I get to finish it here."
The night started with a thrilling welterweight matchup featuring a back-and-forth first round that may end up being one of the best five-minute periods of the year. Matt Brown (17-11) outlasted an early assault from Canadian prospect Jordan Mein (27-9) and rebounded for a thrilling second-round TKO over the Lethbridge, Alta., native.
"Every day I wake up and work as hard as I can," Brown said after the win. "Some days you're on and some days you're off. I definitely woke up today."
Brown and Mein were each awarded US$50,000 bonus cheques for putting on the evening's "Fight of the Night."
UFC on FOX 7 drew a reported 13,506 fans for a $1.333 million live gate, according to White.