"I think most of my damage is done with my right hand...But I have a pretty mean left as
well. Whether Machida’s chin is up or down, I'm still going to be
hitting him." - Dan Henderson
It sounds almost too simple to say that there’s no comparison, but there’s simply no substitute for Dan Henderson. As a background, Henderson’s athletic expertise wasn’t just as a top high school or NCAA Division I wrestler, but as a two-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling who for a decade won a slew of international medals, including ones of the gold, silver, and bronze variety at the Pan American Games.
As a fighter, Henderson has spent the past 15 years defeating a who’s who list en route to winning championship belts and tournaments in the UFC, Strikeforce, and PRIDE, while developing a near mythical aura around his most infamous weapon: his right hand. Although all UFC light heavyweights wield potential knockout power, there’s only one “H-bomb” and only one “Hendo”.
“It's hard for anyone to compare any other fight he has had to my fight with him,” states Henderson. “I hit hard, I'm a good wrestler, and I’m a good Greco guy. He's going to know he's never fought anyone like me.”
At 42 years old, the Californian once known as “Hollywood” and “Dangerous Dan” is preparing to enter another big fight with title shot implications and it’s against another seemingly impossible-to-replicate opponent: Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida. While many will easily ascribe uniqueness to Machida’s elusiveness and heavily karate-influenced attack; Henderson’s mix of Olympic wrestling pedigree, heavy hands, granite chin, and unparalleled experience is just as rare. Plus, “Hendo” has mastered this skill set of power, durability, and an overall awareness of how to hurt his opponent wherever the situation.
“Typically, what I do is I like to control,” explains Henderson. “I like to mix it up in there with my wrestling and throwing hard strikes. It's mostly about conditioning and positioning. It's about getting into the right position to be able to strike and mount an offense. I feel like I have a well-rounded style and I feel like I've gotten better at it. Some matches I want to spend more time on my feet and some matches I want to spend more time on the ground. It all depends on who I'm fighting.”
In Henderson’s last fight, fans got to see more than anyone could have ever expected - including the fighters themselves - unless they literally expected it to be one of the single greatest fights in history. At UFC 139 in November 2011, in a non-title, five round main event, “Hendo” squared off with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a once in a lifetime MMA war. Both former PRIDE superstars fought with unbridled determination in a back-and-forth slugfest like King Kong vs. Godzilla or Nada vs. Frank in “They Live.”
“I was there to fight,” asserts Henderson. “I had seen him fight over the years and thought he was tough and well-rounded. I knew it was going to be a tough fight, but I thought that I was going to be able to stop him. At one point in the fight, I would be able to break him. He obviously showed a lot of heart, kept going, and made it to be a great fight. It was quite a bit of action. Maybe a bit more action than I expected. I tried to finish him in the third. I used up quite a bit of energy there and got tired in the fourth and got stuck on bottom in the fifth. At that point, I figured I had the fight won. I was still trying to get up, but it wasn't the way it was going. I don't know if I expected that type of fight. I didn't expect him to take as many shots as I put on him.”
As the scrap started, it didn’t appear to be destined for a decision when Henderson dropped the hammer on Rua early and often. 30 seconds into the bout, he clocked Shogun with a short right that dropped the Brazilian and started the crimson pumping. By the end of the first minute, Rua’s been dropped, pummeled against the cage, and forced to deal with a front choke. About 20 seconds later, Henderson clipped Rua with another straight right that made Rua land on his knees while looking for a desperate takedown. Some narrow-mindedly describe the “H-bomb” as Henderson’s overhand right, but it’s really just about any of his right’s that tags his opponent.
“It's always nice to have that happen, especially early into a fight,” says Henderson. “It sets the tone. Maybe he doesn't want to stand and trade with you because of that. Makes him a little more defensive. If he is more defensive then he's not charging and throwing punches. It's always better starting out punching the other guy pretty good. One of the first punches I threw knocked him a little silly and cut him open.”
In the second round, the “H-bomb” was an uppercut and some serious body shots too. But without a doubt, the archetypal “H-bomb” landed in the third round. It’s the familiar inside low kick with the left leg followed immediately with the flash and bang of the overhand right, which ended Michael Bisping’s night at UFC 100 and will forever grace UFC highlight reels until the end of time. But with all the punishment dealt by “Hendo” in those opening 15 minutes, “Shogun” continued on during this Fight of the Night bonus-winning battle until the closing moments, with Henderson taking the eventual unanimous decision.
While 2011 has long faded away, it was a remarkably successful year for Henderson and showed how dangerous and effective the 29-8 veteran still is. The Team Quest creator went 3-0, won the Strikeforce light heavyweight belt with a third round TKO over Rafael Cavalcante, KOed one of the universally praised greatest MMA fighters in Fedor Emelianenko, and finished the year by winning one of the best fights of all time against the former UFC light heavyweight champion Rua. As he is in the midst of his third stint inside the Octagon, he has won seven of his last eight fights including the wins in his last four fights in the UFC over Rua, Bisping, Rich Franklin, and Rousimar Palhares.
As for 2012, there was the heavily publicized injury that sidelined Henderson heading into his September showdown with UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones at UFC 151. “He's really not on my mind one bit,” states Henderson, who has a new opponent and a new goal, and has little to nothing to say about the current champ at this point. “My main and only focus is beating Machida.”
Up next is the February 23rd co-main event at UFC 157 in Anaheim against “The Dragon”. The 34-year-old black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu and Shotokan karate is coming off a return to form, lightning strike-like counterpunch knockout of Ryan Bader at UFC on FOX in August. At 18-3, Machida is known for darting in and out like a fencer, avoiding his opponent’s attacks while delivering fight ending strikes of his own. Machida’s distinct timing, plus his unorthodox for MMA striking, have earned him three Knockout of the Night bonuses.
“He's a little bit awkward, which makes the fight fun for me,” reveals Henderson. “I'm trying to figure out how to beat his style. He's very dangerous and I'm taking him very seriously. He's a tough guy, well-rounded, tough on the ground, and tough on his feet. I think it will be entertaining for the fans. I'm not going to change my whole style for an opponent though. I need to use what I do best and make it work. When you do that for each of your opponents you improve certain aspects of your game along the way and that's the evolution of each fighter getting better. They train on certain specifics and now they are better. I'm feeling good and confident for this fight.”
In preparation for Machida, a lot of lefties are now walking around Henderson’s gym in Murrieta, California. For “Hendo”, there’s always the steadfast cavalcade of cagefighting talent like UFC heavyweight Dave Herman, former PRIDE/UFC light heavyweight Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou, and the final Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine. Probably the biggest name to be added to the team’s rotation is the final Strikeforce middleweight champion, Luke Rockhold, who is a dynamic striker and a southpaw. Between preparing for fights that did not happen and coaching other fighters for their own bouts, Henderson hasn’t been too far removed from MMA in his unexpected sabbatical.
“I've got a pretty good group of guys who beat me up every day in practice, so it makes me feel like I've fought more than I have last year,” says Henderson. “It's not like I haven't been preparing for a fight; they just haven't gone through with it. It's not like I haven't been in training camp or done anything in over a year. It definitely doesn't help not having a fight in 15 months. But I'm pretty familiar with fighting left handed guys and I've got two or three guys like that in my gym. I don't know about anything new, but I just want to make sure that I fight to my potential. That means being able to implement my game plan. If I can stick to the game plan, the fans will be in for a really exciting fight.”
This weekend in Anaheim, an MMA legend will make his long awaited return to the Octagon against the elusive, enigma Machida. “When guys are backing out, long or short, they're hard to hit, so you have to stay in their face and make sure you can hit them,” reveals Henderson, who will be looking to pin down Machida and drop the “H-bomb” on him. “I think most of my damage is done with my right hand, whether it is an overhand, a straight, or an uppercut. But I have a pretty mean left as well. Whether Machida’s chin is up or down, I'm still going to be hitting him.”
After the co-main event is through, both former champions will be able to say that they have now fought someone like their unique opponent. The only question, which one will get to say they’ve beaten someone like their unique opponent?