"My gameplan is to win every round, pick my shots, control him the whole fight, and beat him everywhere we’re at." - Dan Henderson
If we’re going by the usual order of the fight universe, at 41 years old, Dan Henderson should probably be either on the tail end of a lengthy losing streak or already retired. Instead, the ageless wonder is still fighting at a high level, is coming off a first round knockout of Fedor Emelianenko, and will be headlining Saturday’s UFC 139 event against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
To borrow a phrase from his former teammate Randy Couture, “Not bad for an ‘old’ man.”
Yet while wins in six of his last seven fights against top level foes speak for themselves, Henderson isn’t about to say that he feels 25 on the inside. In fact, when asked if there are things he can’t do now that he used to, he chuckles.
“There are a lot of things. Give me a week and I’ll give you a list of what I used to be able to do. But the key is experience, knowing that I can relax in a lot of places where I used to not relax. I could keep going back then, but now I go when I need to go, and I put my energy and strength in the right places.”
It’s worked for him, yet Henderson is not a cagey gameplanner like Couture was when he was beating top level foes into his 40’s. “Hendo” is still a free swinger and a deadly finisher if he lands his right hand. That hasn’t changed, and while it proved a detriment to him at times when he didn’t use the wrestling skills that got him to two Olympics, eventually he settled into a style where that right hand finds a home more often than not. It certainly did in the last fight of his previous UFC stint against Michael Bisping in 2009, and it worked wonders for him in Strikeforce, where he followed up a decision loss to Jake Shields in 2010 with KOs of Babalu Sobral, Rafael Cavalcante, and Emelianenko. So is it safe to say that he accomplished all he wanted to in Strikeforce before returning to the Octagon?
“With the exception of the one loss,” he said. “I didn’t expect to lose, but that happens. I had a bad fight and I’m the one that has to learn from that and move on. I’m not dwelling on it at all, Jake did a good job and did what he needed to do, but regardless, I didn’t perform the way I knew I could, so the only thing I didn’t accomplish when I was there was a good performance in every fight.”
But after the win over Emelianenko, at heavyweight no less, it was almost inevitable that the biggest fights left for the 14-year pro were going to be in the UFC. So Henderson was welcomed back into the fold, even though he didn’t know that was going to be the case when he left the UFC after the Bisping fight.
“I didn’t know what to expect,” said Henderson. “When I left the UFC and went to Strikeforce, I didn’t know what was in the future. It was always a possibility; I knew the UFC wasn’t going anywhere and I know I didn’t leave on bad terms at all, so it was a matter of how things worked out at Strikeforce. And (UFC President) Dana (White) missed me so much he had to go buy Strikeforce.”
Henderson laughs after deadpanning that last line, but in all seriousness, for the 41-year old, who is the first and only man to hold PRIDE titles in different divisions simultaneously, and who has done so much in the sport, a UFC title is the only thing missing on his resume, and he’s ready to make a final run at getting it.
“I do this for the challenge as well, and not saying there’s not tough guys to challenge me in Strikeforce, but the bigger fights and better matchups for me right now are in the UFC, so I think I will be retiring in the UFC, and not somewhere else,” he said. “I’m not retiring soon, but I won’t be going anywhere and I’ll be fighting the remainder of my fights in the UFC I’m sure.”
Does he think about a legacy that includes the aforementioned wins and titles, along with victories over Carlos Newton, Minotauro Nogueira, Renzo Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, Kazuo Misaki, Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva, and Rich Franklin?
“I don’t really give too much thought to that,” he said. “I know I’ve accomplished quite a bit in the sport, but in my mind, I’m not gonna be satisfied with what I’ve done when I have bigger goals that I want to accomplish. Once I accomplish those goals, maybe I’ll retire and be satisfied with that.”
Probably not, as Henderson seems like the type to instantly formulate new goals as soon as he’s done with the first batch.
“I’ve been doing it a long time and it’s tough to stay motivated throughout that many years of fighting, 14 years now, and the challenges with the different opponents is what kept me motivated.”
On Saturday, it will be a fight fan’s dream fight when he takes on Rua, like Henderson a former PRIDE star now slugging it out in the Octagon. Henderson admits that he “really didn’t give too much thought” to a matchup with the Brazilian Muay Thai master while the two fought in Japan, but now that the fight is a reality, he’s preparing for the same ferocious force that tore up the ring a few years back.
“He (Rua) has still got that youth to him, and obviously the rules are a little bit different now than they were in PRIDE, but he’s dangerous and he’s well-rounded, so I think he’s definitely as dangerous as he used to be,” he said. “He’s got a lot more experience and he’s better than he used to be as well.”
As for Henderson?
That’s the answer you have to expect from a man who has been at the top of this game for nearly 15 years now. And when Saturday comes, expect him to be ready for five rounds, just like always.
“My gameplan is to win every round, pick my shots, control him the whole fight, and beat him everywhere we’re at.”