Since the history of the written word there has been a fascination with the conflict and passion of a fighter.
Authors and poets have romanticized those who step onto the battlefield, through the gates of the arena or into the fire because they seem to possess a factor which separates them from normal men. That intangible spirit or drive is the very detail an author sets out to explain because its very essence is what makes the “gladiator” noteworthy.
While such descriptions have become overused clichés in the modern era of mixed martial arts, they continue to remain in large part due to there still being individuals who warrant a special mention. Throughout their careers, fighters are constantly critiqued and categorized, and where many can be easily placed in one lane or another, very few reach the status of legend.
Former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion Dan Henderson has certainly earned his place in history of the sport - perhaps more so than any of his contemporaries past or present. The former Olympian has spent the better part of the past two decades testing his mettle in the fires of competition, and in the process the Temecula-based fighter has amassed what is arguably the most impressive resume of any fighter to ever step foot inside the cage.
That said, the 43-year-old Californian’s status was not built on achievements alone.
Henderson’s iron chin, bomb of a right hand and nonchalance toward trading leather with the most dangerous fighters on the scene have bolstered his profile to a place where legendary status begins to resemble folklore.
Although Henderson’s efficiency and consistency made him a success in the first half of his career, it was the discovery of the power he possessed in his hands that altered fans’ perception of him. Obliterating Wanderlei Silva in a violent blur and erasing the light from Michael Bisping’s eyes with a swing of his hammer right hand became the building blocks that elevated him and put him in a different league than his peers.
Suddenly Henderson wasn’t just one of the best middleweight or light heavyweight fighters on the planet, he was something else…something special…damn near a hero. Yet, where Homer wrote of Achilles teetering on the brink of insanity as he screamed for Hector to come out from behind the walls of Troy to fight, Henderson’s natural ease in the chaotic storm of fighting painted him akin to the gunslingers of the lawless plains of the old west.
“Hendo” seemed to be pulled from a forgotten era where men with murderous reputations would blow into a border town or settlement looking for a fight and the scrappy Northern California native would quietly raise his hand from the end of the saloon to oblige them. While this manner of comparison is precisely the method to how such folklore is built, there hasn’t been a time in Henderson’s 17-year career where he’s ever backed down from the proverbial shootout.
Henderson is a man who always shows up to fight…plain and simple. While that is the thing each competitor agrees to before stepping into the cage, the term itself has taken on a different meaning in recent years. Those who step in and are looking to finish their opponent from the get go are often referred to as the throwback variety, but this is due to the rise of a method of fighting where points and score cards make the difference.
While winning is ultimately the thing that matters most, squeaking out victories are not the same as putting down your chin and attempting to handle business…at least not where Henderson is concerned.
“I don’t know if there is a difference in that nowadays, but it probably means more now than it used to,” Henderson explained. “Everyone used to come out to fight and were looking to finish, but now a lot of guys are going out there and looking to win and play it safe. For whatever reason that happens a little bit more these days, but that’s not the way it was back then. Back in PRIDE, everybody always went after it. Back in the day, fighting was more common, I should say.”
As storied as his time in MMA may be, there is no better example of his love for the fray than his initial meeting with former light heavyweight champion and fellow legend Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Despite both men being two of the premier fighters in the now-defunct Japanese promotion during its heyday, their respective paths never crossed. That all changed on a mid-November night in 2011 as Henderson and Rua locked up for what would not only be regarded as the best fight of that particular year, but possibly the best fight in the history of MMA.
For 25 minutes the two men battered and bludgeoned one another as they fought to determine supremacy. Both appeared on the brink of victory on several occasions throughout the fight, but as soon as the momentum swung in one of their favor, the tide would cut back sharply in the opposite direction. Henderson and Rua bent one another but ultimately never broke as the fight was ultimately determined on the judges’ scorecards, with the Greco-Roman wrestling standout taking the unanimous decision victory.
“[Rua] showed a lot of heart and proved he could take a pretty good punch,” Henderson recalled of their first go around. “Those are the biggest things I took from the fight. It surprised me a little bit that he was able to hang in there on some of those shots and how much heart he had. He stayed in there pretty well.”
Their fight in San Jose ensured the two men would be forever linked in the history books and it was figured to be one of the final installments in two stellar careers. It seemed highly unlikely the two men would ever meet again inside the Octagon, but MMA is an unpredictable beast, and fate will bring them together once again.
Henderson and Rua will step in for their highly anticipated rematch this Sunday night in Natal, Brazil and the former two-divisional title contender is looking to add another epic chapter to his career.
“I guess I know what to expect this time,” Henderson said. “I’m expecting to go five rounds with me getting into a five round war with him. It’s going to be a tough fight I’m sure. “I’m pretty pumped to do this again. He’s the one who was asking for this rematch for a while so he’s going to get it and I’m going to make sure he’s going to regret asking for it.”
Dan Henderson: Lord of the Throwdown
"He’s the one who was asking for this rematch for a while so he’s going to get it and I’m going to make sure he’s going to regret asking for it." - Dan Henderson