Like most high-level wrestlers, especially guys with a gritty and hard-nosed style, Dan Henderson received an intriguing phone call in the mid-'90s. The wrestling world was abuzz at the time with talk of the UFC and the rise of what was then called "no-holds barred" fighting. Not every wrestler took his shot in this new sport, but everyone who was anyone, from gold medalists like Kenny Monday to NCAA champions like Royce Alger, was asked to consider it.
Henderson's invitation came from Randy Couture, his training partner in the leadup to the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a close friend.
"I got a call from Randy," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "He was supposed to originally fight in a heavyweight tournament down in Brazil and wanted me to fight in the lightweight tournament. I had to make 176 pounds."
Couture, at the last minute, was offered a chance to fill in as an injury replacement at UFC 13 and lept at it. Even then, the UFC was the biggest game in town. That left Henderson to travel to Brazil alone for his first two bouts, an auspicious beginning to what would become a legendary career.
"I never even sparred. I had about two weeks' training. I was just a wrestler who went down there and did pretty well," Henderson said. "I'd grappled and done some submission stuff, not a whole lot, and put on the mitts and hit a bag. I knew that I hit hard, but that was the extent of my training."
For Henderson, fighting was just a means to an end. His goal, above all others, was an Olympic gold medal. Twice he had made the team and competed with the world's best. Twice he fell short.
In 1992 Henderson finished 10th. In 1996 he slid back to 12th. Until he had given his all in pursuit of a spot in the 2000 Olympic Games, MMA was nothing more than a handy ATM for the money he'd need to continue training full time.
"I only did one tournament a year for the first three years of my career," Henderson recalled. "But I actually made money instead of losing money. In wrestling, it actually costs money to do it. And you never get paid. It was nice to actually get paid for fighting and competing. And I actually beat up my body a little bit less than I did as a wrestler."
Across the cage from Henderson that first night was a tough veteran of the sport named Crezio de Souza. His father was a jiu-jitsu black belt under Helio Gracie, a pedigree second to none in those days when the Gracie name still ruled the sport. He had competed against Renzo Gracie and, along with Jose Pele Landi-Jons, was one of the favorites to walk away with the tournament title.
In his corner that night was coach Carlson Gracie, himself a legendary fighter and trainer. Carlson had stepped up when age forced Helio to step aside, maintaining the Gracie tradition of taking on all comers.
By the time MMA made a comeback, however, he was much too old to compete. Instead he searched for a proxy and, like magic, one emerged from his school in Brazil. He too was there, lurking on the margins, making the long walk to the cage with de Souza.
Five months removed from his UFC debut in Dothan, Ala., and bulging with 200 pounds of coiled muscle, Belfort was the next big thing in a sport that desperately needed a new hero. For Belfort, fighting wasn't a means to the end. It was the end, the only thing his young life revolved around. Training with Gracie was a dream come true for a fighter who visualized a grand future in the sport.
"(Carlson and I) had great times together," Belfort said. "We fought together. We really accomplished our dreams together. He really pulled me up. He told me as a very young man 'You will win the UFC. You will be the greatest fighter I ever trained.' We had a great, great relationship together. That's something I will never forget."
The two men, Henderson and Belfort, were among the stalwarts at the forefront of mixed martial arts just as the sport was becoming a worldwide phenomenon, essentially inventing the sport as they went. I point this out, not just because it's an interesting look at a time now long past, when the sport was truly a wild-west spectacle. It's also a reminder that Henderson and Belfort are both old. Comically old, in truth, for a career in combat sports.
To put it another way, let's try to process this fact: the UFC's youngest fighter, featherweight Max Holloway, was just five years old when Henderson and Belfort first locked eyes across the cage. He was only seven months old when Henderson was competing in his first Olympic games, literally learning to crawl as Henderson represented his country at the highest level of athletics.
It would be a feel-good story, this 43-year-old man and his 36-year-old opponent defying both the odds and Father Time to pursue an athletic dream that hasn't quite died...if only a black cloud didn't loom over the proceedings. Unfortunately, a specter does lurk, that insidious villain that has ruined many sports fairy tales—steroids.
That these two pioneers, legitimate legends of the cage, are still competing at a high level feels too good to be true because it is. Both enter the cage under artificial power, the controversial testosterone replacement therapy (TRT).
Henderson, it turns out, was an early adopter of the process back in 2007, becoming the first official fighter approved to use TRT in the state of Nevada. Once known as "Decision Dan," Henderson is now feared for his slugging power.
The results have been staggering. Before TRT, Henderson stopped 26 percent of his opponents by knockout. After TRT, at an age when most fighters are in steep decline, Henderson has stopped 38 percent of his fights. Yet, when talking to MMAFighting's Ariel Helwani, Henderson said he doesn't think the treatment has helped him much as a fighter.
"I don’t take that much, and I didn’t take it for my last fight, and I really didn’t notice a change," he said. "It wouldn’t matter that much to me whether I was on it or not, especially just for one fight. It’s a matter of being healthier, just as a lifestyle for me, and what the doctors prescribe to be healthier as a person. So it’s not anything that a few months is going to matter."
Belfort, too, believes he could go without TRT if need be. That he won both of his TRT-aided fights by spectacular highlight-reel knockout, he'd have you believe, is mere coincidence. After his win over Luke Rockhold in May, he refused all media inquiries on the topic.
Should Belfort and Henderson be allowed to use TRT?
"People are so into talking about that," he told Kevin Iole of Yahoo! Sports. "It's something that is out of my control. TRT does not beat technique. It's technique that wins fights. The [TRT] is a health issue. Some people have high blood pressure, so what do they do? They take medication to help fix that problem. My [testosterone] levels are lower than they should be. I need this medicine to correct that issue, and bring me back to normal, the same way that someone with high blood pressure needs to take his blood pressure medicine."
Despite claims they could do without their testosterone crutches, both fighters will be using the drug when they meet in the center of the Octagon Saturday at UFC Fight Night 32. But why?
While other sports are running from the testosterone epidemic, MMA has found new loopholes to embrace it. TRT hurts the integrity of the sport and is a black stain on the UFC as the promotion continues to try to penetrate the mainstream sports cultures across several continents.
If fighters need a needle to compete, they shouldn't be in the cage. I welcome aging fighters like Henderson and Belfort trying to match the next generation blow for blow. But only if they can do it naturally. Only if they are clean.