Dan Henderson couldn’t solve all of his problems with a single punch at UFC Fight Night 38—just the most pressing of them.
The right hand that turned Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s nose into a gentle S-curve abruptly boomeranged Henderson back into the world of the living on Sunday, after 10 minutes where he looked on the verge of riding his battle-scarred shield into retirement. It snapped his three-fight losing streak, put him back on the map in the light heavyweight division and likely ensured him at least one more relevant fight.
But that single punch wasn’t a cure-all.
If the community's reaction to Hendo’s third-round KO of Rua dictate anything it’s that perhaps the MMA industry has evolved beyond the point where we’ll greet an unexpected win by a 43-year-old fighter by gladly shouting, “He’s back!”
We seem obliged to take a more measured approach these days—more like Henderson in those first two rounds. Most people are opting for a wait-and-see approach on Hendo’s future, which is probably a good thing, though it certainly leaves the man himself on uncertain ground.
Even bathed in the glory of double Fight Night bonuses, Henderson’s prospects in the jam-packed 205-pound ranks don’t look particularly rosy. Not to answer his Toby Keith walkout music with a Jerry Reed reference, but the former Pride champion still has a long way to go and a short time to get there.
That one eruption of thrilling offense aside, we still don’t really know how much gas is left in the tank.
For one thing, there are the ramifications of the recent testosterone replacement therapy ban to consider. Henderson had been granted a temporary stay leading up to the Rua bout, but now he’ll have to begin the process of transitioning off TRT and figuring out what’s next. If half of what we’ve read about that journey is true, it doesn’t stand to be a very fun experience.
Supposing the aging former Olympian can come up with a way to soldier on, it will still be amid a light heavyweight class that won’t be taking applications for new title challengers before this time next year.
Provided everything moves according to plan—meaning no rematches, no injuries, no questionable decisions—champion Jon Jones is already booked up through 2014. He’ll fight Glover Teixeira at UFC 172 next month. The winner of that fight will take on Alexander Gustafsson this summer, and the winner of that fight is believed to be headed for a date with Daniel Cormier around New Year's.
At that rate, Henderson—who will turn 44 in August—would need one, maybe two more victories to recapture the standing he enjoyed in the division as recently as September of 2012. That’s when he was scheduled to fight Jones for the 205-pound title before his knee injury forced the cancelation of UFC 151.
Nobody really expects him to once again reach those heights. It seems his advancing age and the 0-3 slump he suffered during 2013 have lowered our expectations for him. Maybe that makes us cynics. Maybe it makes us realists. Or maybe it just makes us fans who no longer want to see our favorite fighters carry on too long.
As it stands, it's difficult to discern exactly what kind of contributor Henderson can be moving forward. A dependable, bankable spectacle fighter? A gatekeeper? A member of the senior tour, sentenced to live out his fighting days taking on the Shogun Ruas, Antonio Rogerio Nogueiras and Cung Les of the world?
That’s all decent work if you can get it, but any of it would seem like a sad ending for a fighter as great and well-liked as Henderson.
Clearly, his stock is up a bit in the wake of his win over Rua, but exactly how far the momentum can carry him very much remains to be seen.