MMA Retrospective: Examining the Career of the Legendary Dan Henderson
After his last victory over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, via knockout, Dan Henderson seemed like a man who should have been walking back to his dressing room with a UFC belt around his waist.
It was a spirited fight that saw Henderson looking very old and very beatable in Rounds 1 and 2, getting knocked down and seriously hurt in both frames. His come-from-behind knockout of the younger Rua seemed like the perfect ending to a storied career; yet in truth, the career of Henderson seems incomplete.
As a fighter who has accomplished so much, the fact that he has not won a UFC belt is the one glaring oddity in his resume of greatness. For a man such as Henderson, who has been fighting some of the very best fighters in the world for over 17 years, it would seem a given that he would have won a UFC title by now (and probably defended it a few times as well).
He’s come close a time or two; he lost a close decision to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 75 and later lost via choke to Anderson Silva after winning the first round against the then-pound-for-pound best fighter in the world.
But the simple facts are, he has never won a UFC title of note. The closest he has come was winning the middleweight medal at UFC 17, after defeating Allan Goes and then Carlos Newton on May 15, 1998.
Since then, it’s been many titles in many organizations, save the one promotion that is currently the biggest and best in the world.
Should Henderson retire tomorrow, many a newer fan would dismiss him as nothing more than an old-school fighter who was really never as good as the press made him out to be. This, of course, is a perception that he's hindered by an appreciation of history that can only be truly known by those who experienced it at the time.
Henderson's career has been nothing short of incredible, and that fact should not be lost to history just because the sport is growing at a rate that sees countless fighters rise so high that what has come before is often lost in shadow.
Thus, we present a career retrospective of one of the greatest fighters the sport has known: Dan Henderson. He may not have a UFC title, but he has proven himself, despite that, many times over.
On June 15 of this year, Henderson began his MMA career, winning the Brazil Open 1997 tournament.
While he would only clock a total of five minutes and 55 seconds of fight time total, he won both bouts by stoppage, defeating Crezio de Souza via TKO (strikes/punches) at 5:25, followed by his 30-second destruction of Eric Smith via guillotine choke.
The fights in Brazil back then were rough competitions due to the lack of rules, which made any fight a dangerous proposition. Yet as we look at him in his beginnings, we see two things which really have not changed: He could be taken down, and he was very aggressive.
Henderson was only 26 years old at the time.
Once again, Henderson’s only appearance in MMA for a full calendar year comes by way of a tournament, this time at UFC 17.
Henderson fought two grueling bouts that saw his chin tested far more than the previous year. His first fight with Goes lasted 15 full minutes; Henderson was rocked with punches and suffered an illegal boot to the head en route to a unanimous-decision victory.
Henderson landed his fair share of shots and implemented a strong wrestling game that gave him the victory in a close bout, and, in truth, more than a few thought he would not be coming back out to fight in the middleweight tournament final against Carlos Newton.
Newton had won his opening bout rather quickly, defeating Bob Gilstrap via triangle leg choke in just 52 seconds, ensuring he would be the fresher fighter should Henderson come out.
Yet Henderson did come out, fighting at a distinct disadvantage against Newton, and what a fight it was.
This bout was all over the place. Henderson was knocked loopy by hard punches from Newton on more than one occasion, only to come storming back, slamming Newton to the ground and roughing him up with heavy ground-and-pound.
It was a terribly close fight that could honestly have gone to Newton, but Henderson won by split decision, bringing his MMA career to 4-0. He also won the UFC 17 middleweight tournament medal for his 30 minutes of trouble.
To date, it is the only UFC gold he has earned.
After two years and two tournaments, one would think Henderson would want to try something different, but instead he traveled to Japan and entered the Rings: King of Kings 1999 tournament, once again fighting two opponents in a single night.
The first night of fights for the tournament, labeled “Block A,” saw Henderson defeat Bakouri Gogitidze via TKO (knee strikes to the body) at just 2:17. Next, he secured his place in the finals (to take place on February 26 the following year) by winning a majority decision over Hiromitsu Kanehara after two rounds.
Like 1997 and '98, it would be his only night of MMA competition, but it was also the beginning of what would turn out to be a notable and impressive 2000.
After three years and six fights, Henderson entered into the final bracket of the Fighting Network Rings (RINGS): King of Kings tournament. Suddenly, he was fighting the men who would later join him as notables in the future of the sport, be it in one way or another.
In his first fight of the night, Henderson fought the bigger and meaner Gilbert Yvel, winning a unanimous decision after two five-minute rounds. While the duration of these quarterfinal fights seems short, given that the winner would need to fight three times in one night, it is understandable.
Next, Henderson faced off against the soon-to-be-legendary Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, a.k.a. “Big Nog.”
Henderson and Nogueira battled hard for three rounds with Henderson winning a split decision over the future Pride Champion (and interim UFC champion). The fight saw Henderson tested like never before against the larger and dangerous submission expert.
While many still think that Nogueira should have won the bout, no one doubts that it was a close fight that really could have gone either way, especially given how judges in Japan seemed to handicap fights when a larger fighter was engaged with a smaller one.
Next, Henderson stepped into the ring for the final bout, squaring off against one Renato “Babalu” Sobral. After 25 minutes of hard fighting against bigger opponents, Henderson faced another dangerous opponent who was thankfully more his size yet also slightly fresher.
Henderson won a majority decision over Sobral and claimed another tournament victory. It was a night that saw him seriously tested on all levels, especially regarding his endurance; Henderson fought a total of 35 minutes that night, 25 of which were against natural heavyweights.
After taking several months off, Henderson returned to MMA competition in 2000, making his Pride FC debut against rising star and Chute-Boxe wrecking machine Wanderlei Silva.
For the first time in his career, Henderson fought a man who seemed like he would rather die than quit. Silva put pressure on Henderson every chance he got, and more over, he was able to neutralize Henderson's wrestling more often than not.
Henderson made it to the final bell, but stepped out of the ring with the first loss of his career, which brought his professional record to 9-1.
After suffering the first loss of his career, Henderson came roaring back, knocking out MMA legend Renzo Gracie in under 2:00 minutes at Pride 13. He took what many hoped would be a spirited fight and turned it into a rout that spoke to his newly found aggression and desire.
Next up, he stopped Akira Shoji via TKO (punches and knees) at Pride 14. The fight was not thought to be an honest test for Henderson, but it would give him the ring time he needed to stay sharp and to keep his name in the important conversations.
Nonetheless, Henderson survived a rocky start in a wild fight, looking both dominant and aggressive enough to take risks in order to pursue a finish, much like the only man to defeat him, Wanderlei Silva.
Finally, at Pride 17, Henderson stepped into the ring against a dangerous opponent, Murilo “Ninja” Rua, who was a teammate of Silva. Henderson and Rua fought hard for a full 15 minutes, with Henderson earning a split-decision victory and, more than that, proving that he had what it took to defeat the Chute-Boxe style.
It was a good year for Henderson, who improved his record to 12-1.
As with any career this long and deep, there are both highs and lows, and for the career of Henderson, 2002 was a low point.
All the momentum Henderson brought with him from 2001 was derailed by Ricardo Arona, who defeated Henderson via split decision at Pride 20. It was a close and spirited fight, but the physical power and ground skills of Arona were slightly greater than Henderson could overcome, and, thus, he lost for a second time.
Then, he fought a rematch against the man he had bested to win the RINGS: King of Kings tournament, Nogueira. Henderson proved he was a fighter willing to fight anyone by simply taking the fight with no reservations, but at Pride 24, Nogueira proved he was not only the larger man but also the better man on that night, defeating Henderson via armbar in Round 3.
It was the first time in his career that he had been stopped, and with the stoppage, his record fell to 12-3.
Not one to be discouraged by defeat, Henderson rolled up his proverbial sleeves and went right back to work on rebuilding his career at Pride 25, stopping Shungo Oyama via TKO (punches) in an impressive display of aggression and power. By this time, Henderson’s name in Japan was growing very large, and his fighting style had endeared him to many a fan.
Next, Henderson took on former pound-for-pound notable and UFC welterweight champion Murilo Bustamante at Pride: Final Conflict 2003.
Bustamante had been an excellent fighter in the UFC, and more importantly, he had defeated Henderson’s training partner, Matt Lindland, at UFC 37 (video highlights included above).
In fact, Bustamante defeated Lindland twice that night, both times by submission; Lindland was caught in an armbar and seemed to tap out, but when it was released, the fight was restarted, and Bustamante had to submit him again, via guillotine choke, in order to retain his title.
Henderson went out and flat-out ran over Bustamante, knocking him out cold in under one minute.
He was back on the winning road, and his record improved to 14-3.
After taking out a former UFC champion, Henderson kept on rolling through 2004, defeating Kazuhiro Nakamura early in their bout at Pride 28, yet the victory was bitter-sweet, as Nakamura suffered a shoulder injury.
Afterward, Henderson defeated Pancrase legend Yuki Kondo via split decision at Pride Shockwave 2004. While not the greatest fight of the night, it gave Henderson his fourth victory in a row, and the victory saw him undefeated for two years straight.
It would also propel him into one of the greatest years of his career over seas.
Note: The man talking to Henderson in the beginning of the clip is none other than Rulon Gardner.
Henderson started off the year at Pride Total Elimination 2005, fighting the brother of “Big Nog,” Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. Once again, Henderson found the ground game of the Nogueira family too hard to overcome, submitting to an armbar at 8:05 of Round 1.
Henderson then found himself invited to participate in the Pride 2005 Welterweight Grand Prix. He accepted the challenge and defeated both Ryo Chonan and Akihiro Gono by KO (punch) in one night, advancing to the finals on December 31.
Henderson won the Grand Prix welterweight title by defeating Bustamante in a rematch. This time, the Brazilian submission wizard made a much better accounting of himself, taking Henderson the distance.
Henderson won a deserved split-decision victory and the Pride Welterweight title. To that point, it was his biggest accomplishment, bringing his record to 19-4.
But he wasn’t done yet.
Henderson started off 2006 by facing a very tough fighter in Kazuo Misaki at Pride Bushido 10. Misaki would go on to fame for his incredible fights with Jorge Santiago, which are must-see bouts for any MMA fan.
Henderson defeated Misaki via unanimous decision, but as fate (and Pride) would have it, he found himself facing Misaki in the opening round of the Pride 2006 Welterweight Grand Prix, at Pride Bushido 12.
Henderson had won the previous welterweight tournament and was thus the reigning welterweight champion. Henderson’s title was not on the line per say, but the chance to win back-to-back Grand Prix titles was too much for him to walk away from, and so he fought Misaki once again, this time losing to the rugged Japanese fighter via unanimous decision.
For his final fight of 2006, Henderson fought Vitor Belfort at Pride 32, winning by unanimous decision. Henderson ate some hard punches but won the fight due to his aggression, takedowns and ground-and-pound in the final round.
And it also set up a long-sought rematch with the first man to ever defeat him.
Unknown to many fans, Pride FC had been dying a slow and quiet death, thanks to overspending and mismanagement, and Pride 33 would be one of its final shows.
It was during this show that Henderson brought his welterweight title to the table against reigning middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva. The fight was a rematch years in the making, and this time, Henderson was a much different fighter.
Long gone was the man who looked intimidated by Silva; in his place was a fighter who knew he had fight-ending power in his punches, and he was hungry to avenge his first-ever loss.
And avenge it he did. Henderson and Silva fought hard, slugging away for most of their fight before Henderson caught Silva playing the one-two game in his typical wild fashion. Henderson caught him with a left hook that dropped him flat on his back, out cold, and from there he swarmed, prompting the referee to intervene.
Suddenly, Henderson was not only the Pride welterweight champion, but the middleweight champion as well; a first in the history of MMA given that Pride was one of two major promotions.
It was easily his greatest hour as a fighter, although it was short-lived. Henderson never got a chance to defend either title after that, as Pride FC folded after their very next show, bought out by the UFC in a move that blew the socks off MMA fans at the time.
But it also put Henderson within striking distance of the UFC light heavyweight belt, held by former Pride alum Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.
The two friends met at UFC 75, with the promotion billed as Champion vs. Champion. Although the Pride title was somewhat empty without the promotion it had long represented, it still was a spoil that Jackson wanted very much, and it was still a major selling point as far as the fans were concerned.
Henderson and Jackson went at it hard for five full rounds, but in the end Jackson won the bout in perhaps his best display of grit and desire. Jackson never stopped fighting and won the bout by a close but just margin, unifying the titles and proving himself as one of the few Pride fighters to transition successfully into the UFC.
Henderson’s first shot at a UFC belt had failed, but he would be rewarded with another title shot right away, this time at middleweight.
As a fighter who had fought at various weights in his career, Henderson was offered another title shot against then-middleweight champion Anderson Silva right after his loss to Jackson. Henderson quickly agreed, and both men met at UFC 82.
Henderson won the opening round easier than most would have believed possible, taking Silva down and controlling him on the ground. Then, Silva turned things around in Round 2, securing a rear-naked choke and finishing the fight with just 10 seconds left in the round.
Henderson had lost his second attempt at UFC gold, and as of this writing, he has yet to get another chance at the belt.
Henderson came back later that year, defeating Rousimar Palhares via unanimous decision, but 2008 had to be a disappointing year for Henderson.
Henderson started 2009 strong by defeating Rich Franklin for a chance to coach opposite Michael Bisping on Season 9 of The Ultimate Fighter.
The fight between Henderson and Franklin was a very tough bout that saw Henderson awarded a split decision that really could have gone either way. Franklin proved to be a cagey fighter who matched Henderson in many ways, landing his fair share of shots, but the judges seemed swayed by Henderson's overall aggression.
His time as a coach on TUF was honestly uneventful; Henderson had never been a man who showed much emotion or got upset easily. At best, he seemed mildly annoyed by Bisping during the filming of the show.
But when the two met at UFC 100, Henderson scored perhaps the most violent and most memorable victory of his career.
To date, UFC 100 has been the biggest pay-per-view event in the history of the company, and in front of such a large audience, Henderson disposed of his television rival via a brutal Round 3 knockout that, to this day, remains as one of the greatest (not to mention violent) finishes in the sports history.
Throughout the fight, Bisping had been circling into Henderson’s power hand, and in Round 2 it all caught up with him; Henderson distracted him by kicking the inside of his left leg hard enough to lift it off the ground, thus robbing him of any balance on which to base a defense.
That is when Henderson stepped in with his mighty right hand, catching Bisping flush on the jaw and knocking him cold before he fell to the ground like an ironing board falling out of a closet.
Henderson then launched himself into the air, above the outstretched Bisping, and landed another shot to the jaw ,and in the process, the term “Air Hendo” was born.
Many British fans felt that moment was needlessly sadistic, but in the end, Bisping was fine, and Henderson had one of the most satisfying wins of his career.
Oddly enough, after his incredible win at UFC 100, Henderson found himself in a contractual disagreement with Dana White and the UFC, and soon he was out of the promotion and fighting for Strikeforce.
In an attempt to make the most of his name, Strikeforce set Henderson up to face their middleweight champion, Jake Shields.
In retrospect, Henderson seemed to take the fight lightly, assuming a victory like many writers and fans had done. In the first round, he almost proved those assumptions true, knocking Shields from pillar to post.
But Shields recovered in his corner and proceeded to take Henderson down, time and again, winning the fight and proving all his detractors wrong. Henderson looked tired midway through Round 2, and Shields just kept the pressure on, winning in an upset that helped earn him a contract with the UFC.
Henderson came back in December of that year, defeating old foe Renato “Babalu” Sobral by brutal knockout in Round 1 of their bout and thus securing a shot at the light heavyweight title in 2011.
On March 5 of the year, Henderson stepped into the Strikeforce cage to fight Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante for his light heavyweight title. Henderson won the belt via TKO (punches) early in Round 3, taking yet another belt into his collection.
He would later give up the title and move on to the biggest challenge of his career: a fight against fellow Pride notable Fedor Emelianenko.
The signing of the fight itself left many a fan puzzled on one hand and happy on another. Many didn’t think Henderson had a chance to win, but few doubted he would put up a good fight until he got either caught by a punch or submitted.
When the fight started, everyone watching knew that neither man had any intention of letting the judges decide the victor.
Both men were moving constantly, swinging hard leather; you knew that someone was going to get badly hurt, probably sooner than later. When Emelianenko connected with a hard flurry, Henderson went down, and it looked like it could be the end.
But then in a scramble in the ground, Henderson slipped out the back door and landed an uppercut to the face, from behind, as both men were rising. Emelianenko fell face-first onto the mat, and the fight was stopped before Henderson could do any more damage.
In under five minutes, Henderson had one of the biggest fights of his career to date, by knockout, against the greatest heavyweight in MMA history to that point, thus ensuring his own legend in the process.
After that bout and some negotiation with Zuffa, Henderson found himself back in the UFC, once again pitted against one of the big names from the better days of Pride, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
Fans of the sport still debate the greatness of this fight for reasons that baffle me; yes, Henderson got tired after Round 3, but neither man had been doing anything put putting the pedal to the metal for the previous 15 minutes.
Henderson and Rua put on a fight for the ages at UFC 139. Henderson won the first three rounds in dominant fashion, hurting Rua in nearly every frame. In Round 3, he dropped the former Chute-Boxe fighter with a brutal right hand, and from there, he landed the kind of ground-and-pound not seen since Fedor Emelianenko pounded the hell out of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in their brutal fight at Pride 25.
Going into Round 4, Shogun was a bloody, swollen mess. Then he landed a hard uppercut that sent Henderson stumbling about the ring like a drunk at last call. From there it was nearly all Rua.
In Round 5, Rua spent nearly the entire round atop Henderson, mounted and throwing punches. How the round was not scored a 10-8, I have no idea. He passed Henderson’s guard so many times it almost seem scripted, and yet, he still couldn’t finish the fight.
Watching the bout as many times as I have, Henderson was indeed tired, but he was still fighting and spending energy in Rounds 4 and 5. If not, Rua would have finished him in the final frame; he had the ideal position from which to do so, and if anyone has proven to know how to finish a fight from the mount, it’s Rua.
Still, the fight went to the judges, and Henderson was awarded the victory in what was the clear Fight of the Year for 2011.
Honestly, I thought the fight was a draw given how utterly Rua dominated Round 5, but what is not in doubt is the heart and aggression both men poured over each other for 25 minutes.
When looking at Henderson's career, 2011 has to be one of the greatest years of his life as a fighter.
After the brutal bout with Rua, Henderson took some time off to prepare for a title fight with Jon Jones at UFC 151. Then, he suffered a knee injury and was unable to fight.
This in turn began a circus of events that eventually led to the cancellation of the entire UFC 151 fight card, with the bulk of the blame being unjustly directed to Jones, who would not face last-minute replacement Chael Sonnen.
To this day, many fans still think Jones should have taken the fight. Perhaps they are right, given the utter ease with which he defeated Sonnen in their fight at UFC 151. But part of the premise of the blame game that was directed at Jones was that Henderson and Sonnen come from the same camp, thus how could Jones not be ready for a fight with Sonnen if he had been preparing for so long for a fight with Henderson.
Well, oddly enough, Henderson and Sonnen are very different fighters with very different strengths, thus that argument still holds no water whatsoever.
But no matter what your opinion is, 2012 saw Henderson on the sidelines for the entire year, which was a first in his career. It also led to the very worst year of his career in 2013.
Perhaps it was inactivity, old age or maybe it was just three bad stylistic matchups in a row, but 2013 was damn hard on Henderson.
He came back at UFC 157 against Lyoto Machida and lost via split decision.
Then he fought Rashad Evans at UFC 161 and once again lost via split decision.
Neither fight was great, truth be told; most of the time Henderson looked a beat behind the music. He was opposite two great fighters, and both times the decisions seemed just, albeit uninspired on either side.
But then he fought the monster that was Vitor Belfort, and on that night in Brazil, he ran into a buzzsaw. Belfort made short work of Henderson, defeating him in under two minutes while handing him his first-ever loss by KO/TKO, thanks to a nasty kick to the head as Henderson was trying to rise from the floor after eating an equally nasty flurry of punches.
It was the first time in his career that he lost three times in a row, the first time in his career that he had ever been knocked out and the first time since 2002 that he didn’t win a single fight in a calendar year.
Some years you celebrate, and others you endure. 2013 was all about the latter for Henderson.
After suffering three losses in a row—the last of which coming by brutal knockout—it was no wonder that many fans were thinking that the final curtain on Henderson's career was being unfurled, just waiting to fall.
And after such a rough 2013, he was paired up to fight a rematch with Rua in a bout many rightfully believed would be damaging to both men.
This time around, Rua was the betting favorite, given his recent win over James Te-Huna and Henderson’s apparent decline. Rua looked like he had rediscovered himself, and Henderson looked like the only thing he would be bringing to the banquet table were the leftovers from meals eaten far too many times by many hungry fighters.
For longtime Henderson fans, that may have seemed unduly dismissive, but going into the Rua rematch, Henderson’s record had fallen to 29-11; a set of numbers that don’t lie.
Then came the fight itself; Rua ate a hard shot and then caught Henderson coming in with a combination that not only dropped him, but visibly hurt him. Henderson ate several punches afterward while getting to his feet, and Round 2 hadn’t even started yet.
Then, Henderson was felled again, this time by a hard uppercut; the same uppercut which landed in Round 4 of their previous fight. This time it did much more damage, which lends some authority to the adage that while the punch of a fighter may be the last thing to go, the chin is one of the first.
Henderson survived once again, but after two rounds, he honestly didn’t look like the fighter we had seen so many times. His timing seemed off, he looked slower and he was more hittable than ever before.
Then, Henderson turned it all around, catching Rua with a devastating right hand when the Brazilian star tried to back out of a clinch with his hands down. Rua dropped to the floor, Henderson flurried and the fight was stopped.
As Rua tried to stand, he fell backward, while Henderson celebrated his victory, and he had a lot to celebrate. He was very close to tasting defeat and had lost every round up until he landed that punch.
But that is what fighters like Henderson do; they keep fighting, no matter what.
Now, Henderson is slated to face Daniel Cormier, with the winner possibly getting a shot at the light heavyweight title.
Can Henderson win the fight? Yes, he can, but the odds are slim; Cormier is an excellent wrestler who is also the more technical fighter of the two, not to mention that he’s younger and strong as an ox.
Henderson was 26 years old when he started; he’s 43 now. That is a lot of time and wear and tear on a body, no matter how gritty the soul and determined the mind of the owner. Eventually, every fighter succumbs to time, no matter how great or ageless they seem.
The fact is, Henderson has surpassed many expectations and had great success flying in the face of the notion that a fighter is “over-the-hill” in his mid-30s.
When the historians of the sport examine the careers of the great Methuselah’s of the cage, Henderson’s name will be right alongside men such as Randy Couture; it's a feat which many other fighters who are incredibly successful today will simply not accomplish.
But only Henderson himself can decide when his time is up. Until then, he will be fighting to the best of his ability, and fans, such as myself, will be watching, hoping that his victory or defeat is honest and unvarnished.
That’s the way he’s fought his entire career, and that’s the way it should be; because it’s only the fight that matters.