UFC 161 Dan Henderson: More Like Rocky Marciano Than You Think

Jack Slack@@JackSlackMMALead MMA AnalystJune 13, 2013

Feb 23, 2013; Anaheim, CA, USA; Dan Henderson during his fight against Lyoto Machida (not pictured) in their UFC heavyweight bout at the Honda Center. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports
Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Dan Henderson is many things, but chief amongst them is a thunderous puncher. His incredible ability to take a punch is also something which springs to the forefront of a fan's mind when Henderson's name is mentioned.

Henderson's power and grit, combined with his willingness to fight as a much shorter, stockier man than most of his opponents has led to comparison's with the great boxing champion, Rocky Marciano.

Marciano was the last undisputed heavyweight champion of the world (a ridiculous phrase as George Carlin pointed out, but one that fans love) to retire undefeated, one of only two men to do so. The other was the great Gene Tunney whom I mentioned in passing while analysing Fabricio Werdum the other day.

I normally despise comparisons made between great boxers and great MMA fighters because they tend to be vague and based entirely in romantic notions rather than in technical similarities. The comparison of Henderson and Marciano, however, extends beyond their great chin, heart and punch, and into the technicalities. This comparison, I believe, is worth a study—particularly for the many in the fight world who still consider punching power a magical quality.

Henderson, like a young Marciano, doesn't have much pop in his left hand until he squares up because he stands so side on that he cannot turn his hips into a lead hand punch very well. Consequently, he cannot fight behind a stiff, punishing jab in the manner which most fans would recognize as "scientific boxing." 

It is true that the traditional jab-led style of boxing is among the most consistently successful at the highest level, but fighters who lack a solid jab have done excellently on the feet in boxing and MMA, even against fighters who fight in this traditional manner.

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Obviously, no one style is perfect, and textbook boxing all depends on what textbook you are reading from (here is some advice, there aren't many, and the only good books on boxing technique were written 50 years ago or more. They offer a wide range of methods rather than any like a consensus).

Dan Henderson and Rocky Marciano are guys who began their careers doing well up close—Henderson with his clinch and Marciano with his soul sapping infighting. Neither man had great head movement or defensive reflexes, however, and they almost always gave up a reach advantage to their opponents.

Their development of an arcing, powerful right swing was a necessity to their getting in close, but soon became what both men were known for. 

Both Marciano and Henderson squat on their right leg as they shuffle forward with their feet almost in line. Rather than fighting out of a stance from which they can do everything moderately well, they choose to stand more in a position from which their primary attack is prepared, but little else is available.

Power is not magic—some of it comes from the muscles and ability to move explosively, but a great deal can be generated through a transfer of weight. This is something which Jack Dempsey—one of the greatest punchers of all time—spoke at length about in his Championship Fighting. Punches which involve a transfer of weight are what Dempsey termed "pure" punches, and these are the kind which skinny men such as Alexis Arguello can use to dowse lights.

When you have someone with a naturally strong build and muscular explosiveness who also steps into his punches and transfers his weight, you have a truly great puncher. 

The transfer of weight in Henderson and Marciano's arcing right hand is clear to see as both squat down on their rear leg then step in as they plant their weight onto their lead foot—a complete change from crouch to almost a pitching stance—and throw their right hand from their back leg. Henderson will often kick and then lunge onto his lead leg as he drops it.

For the baseball fans amongst you I shall use this somewhat shaky analogy —the orthodox boxer is like the deadball era batter—he is concerned with reacting and with staying in what is considered safe form, and both are most concerned with saving themselves from unnecessary strikes. Henderson and Marciano's punching style is much like Babe Ruth's then-unorthodox approach to batting—step in hard and swing. If Ruth missed, he'd try again—if Marciano missed he still got to the infight where he truly did his best work anyway, and Henderson simply moves to the clinch.

The sequence above is technically almost identical to Henderson's knockout of Feijao. It's also much like his knockdowns of Bisping and Shogun, though he often uses a kick before landing on it to create the step which both men use to generate power.

Henderson's use of the right hand to close the distance is a wonderful thing to see, as the last fighter who did this well was Fedor Emelianenko and he hasn't done it with any intent to clinch in five years or so. 

The downside of Henderson's crouch is that he cannot throw a left hook without first squaring up. I am not saying it is impossible for him to throw a left hook—in fact he has a good, hard left hook just as you would expect—but from his crouch, Hendo must make a double movement to turn his hips forward and then turn them back as he throws the hook. Otherwise, he is just slapping with his shoulders already side on.

This means that Henderson is absolutely stumped by opponents who move past his lead side, towards his left. I pointed this out some time ago, and then against Lyoto Machida it was demonstrated more clearly than any time previous. The reason that Henderson was able to beat men such as Fedor and Shogun, who had an advantage in striking on paper, was that those men took their advantage on paper and refused to use their intelligence to make it a reality.

Both Fedor and Shogun have great left hooks, good kicks (though Shogun's knees are somewhat knackered), and Fedor had a lovely jab at his best—all techniques which can be thrown between circling away from Henderson's power hand, or even during the movement. Instead, both men simply traded right hands with Henderson despite this being the only sort of stand up bout which suited Henderson better than them.

Marciano alleviated this problem by working earnestly to develop a brilliant lead left hook which became crisper and crisper with each match. Eventually he put Jersey Joe Walcott out a few seconds into their rematch by surprising him with this hard left hook straight off the bat (rather than getting pounded on for half an hour before landing the perfect right hand as he did in the first bout). Henderson, however, does not have a lead left hook to speak of and actually looks more one dimensional on the feet with age.

Fighters facing Henderson should simply forget their right hands—Henderson is far too happy to take a right hand to land his own, and his own always seems to come out stronger.

Tomorrow I hope to have time (and good enough internet connection) to compare Rashad Evans and Henderson's different methods for closing the distance on their opponents despite always conceding reach and size. In brief, Henderson uses his kicks to pin his opponent in place, while Rashad rushes them, but it is certainly worth a deeper look.

Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking at his blog, Fights Gone By.

Jack can also be found on Facebook and Twitter.

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