An underdog for 7th straight time, ol' gunslinger Dan Henderson keeps shooting
MAY 23, 2014 2:07p ET
LAS VEGAS - Time is running low for the last gunslinger. This is not a criticism; it's a stone cold reality of a life in high-level athletics. At 43 years old and with more than two decades of sports wear and tear on his body, Dan Henderson is pushing back against time, hoping to win the battle for a few more Saturday nights.
Somehow, he says, after all this time, he feels good. On a great day, he feels young again. That's how just two months after fighting a grueling, punishing war with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, he's heading back to the Octagon so quickly to fight Daniel Cormier.
Just over two years ago, he was the top contender in the UFC light-heavyweight division. These days, he's a sentimental favorite, but little else. You want to hear a crazy statistic on Dan Henderson? This marks the seventh straight time he'll walk into the cage as an underdog. But this one is different. In most of the ones before this, the numbers were only slightly tilted away from him. But at UFC 173, against the undefeated Daniel Cormier, they're lopsided. Downright ugly.
In some spots, Cormier is nearly hitting historic favorite range, reaching as high as -1050 in the MGM Grand sports book. That means that bettors believe that Cormier has a 91.3 percent likelihood of winning, this against the man many consider the greatest American mixed martial artist of all time.
The going has been tough for Henderson lately. For a second there, it looked as though he was on the way to the first four-fight losing streak of his career, and perhaps a collective judgment that his time had passed. But until he retires for good, a Henderson fight will never be over until the final bell, not when he remains in possession of perhaps the greatest single weapon the MMA fight game has ever witnessed. And with a single strike, it was over, Henderson's equalizer leaving Rua in a crumpled heap.
And so we're left with a situation where your view on Henderson is very much based upon perspectives. On one hand, two of his three losses were split-decisions to elites Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida. A single judge would have swung either decision Henderson's way. He could just as easily be 3-1 in his last four fights as he is 1-3. On the other, his once-iron chin seems to be giving a little ground these days. Henderson himself admits he was "dinged" by Rua.
"Two weeks after the fight, I felt great," he told FOX Sports. "I knew that DC would be a tough fight, but if I needed to get back where I wanted to be, I had to fight the top guys."
No rest for the weary. To Hendo, it's just that simple. Nothing much ever seems to stress him out. Nothing seems to rattle him. Not facing the undefeated Cormier. Not the fact that he was unable to bring in top wrestlers to train with, as he had originally hoped to do.
To him, it's always just a roll with the punches.
"It's crazy," says Henderson's camp mate and welterweight contender Tarec Saffiedine. "I'm really amazed by Dan. He trains every day. He's 43 and he never complains. That's the crazy thing, is that he never complains. Whenever I joke with him about being old, he jokes right back to me. It doesn't affect him. And he looks good in this camp. He's healthy. Usually he has something bugging him, but he's healthy so he's good."
That's a key thing that people are overlooking, Henderson's camp believes. When he lost to Evans and Machida, his injured knee was still not recovered. But that's history, and at his age, Henderson doesn't want to look back too much or think about a future without fighting. Instead, he wants to live in the present and soak up the fun.
On Monday, he and Cormier spent most of the day together during a media tour in Los Angeles, during which Cormier continued to document his well-known love of Popeye's chicken. Two days later in Las Vegas, Henderson had 48 pieces delivered to Cormier's training room.
"It was all in good fun," Henderson said. "I knew he would get a kick out of it, if not this week, maybe next week when he's not cutting weight. I know his corner guys probably liked the chicken."
Cormier made his training partners remove it from the room, but every few minutes one would subtly escape.
"And they would all come back with this grin that just said they did something wrong," Cormier said. "It's like, these son of a guns are going back there and eating chicken."
The joke was taken in good humor, but it also subtly highlights the difference between Henderson and the rest of the planet's light-heavyweights. The crux of the joke was the difficulty of Cormier's weight cut down to 205 after spending the early part of his career as a heavyweight. On Thursday afternoon, Cormier was 213 pounds, seven away from his target number. A couple days ago after a workout, Hendo stepped on to a scale and weighed about 196. In reality, most fighters who walk around at Henderson's weight are welterweights.
That challenge remains exciting for him. So, too, does chasing the UFC belt, the only piece of major championship hardware he has yet to add to his mantle. Yes, he's far closer to the end than to the beginning, but Henderson has some bullets left in the chamber, and for the last gunslinger, doesn't that sound like fun?