When Dan Henderson takes on Rashad Evans at UFC 161 from the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Canada, on Saturday, he’ll be bringing a wealth of combat experience into the Octagon with which few others can compete.
Strikeforce Light-Heavyweight Champion? He did it. Olympics? He represented the United States in both the 1992 and 1996 Summer Games in Greco-Roman wrestling. Pride middleweight and welterweight champion? Not only did he do it, he became the only mixed martial artist to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight classes in a major MMA promotion.
What’s even more impressive is that he achieved all of this against the stiffest competition the MMA world has had to offer, testing his skills against a veritable “Murderer’s Row” of opponents like Anderson Silva, “Shogun” Rua, and Wanderlei Silva over the course of his career.
The fact of the matter is that Dan Henderson likes a good, old-fashioned challenge. His legendary toughness pre-dates his MMA career, evidenced by the tale of a young Dan Henderson and Randy Couture beating up a group of unruly bouncers at an Atlanta bar in 1995.
“That could be true, allegedly,” Henderson said with his trademark smirk. “That may have happened. Randy bumped into a parked car and the bouncers came out talking trash to him and trying to start a fight, which pissed me off because they’re supposed to be stopping fights, not starting them. I’m not sure what happened after that … it escalated,” Henderson continued. “Randy actually went back the next night not realizing it was the same bar and they kicked him out.”
Roughing up a group of tough guys is a far cry from fighting under the bright lights of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, however. Many fighters have wilted under the pressure that comes with competing in the world’s premiere Mixed Martial Arts organization.
Not Henderson, whose UFC debut took place in 1998 at UFC 17, a two-fight tournament.
“The first couple events I fought in, I was a little nervous, but nothing serious,” he said. “My training never consisted of any sparring back then, I was just wrestling full-time. I hit pads and focus-mitts and thought I was good but never sparred. Without sparring it made me a bit more nervous. I didn’t start sparring until after I beat Carlos (Newton). It was tough, two fights in a night always is.”
Henderson’s obsession with pursuing challenging fights took him directly from UFC 17 into what he calls “the toughest night of fighting” in his career.
“My first nine fights were all tournaments where I fought multiple fights in one night,” he explained. “The toughest was obviously three fights in one night for the finals of RINGS, which was a 32-man tournament.”
The 1999 RINGS: King of Kings tournament that Henderson fought in boasted an unbelievable line-up of talent and concluded in Henderson fighting and defeating future UFC stars Gilbert Yvel, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Renato “Babalu” Sobral all in one night.
It’s all par for the course with Henderson, who doesn’t find anything particularly surprising about his accomplishments. After all, he simply expected them to happen.
"I didn’t think it was a big deal at the time," Henderson said of his landmark KO victory over Wanderlei Silva in the 2006 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix, a win that made him the only man to ever hold two titles simultaneously in a major MMA organization. "I mean, I think there’s only been a couple other times where people have even had that opportunity, like B.J. Penn, which astounds me why he showed up out of shape with that opportunity (against Georges St. Pierre at UFC 94). I didn’t think it was that big of a deal. In my mind, I just beat Wanderlei and took his belt."
In the end, Henderson didn’t care much for the belt. It was all about the challenge.
Henderson didn’t just beat Silva, Pride’s most feared middleweight champion of all-time, he knocked him out cold with a thunderous left hook that became many fans’ first taste of the now legendary punching power of Dan Henderson.
“I would say since that’s happened, there might have been less than 20 days that have gone by without someone saying, ‘Thank you for that.’ … Hey, I enjoyed it more than anybody."
So where was this devastating KO power before?
“I think I’ve had it the whole time,” Henderson said. “It was just a matter of learning to put it in the right place. Once I got better at striking, timing and being more technical it started landing a lot more and in the right place.”
As UFC 161 draws closer, it becomes even clearer that Henderson is not done challenging himself yet, even at 42 years of age.
"I’d like to fight five or six more fights," Henderson said. "I still love the sport, the challenge of it, the challenge of being with different guys and testing myself and what I’m capable of doing."
If Henderson were to come away from UFC 161 with a win over Evans, whom would he like to face next then?
“I’d like to fight Jon Jones,” he said. “We have unfinished business. It’s something I got prepared for and never got to do.”
Dan Henderson looking for a challenge, what a surprise.