Henderson wants to get back on track

At a time when so many top fighters are very careful about selecting their next opponent, Dan Henderson agreed to face Rousimar Palhares even though he didn’t have a clue who he was.

“I didn’t know him,” said Henderson, who faces the Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert on Saturday night at the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first event at the Phillips Arena in Atlanta. “After I agreed to the match, I started watching tapes of him on the Internet. He’s submitted some really good guys. He’s strong, and he’s not afraid to get hit.”

Henderson (22-7) hopes to take Palhares (17-1) out of his submission game in step one toward earning a rematch with UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva. Silva choked Henderson out in the second round of their March 1 UFC vs. PRIDE middleweight champion showdown in Columbus, Ohio, which unified the belts.

“He’s never faced anyone with good takedown defense and never faced someone who hits hard and I’m looking at doing both of those things,” said the Murrieta, Calif.-based fighter.

Henderson’s game plan is simple: the former U.S. Olympic wrestler will use his superior balance from a lifetime of wrestling to keep the fight standing, negating the smooth groundwork that was evident when Palhares made his UFC debut on May 24. In that fight, he caught veteran Ivan Salaverry with an armbar in just 2:36, his fifth straight first-round submission victory.

“I don’t plan on being able to submit him,” said Henderson. “I’m not afraid at all to going to the ground, but that’s his strength. I’ll try to keep it standing, which is my strength.”

It’s going to be baptism-by-fire for Palhares, who is 10 years younger than the 38-year-old Henderson. Palhares kept switching from a left-handed choke to a right-handed one, and then to an armbar against Salaverry. He garnered a $75,000 best submission bonus check out of his debut fight and opened a lot of eyes in the process. A win would make him an instant championship contender.

Henderson has a plethora of national championships dating back to his age group titles in freestyle and Greco-Roman in 1988. Even though he didn’t medal at the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, Henderson considers his experience at the games on a par with the night in Las Vegas he ended the five-and-a-half-year record-setting title run by PRIDE light heavyweight champion Wanderlei Silva.

The Olympics are a big deal to Henderson, who attended the 1984, 1988 and 2000 games as a spectator. He missed Athens in 2004 while training for a fight in Japan and then had to skip Beijing because of the timing of this fight. “I was hoping to fight in Minneapolis (on Aug. 9) and then be able to go to the Olympics,” he said.

Henderson vividly remembers his first pro bout at a tournament in 1997 in Brazil when a near-riot broke out after his match with local fighter Crezio de Souza was stopped.

Henderson went to UFC in 1998 and won a tournament to earn a title shot at then under-200 pound champion Frank Shamrock. But he showed little interest in the title fight because MMA was just a way to help pay the bills for his Olympic dream.

While Greco-Roman wrestling was still his main sport, and weighing just

195 pounds, he entered a 32-man open weight class tournament in late 1999 and early 2000 in Japan for the RINGS promotion. On the final night, he won close and controversial decisions over then-heavyweight Renato “Babalu” Sobral and future heavyweight legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, in succession. He actually won three fights that night, solidly beating kickboxer Gilbert Yvel in the tournament finals by using his wrestling to negate the feared striker.

After losing in the 2000 Olympic trials at 181 pounds, Henderson signed with the PRIDE Fighting Championships, compiling a 13-5 record over a seven-year period as a full-time MMA fighter, against almost all name fighters.

Henderson came into the UFC last year after the purchase of the PRIDE promotion, where he held world titles at both 83 kilograms (182.6 pounds) and 93 kilograms (204.6 pounds), the metric equivalents of middleweight and light heavyweight. He was the only man in MMA history to hold major world titles in different weight classes at the same time.

He won a razor-thin decision over Murilo Bustamante on December 31, 2005, in Saitama, Japan to win the 83-kilogram title, and knocked out Wanderlei Silva on February 24, 2007, in a thrilling match in Las Vegas, to take the 93-kilogram crown.

Henderson is significantly smaller than all of UFC’s light heavyweights, but UFC president Dana White wanted him to face Silva right away as a middleweight. Instead, Henderson came in as a light heavyweight, believing there was more money in being champion in that division. He faced UFC champ Quinton Jackson in a unification match on Sept. 8, in London, England.

Henderson lost a tough five-round decision to Jackson in, depending on how you want to split hairs, either the first- or second-most watched MMA match (along with the 2006 Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock match) in U.S. cable television history.

But it was the Silva loss in the middleweight unification match that left him frustrated. While some tout Silva, ranked No. 1 pound-for-pound in the world in the current Yahoo! Sports poll as being the closest thing to unbeatable in the sport, Henderson is staying at middleweight largely to prove that’s not the case.

“He’s got holes in his game,” said Henderson, who won the first round of the fight, before getting tired and being submitted in the second round. “He’s very athletic and can get away with it. I felt my conditioning was off. I got a little tired and didn’t push the takedown in the second round. If I’d have gotten it, I’d have won the round. I should have been more aggressive when I had him down in the first round. I didn’t expect to finish him so I didn’t try. I was looking to win the round.”

But he said he feels a lot better days ahead of this fight, even though, with two losses in a row, it’s not a fight he can afford to lose.

“I feel more relaxed,” he said. “My conditioning is good. As you get older, you learn to listen to your body. You know when it’s time to take a day off. Rest is as important as your training.”

A mistake he made in preparation for the Silva fight was to stay a little too heavy in training at the end, which he thinks is why he got tired in round two. He cut from 196 to 185 pounds the day before the fight.

“I’d like to cut five or six pounds the day of weigh-ins,” he said.

“After my workout (Sunday) I was 195 pounds and I haven’t started dieting yet.”

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Tuesday, Sep 2, 2008