Simple toughness serves Henderson well
DUBLIN, Ireland – Dan Henderson’s face reflects the carnage a 12-year career as a mixed martial artist will inflict upon a man.
His nose meanders east and west like a country road along his tattered face. He has bumps where it should be smooth and dents where there should be bumps.
Inevitably, though, Henderson has given more than he’s gotten when it comes to rearranging faces, as was the case on Saturday at a packed and roaring O2 Arena.
The 38-year-old former U.S. Olympic wrestler won a split decision over ex-UFC middleweight champion Rich Franklin in the main event of UFC 93 by nearly willing his way to the victory.
Franklin may have been quicker, more athletic and might have hit harder. But Henderson again found his way to neutralize an opponent’s skills with his grit and sheer toughness. He’s the kind of guy you imagine would love to have played football in the leather helmet era or hockey goalie before masks were mandatory.
“I just love to get in there and mix it up and fight,” Henderson said about an hour after his second consecutive UFC victory, which earned him the right to serve as a coach on the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Henderson began his second stint in the UFC after a long and successful run in the PRIDE Fighting Championship. He left that organization holding both its 183- and 205-pound belts, the only fighter in major MMA history holding multiple weight-class titles.
His debut in his second UFC go-round came in a 205-pound title vs. title match with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 75 in London, which he lost by an agonizingly close decision.
In his next time out, he fought for the UFC middleweight title against pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson Silva. Henderson won the first round, becoming the first man in the UFC to take a round in a title fight from Silva, before being submitted in the second.
But Henderson defeated submission expert Rousimar Palhares the last time out and then won an eye-opening victory over Franklin. Judges Chris Lee and Tim Vannatta each scored it 29-28 for Henderson, giving him the first two rounds before awarding Franklin the last round. Inexplicably, Chris Watts gave all three rounds to Franklin.
The win certainly keeps Henderson, who weighed in at 202 pounds Friday, three below the limit (despite holding a large drink while standing on the scale), among the UFC’s elite performers.
He’ll fight Michael Bisping, who is coaching the opposite team in the upcoming season of TUF, in his next outing, which will come only a few months before his 39th birthday on Aug. 24.
Henderson, though, still doesn’t make any concessions to age.
“I feel like I’m the same Dan Henderson [despite my age],” he said. “Obviously, those first two [UFC] fights were two [scheduled] five-round fights. I think I almost prepared for those. I was real ready, conditioning-wise. For whatever reason, I got a little tired this fight in that third round.
“I don’t know if it was from getting nailed in the ribs or just getting tired. Either way, I’m the same fighter. I had a good day today.”
Henderson is a perfectionist who wasn’t ebullient despite beating one of the UFC’s top fighters. Franklin left the middleweight division while still widely regarded as the second-best fighter in the class. He also became an instant contender at 205, almost certainly the UFC’s best class.
Henderson wasn’t pleased that he tired in the third and allowed Franklin to take that round. Most 38-year-old fighters – heck, most fighters, period – would have been happy to walk away with a win over Franklin.
Henderson’s victory puts him in an elite group, joining Silva (twice) and undefeated Lyoto Machida as the only men to defeat Franklin.
“I could have done more in that third round,” Henderson said solemnly while sipping from a bottle of water. “That’s what I’m disappointed about.”
But that was all about his night that wasn’t first-rate. He kept Franklin off-balance, not allowing Franklin to connect regularly with his powerful left hand.
Franklin’s left is one of the game’s most feared weapons, but he never really landed a telling blow with it on Saturday.
Henderson kept his chin tucked low, circled frequently to his left and winged the overhand right for which he’s become famous anytime Franklin ventured into his range. The result was that while Franklin was able to land a number of good kicks, he didn’t do the damage with his hands that he does in most fights.
Henderson just ground him down, as he has so many top-shelf opponents over the years. This is a guy who probably could make 180 pounds if he was required yet has wins over stars such as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira on his record.
He’s proof that pluck and courage are as critical to a fighter’s success as punching power and wrestling skill.
Henderson has plenty of all of them, but he’s overloaded with the first two assets. He understands the significance of the win but was picking apart his performance afterward and finding things he wasn’t pleased with.
That’s another sign of a great fighter.
“I’m very happy that I won. Don’t get me wrong,” Henderson said. “But it would have sat a lot better with me if I had a better third round. Maybe I’m my own worst critic, but I always like to finish strong in fights and keep going. I kind of slowed down in the third round, and there’s no reason I should have.
“I always feel like I have something to prove to myself and make sure I perform to the level I’m capable of performing. That’s probably why I could be a little happier after that win. I felt I could have performed a lot better in that third round. I haven’t been concerned what the public feels and who the favorites are. Ultimately, it comes down to performing in the fight.”
And few men in the modern history of MMA have performed more gallantly, more successfully and more fearlessly than one Dan Henderson.