In a sport where extravagant nicknames are the norm, it says a lot about Dan Henderson that after 16 years as a professional mixed martial artist he still goes by the unpretentious moniker of ‘Hendo.’
The 42-year-old might be one of the most successful fighters in the history of the sport, but he likes to keep things simple, and as he prepares for his main event match-up with Rashad Evans at UFC 161, Henderson wants to talk wrestling.
Before he was a UFC middleweight tournament winner, Pride welterweight Grand Prix winner, Pride welterweight champion, Pride middleweight champion or Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, Henderson was a world-class Greco Roman wrestler who twice went to the Olympics.
He was recently inducted into the Wrestling Hall of Fame in his native California. This might not have made headlines in the same way MMA news does, but for a fervent supporter of the sport such as Henderson the low-key ceremony was a source of pride.
“It's a great honor, especially for something I am so passionate about,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
Henderson twice finished runner-up in the Greco Roman World Cup and claimed a gold medal at the Pan Asian Games in 2000, but this sporting success didn’t translate to financial stability until he transitioned from wrestling into MMA.
“MMA gives wrestlers an opportunity to make money like never before. A former wrestler can now use a skill that they spent most of their lives learning to have a career in MMA and more young people are getting into wrestling now because MMA helps to create an excitement to learn wrestling,” he said.
Henderson first fought for the UFC in 1998 at a time when he could never have predicted just how mainstream the sport would eventually become, but he is happy that, as MMA has enjoyed stratospheric growth, wrestling has effectively hitched along for the ride.
“People watching the UFC see wrestling in almost every fight. Now they realize they must learn wrestling if they want to be a successful fighter one day, or just to learn a proven effective martial art,” he said.
Henderson was one of the early pioneers who blazed a trail from the wrestling mat to the MMA ring and eventually the cage. Nowadays, the UFC is awash with fighters who have wrestled at an NCAA Division One level and at UFC 161 Hendo will be facing an opponent who followed a similar route into the sport.
Rashad Evans had a very successful collegiate wrestling career before making his way into the UFC via TUF 2. Henderson says he doesn’t know quite what to expect from Michigan State alumni.
“Rashad is difficult to predict on how he is going to come out and fight,” said Henderson. “I don't know whether he will want to come out wrestling or stand-up. Either way, I am prepared for a wrestling match or a stand-up battle. He is well rounded and very tough, it should be an exciting fight.”
Henderson has won titles with both Strikeforce and Pride and also has that 1998 UFC tournament win to his name, but he has yet to win a UFC belt in the modern era, losing by decision to Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in a 2007 fight for 205-pound honors and being submitted by Anderson Silva the following year when the 185-pound strap was at stake.
He had been on course for another title shot after a run of four consecutive victories against opponents including Fedor Emelianenko and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Injury initially delayed a proposed match-up with Jon Jones. Then a disappointing split decision defeat at the hands of Lyoto Machida at UFC 157 saw the winning streak snapped and effectively ended Henderson’s chances of securing an immediate championship fight.
At this stage of his career, and with new contenders emerging all the time, it’s going to be tough for Henderson to work his way back up the ladder towards another title shot, but he says he has not given up hope of challenging for the belt currently owned by Jones.
“(A title shot) is absolutely one of my goals, but there is a bunch of tough up-and-coming fighters out there that would be good fights for me. At this point I am focused on Rashad, but ultimately my goal is to win a UFC title,” he said.
Conventional wisdom used to state that a fighter could not continue far beyond their mid 30s, not at the elite level of a sport anyway. Then along came Bernard Hopkins and Randy Couture, who didn’t just challenge this misconception, they completely shattered it.
Hopkins is six years the senior of Henderson, while Couture didn’t decide to call it quits until he was 47. There are no hard and fast rules governing when a fighter should retire and with four wins in his last five fights, Hendo is still very much a force to be reckoned with in the UFC light heavyweight division.
When he does finally call time on his fighting career, Henderson already has a retirement plan in place, although – as you would expect from a man who has been consistently testing himself against the best possible opponents at a variety of places, promotions, weight classes and sports – he’s not exactly going to be taking it easy.
“I have just finished building out my new Team Quest location in Temecula, Calif. The new location will turn into ‘Dan Henderson's Performance Training Center.’ It is a beautiful brand new building with over 18,000 square feet, complete with a 30-foot cage, 20-foot ring, over 5,000 square feet of mat space, 30 heavy bags, weight equipment, cardio machines, cross training area and new locker facilities. I will spend my time coaching and running my gym.”