When Dan Henderson entered mixed martial arts, he was hardly looking to become one of the sport’s legendary names.
Henderson had just come off the 1996 Olympics, where he had failed to medal in Greco-Roman wrestling for the second straight Games. At 26, he was looking to extend his career to the 2000 Olympics, and like a number of world-class amateur wrestlers at that time, MMA, even with the relatively small purses then offered, was a way to earn extra cash and fund gold-medal dreams.
In fact, after Henderson won a 1998 four-man under-200 pound tournament to earn a shot at then-UFC champion Frank Shamrock, Henderson pretty well blew MMA off, saying his goal was the 2000 Olympics. The Shamrock match was never made.
“I just needed the money,” said Henderson. “I didn’t really give a whole lot of thought about if it’d be fun or not, or whatever. I just thought I’d try it out, and I was just a wrestler at that point.”
As it turned out, he failed to make the 2000 Games, which solidified his career direction toward that of a full-time fighter. It was a decision he’s never regretted.
Many high-level wrestlers have gone into MMA, but few have reached Henderson’s level of accomplishment, including being the only person to hold major championships in two different weight classes at the same time (he was PRIDE 183- and 205-pound champion when the organization was purchased by UFC in 2007). He’s also, as the current Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, the second-oldest major champion in the sport’s history (he’ll turn 41 on Aug. 24).
Ironically, Henderson’s opponent in Saturday night’s Strikeforce main event in suburban Chicago, 35-year-old Fedor Emelianenko, is the one hearing whispers that he’s old, washed up and should retire.
Emelianenko, who went nearly a decade without a loss before being submitted by Fabricio Werdum last summer, has almost all the pressure on him. He’s lost his last two fights. The seven-figure paydays he commands help carry the entire M-1 Global promotional brand. And, because the legendary former PRIDE heavyweight champion’s marketability has been based more on never losing than personality, trash talk or celebrity status, another million-dollar contract isn’t likely to come his way after a third straight loss.
“Well, I think anybody that has their back to the wall and coming off two losses like that is definitely more dangerous,” said Henderson. “But I think he’s still going to be trying to hit me with the same punches he would have if he would have won his last two fights.”
As has been well-documented, Henderson is moving up to heavyweight for the fight. Largely because of that size difference, Emelianenko is a 5-to-2 favorite on the Las Vegas sports books.
Win or lose, Henderson will leave the fight still light heavyweight champion and few would hold a loss to a heavyweight against him.
More significant to Henderson is that this is the final fight of his Strikeforce contract, and he would have a lot more negotiating leverage coming off a win over Emelianenko than a loss.
But it’s still almost a no-lose situation, with Henderson’s upside that of adding another legendary notch on a belt buckle of big-name wins that already includes such luminaries as Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Renzo Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, Vitor Belfort, Wanderlei Silva, Michael Bisping and Rich Franklin.
By modern standards, Henderson is not even a large middleweight, never mind a heavyweight. Emelianenko (31-3, 1 no contest) has made a career of finishing men much larger than himself, often because of a speed advantage and a grappling ability that allows him to be able to handle himself against bigger men. Henderson, on the other hand, will be quicker than the type of opponents Emelianenko has faced in recent years.
To be a heavyweight, Henderson has to come in at 206 pounds minimum, and he doesn’t expect to be any heavier than that. It’s a few pounds more than he normally weighs since as a light heavyweight he never cut weight and usually came in a few pounds under the 205 limit. But added weight, even if it’s muscle, and particularly after 40, changes the cardio demands.
“It’s tough for me to gain weight,” said Henderson. “And I did plenty of weightlifting for this and plenty of eating, so I don’t know what else I’m supposed to do.”
Conversely, Emelianenko will be 220, cutting for the first time in years, and roughly 10-15 pounds lighter than he has fought for most of his career. Criticized for looking paunchy in his loss to Antonio Silva, it’s hard to know how this will affect his stamina and energy level.
Unlike most fighters, who diet down to the lightest weight class possible in order to get a size advantage, Henderson (27-8) has made it clear he’d rather fight as a light heavyweight than as a middleweight. A breakdown of his record shows his style is one in which his smaller size hasn’t proved a disadvantage: he’s 10-4 against middleweights, 13-3 against light heavyweights and 4-1 against heavyweights.
“I’m not going to feel outmatched or small in there,” said Henderson. “I’m planning on going out there and not fighting right through the middle of his power and lifting his weight around, but at the same time, being able to move him around.”
The reason is likely Henderson’s background in freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling allows him to be able to hold his own in terms of power and balance with bigger men. While not a refined striker, Henderson keeps opponents off guard because of his devastating right hand, notable for winning the 2009 Knockout of the Year over Bisping in a high-profile fight at UFC 100.
But Emelianenko is physically larger and has similar attributes. With a background in judo and sambo, a multi-time world champion in the latter, he’s got strong balance and is rarely shoved or thrown around. During his career, he’s only been susceptible to being thrown by high-level wrestlers of his same size. His stand-up technique is also not textbook, but the power in his right hand is likely even more devastating than that of Henderson.
While coming from different parts of the world, the two fighters’ paths to greatness were remarkably similar.
Both men won 32-man tournaments in Japan for the old RINGS promotion, a group that conducted their fights in a ring, with rules that banned ground and pound. Henderson, who weighed about 195 in those days, fighting in an open weight tournament and giving up significant size in almost every fight, won in 2000. The Russian Emelianenko won two years later. Both signed with the larger PRIDE promotion after their tournament wins and appeared on many shows together. But because the fight would not have been marketable in Japan, they were never matched up in their time across the Pacific.