LOS ANGELES – When Dan Henderson signed his new UFC contract in January, he thought he was going to get a chance to ease his way back into competition.
The decorated future Hall of Famer was coming off a three-fight losing streak, two of which were highly debatable split decisions.
"When I was working out my last deal, you know, they wanted to give me a couple easier fights to get back into the swing of things and get back on top," Henderson said. "You know, a week after I signed the deal, they say, "I want you to fight Shogun [Rua] again.' So, OK, he’s not an easier opponent."
So much for easing his way back into things. The 43-year-old Henderson is looking for one last big run in the sport. Not only did he defeat Rua by knockout on the Brazilian’s home turf, but a mere eight weeks later, he’s fighting undefeated Daniel Cormier in the co-main event bout at UFC 173 on Saturday night. The winner is expected to get a shot at the UFC light heavyweight championship currently held by Jon Jones.
When push comes to shove, even if he was expecting easier fare, the fighter affectionately called Hendo wouldn’t have it any other way.
"First it’s Shogun and now its Cormier," the Temecula, Calif., native said with a wry grin. "Which is fine. I welcome it. That’s the reason I fight, is to fight the top guys."
Henderson is one of the few fighters who got started during the one-night tournament days of mixed martial arts and is still competing in relevant fights.
He’s won championships nearly everywhere he’s competed. Henderson simultaneously held the PRIDE 183 and 205-pound championships, making him the only fighter in a major promotion to hold world title in two weight classes at the same time. He also held the Strikeforce light heavyweight title.
A UFC championship is the one major goal that has eluded Henderson, whose first fight in the promotion was at UFC 17 in 1998, where he won two bouts in one night. He also lost a tight decision to then-champion Rampage Jackson in 2007; then dropped a middleweight title fight to Anderson Silva a year later.
And yet, in 2013, Henderson’s window remains open. He’s not afraid to admit the elusive UFC belt is among his biggest motivators these days.
“It motivates me a lot,” Henderson said. “That’s the last goal I haven’t achieved in the sport. It would be nice to accomplish that and I just want to make sure I give myself every chance to do that. I think I’m right on the right track to do that. I feel great and I’m confident this fight will do it.”
And it explains why he’s willing to accept the fight with the 14-0 Cormier so soon after absorbing several big shots from Rua in their fight before scoring the knockout. The Cormier bout was originally pegged for UFC 175 in July, but was pushed forward in the middle of a schedule shuffle after several fight postponements.
"The date was supposed to be July 5 and then they came to me," Henderson said. "The reason why I took it is because [UFC president] Dana [White] said the winner gets a title shot, so I said, alright."
It’s rare for the UFC to telegraph title-fight plans two matches down the road, for plenty of solid reasons: Fighters get injured and withdraw; something happens in the first fight which necessitates a rematch, putting the next planned contender on ice; and so on.
But the UFC is moving forward with the idea that the winner of Cormier-Henderson will face the winner of the rematch between Jones and Alexander Gustafsson, date and location TBD. Having been around the block a few times, Henderson believes that Jones, who struggled with Gustafsson in their first fight before rallying and pulling out a unanimous decision, will have an easier go of it this time.
"I think Jon will probably beat him worse this time," Henderson said. "I just think he either didn’t take him seriously or didn’t come in and fight the way he should have, use his tools that he has or Gustafsson doesn’t have. He could have used his wrestling a little better, he didn’t use that the way he does. I think with the last fight with Glover [Teixeira] he didn’t do much of that either."
But Henderson turns his focus right back to Cormier.
"Who knows what will happen with that fight or how that will turn out but I don’t care right now. The biggest thing is fighting Cormier, and then whoever has the belt. I don’t care, I’m going to go out there and beat 'em."
That might not have seemed possible a year ago, when Henderson was in the throes of his losing streak. But then again, at 43, Henderson is the same age as Randy Couture when the latter upset Tim Sylvia to win the UFC heavyweight title back in 2007, and Couture fought for another four years before hanging up the gloves.
Henderson’s grin returned when asked if he’s going to follow Couture’s path.
“I don’t want to be in there quite as long as Randy was,” he said.
Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter @DaveDoylemma