Dan Henderson turns 41 in three weeks, and he gave himself an early birthday present by knocking out Fedor Emelianenko in a rousing scrap on Strikeforce/M-1 Global “Fedor vs. Henderson” in Hoffman Estates, Ill.
It was also a stellar enough showing to take the sport’s unofficial “Old Man Badass” torch from Randy Couture. Given that Couture, now 47, held it for the better part of a decade, it would appear that “Hendo,” a longtime friend, training partner and business associate of “The Natural,” has soaked up a lot of that wrestler’s ethos and know-how to extend his career.
After establishing himself as the sport’s Poster Boy Killer with wins over Vitor Belfort, Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz, Couture’s back-and-forth tenure in the UFC in the 2000s was a storyline that lasted well beyond anyone’s expectations. He inspired anyone and everyone watching, with his career often-resurrected after what seemed like career-ending defeats, reinvigorated with wins over the likes of Tim Sylvia and Gabriel Gonzaga. He also gave a still-green Brock Lesnar a decent go before succumbing to punches from the former World Wrestling Entertainment superstar.
With his knockout loss to Lyoto Machida in April, it seems Couture has retired for good. That leaves a vacancy for fans to root for the sport’s resident Old Man Badass -- a position for which Henderson is eminently the best qualified. With crushing knockout wins over Renato “Babalu” Sobral, Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante and Emelianenko in his last three outings, Henderson has shown a consistent strategy that relies on his incontrovertible strengths: a stifling clinch, numbing power and gritty resilience.
Against Sobral and Cavalcante, he basically controlled both bouts with clinching and wrestling, eventually lining up his game-changing right hand. With Emelianenko, his top-notch chin carried him though after dictating early, allowing him to score a knockout just when he looked like he was in trouble.
With a dynamic talent like Gegard Mousasi likely -- and hopefully -- up next for Henderson, every outing for him will be treated like the recital of an established artist, one who has contributed considerably to the sport’s pantheon and one whose time may be short given his age.
Like Couture, Henderson’s performances at this point are entirely gravy, given the scope and depth of what he has done in a phenomenal career. Yet, he keeps delivering the goods well beyond what anyone his age could be expected to do. That is why he’s MMA’s Old Man Badass -- a rarified air in a sport increasingly dominated by younger talent.
Jason Probst can be reached at Jason@jasonprobst.com or twitter.com/jasonprobst.