Hendo: A Sherdog Retrospective

By Sherdog.com Staff Oct 25, 2016

His achievements speak for themselves.

Still the only fighter in history -- Conor McGregor will attempt to join him at UFC 205 -- to simultaneously hold major mixed martial arts championships in two weight classes, Dan Henderson carved out a legacy that will last through the ages. Though “Hendo” failed in three attempts to capture Ultimate Fighting Championship gold, wins over a host of contemporaries, MMA stars and fellow legends saw to it that his place among the all-time greats was secure. Victories against Michael Bisping, Mauricio Rua (twice), Fedor Emelianenko, Rich Franklin, Wanderlei Silva, Vitor Belfort, Murilo Bustamante (twice), Renato Sobral and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira strengthen Henderson’s timeless resume. A two-division titleholder in Pride Fighting Championships who later went on to claim gold in Strikeforce, the two-time Olympian retired at the age of 46 following his unanimous decision defeat to Bisping on Oct. 8. A win would have made him the first mixed martial artist to win championships in Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC. That he failed in the endeavor does nothing to diminish his accomplishments.

As Henderson turns the page in retirement, Sherdog.com staff members and contributors weigh in on their most vivid memories, reflections and appraisals of the Downey, California, native’s trials, triumphs and importance to MMA:

ERIC STINTON: It says something about a fighter when he or she is universally known by a single name. Indeed, there’s a lot to be said about “Hendo.” He is probably the most accomplished fighter ever, with wins over people who were or would eventually become UFC, Pride or Bellator MMA champions every two to three years for the entirety of his 19-year career. Let that sink in. I don’t think anyone else has as many signature wins as Henderson does, and he got them at several weight classes. It’s hard to pinpoint one moment that stands out in such a career. His 53-second demolition of former UFC middleweight champ Bustamante, for example, gets lost in the shuffle of his later wins over Silva, Bisping and Emelianenko. Each of those fights warrants its own write-up. Instead, I’ll go with his most recent win over Hector Lombard. Prior to that fight, I was sold on the idea that “Hendo” was a shot fighter, having only won twice in his previous eight fights. Neither of those wins -- one a come-from-behind TKO against fellow shell-of-a-Pride-champion Rua, the other a 30-second clubbing of Tim Boetsch -- had me convinced that Henderson had much left in the tank other than a right hand. The first round went exactly as I expected the fight to go: The younger, more athletic Lombard pushed Henderson against the fence and started teeing off. At one point, I was certain “Hendo” was out cold, but it looked like Lombard put him to sleep and woke him back up with successive strikes. Either way, Henderson was on the wrong side of a 10-8 round, and his fate had all but officially been sealed. Instead, he answered the bell and pressed forward throwing high kicks of all things. Yes, the decorated Olympic wrestler who almost completely forewent his grappling chops to favor heavy-handed headhunting, rebounded from a beatdown of a round to start throwing comically bad head kicks. The ridiculousness did not stop there. After bandying some heavy leather, Henderson threw another kick; Lombard caught it, and immediately Henderson slashed his foe with a reverse elbow. Lights out, game over. Henderson inexplicably won. He underwent so many style changes in his career, from “Decision Dan” to “H-Bomb” extraordinaire, but this fight was a little more special. It showed that old dogs do, in fact, learn new tricks, and that all it takes is a single strike for a fight to end. For a man whose career has spanned every era of the sport, it was a fitting homage to the adage that the fight can end at any time. “Hendo” may not have a proper UFC belt on his résumé, but if anyone deserves the title “Mr. MMA,” it’s Henderson.

MIKE FRIDLEY: The improbable rise from being dubbed “Decision Dan” for his frequency of taking it to the cards -- and quite often controversial judges’ nods -- to being remembered as one of the sport’s premier finishers is how I’ll tell Henderson’s story years from now. In what is becoming an analytic-driven sports world, the numbers paint a picture of a fighter that finished his career with 22 decisions in 47 fights (47 percent). Is that what you’ll tell your grandchildren when discussing “Hendo,” or will you recall the times he melted men with a ferocious display of primal nature rarely seen at mixed martial arts’ championship levels? Yeah, I thought so. His power first caught my eye against Silva at Pride 12, where he had the Brazilian buzzsaw in obscene danger with a wild right hook out of nowhere. Despite losing, I’d like to imagine that Henderson himself discovered a belief in his right hand that night; if you examine footage of the fighter from this point on, it seems he transitioned from clinch-heavy Greco game plans to attempting to behead his foes with a vehemence that endeared him to multiple generations of fans. Call it a turning point, if you will. Let us never forget the methods with which he dispatched Bisping, Lombard, Rafael Cavalcante and the aforementioned Silva. Henderson competed in and excelled under countless different rule sets: the wild west of mid-1990s vale tudo in Brazil, the civilized-yet-savage Pride Fighting Championships heyday, the restrictive roped square of Akira Maeda’s Rings promotion and a legendary though brief tussle with Frank Shamrock under grappling only-rules at “The Contender.” Henderson fought everywhere. He fought everyone. His dancefloors were staged in multiple weight classes, and he didn’t mind going way up to lock horns with a heavyweight legend like Emelianenko or overmatching a smaller man such as Renzo Gracie. He truly took on all comers. Henderson was also a pioneer for wrestlers searching for a professional life when opportunities on the mat were much more limited. For better or worse, the former Olympian was also the first fighter to be granted a testosterone replacement therapy exemption to compete in Nevada. Even with his TRT trailblazing and the fact that he never held a divisional UFC title -- “Hendo” won a one-night tournament at UFC 17 -- Henderson will surely be a first-ballot mixed martial arts hall of famer one of these days when the sport’s history allows for such an independent honorary system.

TODD MARTIN: Henderson had a difficult career to commemorate. The combination of his consistency and longevity meant he had a whole lot of career highlights that tended to touch on the same sorts of themes and came spaced out over a long period of time. Henderson’s level disposition also led to him taking both the good and the bad in stride, meaning less of the agony or ecstasy that we tend to remember. His opponents often if not usually overshadowed him, even in defeat. That isn’t something that would bother Henderson much, anyway. One aspect of Henderson’s career that I think is particularly noteworthy is his status as an early harbinger of where the sport was going. Given his background as a two-time Olympic wrestler, fans were confused when at the midpoint of his career he basically abandoned offensive wrestling. Wrestlers at that time were supposed to fight in MMA like Henderson’s training partner Randy Couture. Henderson went in a different direction, riding his knockout power and defensive wrestling to success. Chuck Liddell was the other big trailblazer in this trend, but Henderson came first and did so with much greater wrestling credentials and much less in the way of a striking background. Today, the sport is dominated by fighters like Henderson: amateur wrestlers who picked up striking and came to rely on it more and more. It’s appropriate that Henderson lasted so long given the sport slowly came around to his way of thinking. Fans no longer wonder why former collegiate wrestlers don’t just hold down their opponents for as long as possible, and the sport is better for it. Henderson’s strategic gambit proved to be a wise one.

BRIAN KNAPP: I have always had a soft spot in my heart for historical mile markers, no matter the sport. I remember as a kid hearing for the first time audio of Lou Gehrig’s farewell speech at Yankee Stadium from July 4, 1939 in which a dying man who had been cut down in his prime proclaimed himself the “Luckiest Man on the Face of the Earth.” It was my first encounter with pure humility. So today, my oldest son carries Gehrig’s name. I remember as a 10-year-old catching Game 1 of the 1988 World Series on a car radio and listening to a hobbled Kirk Gibson, barely able to stand on two bad legs, burn his name into the history books with one wave of his magic wand against the game’s premier closer. So today, my youngest son carries Gibson’s name. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but it often feels as though such things only happen in sports -- or the movies. MMA does not yet have the library of historic touchstones that other sports do simply because of its youth. Nevertheless, Henderson authored one of those landmark moments on Feb. 24, 2007. There, in the headliner of one of the greatest top-to-bottom MMA events on record, he slayed “The Axe Murderer” -- not with overhand right but with a left hook -- and became the first simultaneous two-division major champion in the sport’s history. That he remains the only fighter to accomplish the feat allows him to travel in a most exclusive company. I’ll never forget the raw emotion the normally reserved Henderson displayed in the immediate aftermath of yet another signature victory. It meant something to him. It mattered. Almost a decade later, it still matters.

JORDAN BREEN: I don't hesitate to call Henderson one of the 10 best MMA fighters in history. His legendary chin -- the figurative one, not his literal one, although his actual jawline is darn impressive, too -- allowed him to cement himself as one of the absolute toughest fighters ever in the history of a violent, brutal sport. He’s MMA’s Marlboro Man, but beyond that, I wind up pausing a lot in a conversation about Henderson. For all his greatness, there are a lot of conundrums that go with “Hendo” and his big right hand. After all, before he was “Hendo” he was “Decision Dan,” for his unfathomable penchant for winning questionable decisions and not decisions of little consequence. Over the years, people have complained Henderson didn’t win either of the two fights against Allan Goes or Carlos Newton that gave him his UFC 17 tournament victory. Henderson’s two final wins to clinch the landmark 1999 Rings King of Kings tournament over Nogueira and Sobral were head-scratchers. His Pride victories over Murilo Rua and Yuki Kondo stand as two of the most puzzling in the promotion’s history. Through this early era in his career, Henderson was valorized for being an undersized, legitimate 200-pound man fighting anyone, at any weight, amidst no legitimate drug testing. Yet, Henderson would ultimately go on to become one of the faces of the testosterone replacement therapy era of MMA, albeit the TRT fighter who has never really been castigated by the fans and the media. Since he was obviously clean in his early days, was in his late 30s and early 40s and never had an out-of-whack testosterone-to-epitestosterone ratio, Henderson has remained a superhero to the sport. Arguably Henderson’s most iconic moment is a diving forearm to Bisping’s already unconscious face. It is perhaps the most famous cheap shot in MMA history; it is also unquestionably the most popular cheap shot in MMA history. Like I said, it’s complicated with Henderson. Are we even sure he’s retired? More than anything, Henderson is a symbol of MMA’s Wild West past and also the natural fighter ethos that is making our sport great in the present day. For over 19 years, Henderson fought the absolute best in mixed martial arts from 185 pounds right up to heavyweight, and more often than not, he won. The list of men he has fought, win or lose, is definitively the most impressive collection of names in MMA history. He always sought big names, big fights and big money, and as a result, he wound up in some of MMA’s biggest moments. The big-game hunting philosophy that guided Henderson in his career is the same one that has led McGregor to prosper and has ignited the super fight-hungry world we live in now. We are better for it.

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