Opinion: A Beautifully Weird Twisted Reality

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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There are basically two lenses through which I enjoy mixed martial arts. Truthfully, there are a myriad of reasons why I love this sport, general and specific, but nearly all of them fall under one of two overarching categories. First is the strange, bizarre storylines that materialize in this sport. Unlike the mainstream stick-and-ball sports, MMA still exists somewhat on the fringes of society, which leads to fascinating and hilarious things happening that are broadly endemic to the fight game. Think Anderson Silva’s blue vial defense hearing, Nate Diaz’ post-fight vaping or roughly 80 percent of all heavyweight fights. MMA boasts a brand of ridiculous that is idiosyncratically MMA, and it’s easy to love.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, there are the superhuman performances, the in-cage violence that somehow feels edifying and virtuous. These things exist in their own ways in every sport, but in combat sports there is something all the more visceral and compelling and, dare I say, even heroic about them. The Ultimate Fighting Championship is founded on this type of performance; the legendary yet true tale of a scrawny Brazilian guy mysteriously making men twice his size quit by doing funky things with his limbs and theirs is hard to replicate elsewhere in the world of professional athletics.

The UFC 204 main event between Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson on Saturday in Manchester, England, was the rare fight that existed in the crosshairs between both of these worlds.

Maybe it speaks to my own depravity, but leading up to the most elderly title fight in the promotion’s history, I couldn’t help but find humor in the situation. On one side of the Octagon was perhaps the unlikeliest UFC champion ever, a man who stumbled his way into a short-notice title fight against an opponent who had already put the wood on him and was on paper a superior fighter in virtually every aspect. Yet somehow, the cosmos aligned for Bisping in his rematch with then-champ Luke Rockhold at UFC 199. “The Count,” who was otherwise known for being a pillow-fisted volume striker, scored a clean knockout for the first time in his UFC career to win the belt.

Opposite Bisping was a 46-year-old challenger, 4-6 in his last 10 fights, who “earned” his crack at the title by fighting his way back from the wrong side of a 10-8 drubbing en route to icing a Hector Lombard who hadn’t won a fight in over two years. That solitary winning streak, by virtue of narrative spectacle alone, got Henderson to the Big Show one last time in his storied career. On top of the farcical nature of the matchup, the bygone testosterone replacement therapy-era cast its shadow over the fight. Bisping had been in range of a title bout several times in his career but was consistently lit up by testosterone-enhanced athletes, including Henderson himself, who authored one of the most iconic knockouts in the history of the sport against Bisping at UFC 100. There were so many angles to it, each of them compounding layers of ridiculous, making it a fight that nobody wanted but everybody loved.

The fight itself didn’t disappoint, either. From the opening ding, it was expected that Bisping -- the younger, closer-to-his-physical-prime athlete riding a legitimate streak of wins (plural) -- would eventually wear down Deteriorated Dan with his trademark brand of high-output kickboxing. Those crossing their fingers for a Henderson win were doing just that: hoping and wishing. That is, until the infamous H-Bomb landed in the first round. Bisping wilted, fans roared. The rounds that followed would exceed virtually every expectation, as a close, competitive fight unfurled until the final bell tolled, which wouldn’t happen without Henderson diving into an axe kick -- or something vaguely resembling it -- as the final technique adorning his decorated career. It was spectacular and ridiculous and oh so MMA.

There was more to the story than that, though. It’s easy to get lost in the absurdity of the matchup and the fact that “WTF IS GOING ON” was the most frequently tweeted thought on the fight. However, the pervasive contrasts -- America vs. England, old age vs. relative youth, former testosterone user vs. former testosterone abusee, soft-spoken vs. trash-talking -- underscore a beautiful side of the sport.

For Bisping, this was a long time coming, to be able to defend his title in front of a home crowd that had long seen “The Count” as the face of British MMA. The UFC brass may have been throwing him a bone in this matchup, but if there is anyone who deserves that kind of treatment, it’s Bisping. His reign atop the middleweight division will likely go down as a goofy blip in the division’s history, but it is a meaningful one nonetheless. That he defended his title -- something increasingly difficult to do, apparently -- against the man who sledgehammered his neural reset button on one of the two or three biggest cards of all-time brought Bisping’s journey full-circle. There are still blank pages left to be written, but the winningest fighter in UFC history and greatest “Ultimate Fighter” winner has already achieved more than anyone expected when he made his promotional debut in 2006. Bisping is worthy of these superlatives.

Yet the real story here is Henderson. In the aftermath of the fight, which was the second best-case scenario for the 19-year veteran, lofty praise echoed across social media as chants of “Hendo” ricocheted around Manchester Arena. Bisping, who has been one of the most prolific trash-talkers in the game, was deferential and respectful of “Hendo,” who has amassed no less than 15 wins over major-league champions across three different weight classes. Whatever asterisks are attached to his career, from his “Decision Dan” days and his non-win wins to his TRT usage, Henderson’s time in the sport left an indelible impression that will probably never again be replicated. Debate all you want about his place on the all-time rankings list, but you can’t deny his accomplishments.

“Not bad for an old man,” he said in what would become his in-cage retirement speech. Not bad at all for someone who successfully tailored his craft to fit his declining physicality more times than most fighters do without success. To go out like he did, nearly winning the final piece of hardware that eluded him, was truly special. Henderson has been a silent yet visible fixture of this sport for so long that it’s almost hard to appreciate fully. While guys like B.J. Penn and Conor McGregor have campaigned for simultaneous titles in different weight classes, wading into the deeper ends of greatness while shaking their fists at fate, “Hendo” already did that in Pride Fighting Championships with his trademark stoic nonchalance. Becoming a two-division champion was just one of many incredible days at the office. Henderson’s wild and dramatic career warrants more than a humble column; his story spans across the history of the sport, and he has been relevant the entire time, up until his final diving kick.

To the surprise of no one, his in-cage speech was understated and modest. “I’ll be home soon” were his final words in the Octagon, spoken to his friends and family waiting for him overseas. Alongside the rest of us, those who know the man best watched him leave his heart and soul in the cage one final time. With all due respect, Mr. Henderson, you left your home in England, and it already feels a little emptier without you. You have been a familiar face in the strange land of MMA, and you will be missed.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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