Finding the gate to Dan Henderson’s driveway in the darkness of the rolling hills around Murrieta, California, is harder than his chin. There are four cars and a white camper in the lot outside of a big house with a wooden stairway that leads up a separate entrance, but it’s dead quiet when a shadowy figure emerges from a lit doorway.
“You found the place,” Henderson says with that craggy smile of his. The room can’t be any more than 600-square-feet, and it looks more like a bachelor pad than the residence of a guy who makes several hundred thousand dollars a fight. Henderson explains that he’s selling his old house, and this place is just one of three dwellings in a compound he owns. Upstairs is a two-bedroom where his parents currently reside and another small apartment. The place is cozy, but the bathroom toiletries stuffed into a travel bag suggest a man who isn’t quite settled in. Turns out he’s not—it’s been about a week since he and his wife of more than a decade finalized their divorce. Minutes later, Henderson is talking about limbo and how his future seems very uncertain, when just a few months ago it seemed so bright. Change is certainly in the air, some of it great and some of it to be determined.
Almost two years ago, Henderson looked every one of his 39 years in a five-round loss to Strikeforce Middleweight Champion Jake Shields, a guy he was supposed to mop the floor with when he left the UFC seven months prior for its rival promotion. Afterwards, there were questions about whether he should hang it up. He answered those queries in stark and spectacular fashion in his next three outings. Henderson moved up to light heavyweight and knocked out Renato Sobral, then Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, and finally, he knocked out the great white whale of the millennium’s first decade, Fedor Emelianenko. Not bad for an old man.
But his most recent engagement—a fight back in the UFC that erupted over five rounds with former champ Mauricio “Shogun” Rua—seemed to suck the life out of him. Hendo’s been in a lot of wars, but he got dropped in that fight and got his bell rung (though he won’t acknowledge either).
Most times, the loudest screams cageside come from significant others, and watching that bloody, brutal fight, well, you can’t help but wonder, did his wife want him to retire? The answer, as he sits clad in shorts and a t-shirt on his prefab couch, is a big fat no. The separation was a long time coming, before TMZ caught him outside a Hollywood club with a girl on each arm. At 41 years old, Hendo says he’s happier than ever, like a weight has been lifted from his shoulders over the past year. He’s now working on spending less time in camp and more time at home, to hopefully make up for any absence during his three kids’ formative years. In the gym he’s found a groove in training for this generation of challenges, which, mind you, are far different than the ones in 1997 when he fought anything-goes at the Brazilian Open. He’s specializing instead of simply showing up and redlining it, as old-dog wrestlers are apt to do.
“Dan never had a boxing coach back then,” says Gustavo Pugliese, the owner of that job. “He was just throwing punches out of instinct. He was training with people, but nothing to work his fundamentals in a proper way.”
Over the course of the night, Henderson mentions a few times the idea of not letting energy go to waste during the act of fighting. To him, this is the major development of the past two years of his career. It saves him the kind of strain that he can’t really afford at this point in the game.
“It’s just experience and being more technical over the years,” he says. “The experience of it allows me to relax in certain situations where I might not be as relaxed if I wasn’t as experienced. The more relaxed you are, the more energy you’re saving. Technically, if I’m not in the right position, I’m probably using up more strength or energy to compensate for being out of position. The more you can stay in position and stay relaxed, the easier the fight.”
As reasonable as that sounds, the declaration is a little ironic given his most recent fight. In no way was he in position when Rua sat on him for much of the fifth round, and he sure didn’t look relaxed as he flopped around trying to avoid the punches falling on him. But, of course, these discoveries are just useful principles, and not the way things often go. Henderson was suffering from a chest cold the week of UFC 139 and passed on practice the final days of camp. His body badly betrayed him in the championship rounds. Yet, he made it through the 25-minute ordeal because he’s simply a tough son of a bitch, and no one disputes the fact.
“I remember one time in Italy, Danny was wrestling a younger Swedish cat, and this guy had been a world champion,” says Randy Couture, who met Henderson in 1991 when they roomed together during a wrestling competition in Poland. “During the match, he and Danny cracked heads when they landed on the mat, and it gashed them both open, Danny right on the cheek—he’s still got the scar. Danny won the match because the kid couldn’t continue. Danny’s got a high tolerance for pain, and not much is going to distract him from what he wants to do.”
Couture had never been knocked silly before he tasted Henderson’s right hand at the Straight Blast Gym in Portland, Oregon, in the late nineties. Sparring in a spring-loaded pro-wrestling ring, Couture woke up when his butt hit the canvas. Sometime later, he repaid the favor with a jab that knocked out Henderson’s front teeth.
“Dan made an Olympic team at 20 years old,” mentions Chael Sonnen. “That is not only unheard of, but you also have to understand that Dan wasn’t even a state champ in high school. He went from second in the state of California to the best wrestler in all of America in only two years. Unheard of.”
So Henderson has added technique to durability in his development as an MMA fighter. But there is something even more impressive than shoving himself into the title picture by outpointing Rua in one of the best fights in UFC history. Even more significant than that, he managed to get there in the first place.
Remember, the UFC said Hendo wasn’t worth what he thought he was. Shortly after he knocked Michael Bisping into orbit at UFC 100, they told him that. Dana White took shots in the media when he left for Strikeforce. Look at Henderson now. He returned a hotter commodity than when he left, and he got a more lucrative deal than the one he turned down before leaving. Hendo did it his way, and somehow, he didn’t burn a very flammable bridge. Henderson bested someone 12 years his junior that night in San Jose. And he escaped that gauntlet with a sprained thumb.
Henderson isn’t particularly impressed with that feat, but then again, he doesn’t seem particularly impressed by any feat. To put into context his late-career run, there’s the idea that a happier fighter makes a better fighter. When you’ve done this as long as he has, it’s the surroundings that make the difference, right? You’re long past trying to prove anything to anyone, if you ever did it for that reason in the first place. Isn’t the best you can hope for a support system that makes the grueling challenge of this sport as pleasant as possible?
His face groans. This is quite clearly the dumbest idea ever presented in the history of interviewing. “I guess,” he says. “Could be. For sure. A lot better than an unhappy fighter.”
Henderson will make that face a dozen times on the couch, the one that says, Did you think of that one yourself, or did you need help? It’s not that he hates the media or nosy reporters who nag him for his thoughts about this or that. Deep reflection just isn’t his thing. Answers are nearly always more direct and uncomplicated than questions promise to reveal. Half of them start with, “I don’t know,” like you’ve overstayed your conversational welcome. If not for short, dry bursts of wit, Henderson’s personality is on energy-saving mode.
It’s just like the video of him lying in the locker room of the arena after UFC 139, head propped on the cement wall, arms splayed, legs elevated, talking about the fight with the tone of voice reserved for laundry and taxes. “He tried to Rocky Balboa me early on,” Henderson says of Rua, fondling a blue bag of ice in his right hand. A paramedic finds a vein in his left arm as he tells his understandably raspy business partner, Aaron Crecy, about how close he came to winning when he landed a barrage of punches in the third round. “He tucked his head in pretty nice,” Henderson says, and stops in mid-sentence as a needle goes into his arm to pump saline into his withered body. He looks at it, then looks straight ahead. Out of the blue, he mumbles, “Didn’t hurt as bad.” As the paramedic leans back and releases the tourniquet, he realizes Dan is looking directly at him, stone-faced. Uh-oh. It takes a second to realize it’s a joke, and the paramedic snickers.
For those who know Dan, this is the first sign that he’s okay.
In 1998, Henderson and Couture rolled into the gym where Nate Quarry was training.
“I think it went something like, ‘Here’s Dan Henderson, two-time Olympian,’” Quarry says. “I had only been training for three or four months and had never wrestled. I think we went three minutes and he suplexed me a half-dozen times. I consider him my white whale. Out of everybody I’ve ever trained with, he is the only guy I’ve never caught in a submission. He hit me so hard square in the face one time, the only reason I didn’t fall down was because I fell into him.”
Quarry had fought a few amateur fights and was trying to figure out if he was going to make a career of fighting. One day, he asked Henderson if he should go pro. What he was really asking was, Am I good enough?
“Oh yeah, you should,” Henderson told him. “Getting beat up for free? You might as well get paid for it.”
“I was like, ‘Uh, that’s not really the confidence booster I was looking for, but thanks for the advice,’” says Quarry.
Quarry has this fitting image of Henderson as MMA’s Clint Eastwood, a nearly mute tough guy who rolls into town, drops all the able bodies around, then leaves as mysteriously as he arrived. Henderson’s father was a wrestler who supposedly benched 500 pounds in his prime. His kid’s a spitting image.
“I would liken his musculature to steel cable,” Quarry says.
And about as rigid. When Rua sat on Henderson’s chest, Quarry said he used the same mount escape he did 15 years ago.
Did Henderson torch the very bridge he just crossed?
True, he committed MMA’s cardinal sin when he turned down an offer in January to meet Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC on FUEL 2 in April. There were all the usual murmurs of cowardice, vanity, and greed to meet him on the Internet. A few calls of hypocrisy, too—just a month earlier, he had accused UFC Middleweight Champ Anderson Silva of faking injuries to duck fights. What they were getting at was, how could a guy so impossibly tough be a diva?
Henderson couldn’t care less about what the Internet says—he doesn’t keep track other than what his team tells him and what he hears on Twitter. All he knows is that he had his reasons, and there were several things that did and didn’t go into that decision.
It was about treading over old ground. They’d fought 12 years ago, and he’d won. The timing of the matchup wasn’t all that great, either. Nogueira’s recent record comprised of a first-round TKO of the soon-to-retire Tito Ortiz and decision losses to Ryan Bader and Phil Davis. “It’s not like Nogueria has been coming off a lot of impressive stuff,” Henderson says.
It wasn’t about the money. “If I wanted a payday, I would have just fought Nogueira,” he says. “I get paid the same, although the pay-per-view would have been a little bit better against Jon Jones, for sure.”
It wasn’t about taking one for the team. He said he’d take the fight if it was three rounds. Headliners are a mandatory five rounds, so the UFC said no. After his war with Rua, he was out of shape. No surprise— the 41-year-old body doesn’t bounce back as fast. With nine weeks to prepare, he wasn’t confident he’d be ready.
It was a lot about the challenge. In the home stretch of 2011, Jones was going to take six months off following a spectacular title-winning run of four fights. Then, like any hot-blooded 24-year-old, he changed his mind and targeted a return in spring. With guaranteed contender Rashad Evans booked against Phil Davis at January’s UFC on FOX 2, Henderson was suddenly looking at the third UFC title fight of his career against one of the most talented and captivating fighters to reach the top. Why not wait for a shot at the belt?
He didn’t plan on broadcasting any of these feelings, of course, just as he’d rather keep the public out of his private life. But UFC president Dana White did it for him in January on the UFC’s news show, which is broadcast on the FOX affiliate. “He didn’t need to do that,” Henderson says. “He doesn’t say that almost any time for anybody, because that happens all the time with most fighters. I think he gets mad and says shit he shouldn’t sometimes. You know Dana.”
What Henderson means is that crossing the boss is a recipe for drama, and the UFC president’s penchant for grudges is well documented. When Henderson left the promotion in 2009, he spoke of feeling “shorted” out of pay-per-view revenue. White, in turn, said Henderson wanted an “obscene” amount of money. Yet, the two seem at times like frat brothers. Dan calls Dana fat. Dana calls Dan ugly. Dan jostles Dana in a video blog. And still, Dana throws Dan under the bus when he turns down a fight.
“He wasn’t begging me to do it,” Henderson says. “He was like, ‘You can take it, or you can wait and see what happens with Rashad and Jones.’ I decided to wait and didn’t think it was that big of a deal to him. But I think it was a little bit more than what he made it out to be.”
That’s to say, Henderson isn’t sure whether this recent episode is about business or business as usual. He is under the completely serious impression that UFC parent company Zuffa purchased Strikeforce to acquire him. Why keep him on the shelf? Recently, White said Hendo chose to wait for the title shot, which means he could fight the winner of April’s UFC 145: Jones vs. Evans. Or not. “I only told Dana I wanted to wait until after the Evans vs. Davis fight,” Henderson says. “I don’t want to wait that long to fight… I just don’t know who they could match me up with.”
Given his distaste for accepting fights that don’t offer the kind of intrigue and personal challenge he desires, he could sit out a while, especially if the winner of Jones vs. Evans is out of commission until late this year. Lyoto Machida is angling for a fight, but Henderson says, “He hasn’t done well in his past few fights. He beat Randy, but he’s lost three out of four. I can understand why he’d want to fight me—that puts him right back in there.” So, it’s a problem.
“I’m sure he’s looking for more interesting challenges to motivate him,” Couture says of Henderson. “When you’ve been fighting and training for so long, it’s not just about fighting anymore. You want that something special about your opponent that you see as a challenge and step up. I had been there for a while up to my retirement.”
Henderson says he has four to six fights left in him over the next two years. That’s a soft promise, of course, but the goal is to win the UFC belt and perhaps defend it once or twice before he calls it a day. The over-40 club is disappearing in the UFC—the over-35 club ain’t too crowded, either—and whether he likes it or not, there will come a moment when he’s unable to compete with the world’s top talent. There will come a moment when he can’t take a punch. Eventually, steel cable erodes.
He doesn’t think about this moment, of course. That’s the dumbest idea ever.