Hendo's Moment Of Truth

Temecula Valley, with its rolling hills and postcard-perfect vineyards, isn’t where you’d expect to find one of the toughest men on the planet. But this idyllic patch of wine country southeast of Los Angeles just happens to be the place Dan Henderson calls home.

It’s just past ten on this chilly, quiet, morning, and inside a huge converted barn overlooking a small horse stable on his property, the martial arts legend is halfway through his morning workout. Accompanied by his latest protégé, the blue-chip middleweight prospect Jake Ellenberger, Henderson circuit trains in his homemade gym. 100 reps on each machine, then rotate. Repeat.

The two athletes are not alone. Dan’s wife, Allison, works out on an elliptical trainer, while their two-year-old daughter, Dani, watches intently as her father tells his young charge what to do. As he moves from one machine to the next, Henderson gently pats his youngest daughter on the head. If only the little girl knew what kind of damage has been wrought with that famous right hand, and what kind of life it’s provided for her.

In less than two months, her daddy will once again be employing his fi sts for destructive purposes, when he steps into the Octagon on March 1st, 2008 to face UFC middleweight champ Anderson “The Spider” Silva. Many regard the lethal Brazilian Muay Thai master as the most dangerous striker in the history of MMA, as well as the best pound-for-pound fi ghter in the world right now. Silva’s the kind of guy who gives opponents nightmares in the days and weeks leading up to a fi ght.

But I get the feeling Hendo will sleep like a baby. While the Brazilian may be better known to UFC fans, it’s Henderson’s resume that boasts more big wins, not to mention better poundfor- pound credentials. He’s been down this road many times, usually against much larger men than he is, and he’s never been known to show anything resembling fear. If you think Silva is going to walk through Hendo like he did Rich Franklin, Chris Leben, and the rest of the top American middleweights, think again. This may very well turn out to be the MMA equivalent of Hagler-Hearns.

Henderson has the face of a seasoned gladiator – rough hewn, fl at, scarred and missing teeth, but not ugly – and a stoic demeanor that befi ts someone who has spent most of his life facing people whose primary goal is to cause him pain. He may sport the nickname “Hollywood” (a nicknamed suggested by a friend who was a fan of former Cowboys linebacker Thomas “Hollywood” Henderson), but in person he is soft-spoken and easygoing, confi dent but not cocky, and he doesn’t talk trash. Some fi ghters may employ grandiose, life-and-death terms to describe what they do for a living, or hype a fi ght by playing a cartoonish version of themselves; Hendo prefers to express himself the old-fashioned way: with his fi sts.

Henderson’s approach to his profession is rooted in his background as a wrestler. He grew up in Victorville, California, a small working-class city on the southern edge of the Mojave Desert. Like an ancient Spartan youth, he was initiated into physical combat soon after he could walk. By fi ve, his father, a high school phys ed teacher, had him practicing moves on the mat. When high school rolled around, Henderson was a beast, medaling twice at the California State Championships before going to the Junior Nationals, where he won the Freestyle and Greco-Roman championships. After a stellar career at Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State, the 21-year-old tried out for – and made – the 1992 and 1996 US Olympic teams as a Greco-Roman wrestler.

Henderson may never have gotten inside a cage were it not for Randy Couture, his close friend and training partner. After returning home from the 1996 games, Hendo’s plan was to get his chiropractor’s license and make ends meet until the 2000 Olympic trials. Then Couture called to say that he had entered a Vale Tudo tournament in Brazil. If Henderson was interested, Couture could secure him a spot in the sub-heavyweight portion of the tournament. Henderson agreed, and when Couture got a last minute offer to make his professional debut at UFC 15 in Georgia, Henderson decided to head down to South America on his own.

On June 15, 1997, the wide-eyed Olympian stepped into the cage for the fi rst time, against BJJ black belt Crezio de Souza in the fi rst round of the Brazil Open. Five minutes into the fi rst round, de Souza pulled guard. Hendo stood up and began to rain down punches. Few connected, but the ref called it off anyway. “After they stopped the fi ght, the fans started throwing stuff at me,” recalls Henderson. “In those days, even head butts were legal, and people weren’t used to fi ghts getting stopped. About fi fty people tried to get into the cage. I don’t know if they were going after me or the ref, but it wasn’t a good feeling.”

In his second fi ght of the night, Hendo made sure there wouldn’t be any controversy about an early stoppage. Thirty seconds after the opening bell, his opponent, an American wrestler named Eric Smith, lay unconscious on the mat, courtesy of a standing guillotine choke. It was a moved Henderson had never attempted before in competition.

Despite winning a title in his second professional fi ght, Henderson returned to his home base in Portland to continue wrestling with his international club, the California Jets, and preparing for the 2000 Olympics. While he had no intention of becoming a full-time fi ghter, Hendo did fi nd the time to enter one MMA event per year. These were the days when most events, including the UFC, were structured as single-day tournaments. It was a format perfectly suited to Henderson’s superior conditioning and mental focus, and he was able to outwork his opponents. In 1998, he won the Middleweight tournament at UFC 17, beating both Carlos Newton and Allen Goes by decision.

Henderson’s early career was during the “wild west” days of MMA, when both the sport and the organizations that promoted it were works in progress. While the quality of fi ghts had improved since the “sumo wrestler vs. kung-fu master” days of UFC 1, the training routines that are standard practice today were still being developed. Like most other fi ghters, Hendo was very good at one thing – wrestling – but more or less clueless about everything else. “I had done about two weeks of hitting focus mitts and learning how to not get armbarred,” he says. “You could get away with that kind of stuff back then, but not today. If I started like that now, I’d get beat up.”

Hendo never got beat up, but the improved level of competition in his UFC bouts made him aware that he had a lot to learn when it came to striking and Jiu-Jitsu. “I had gotten knocked down a couple of times during those fi ghts, but that was because I was off balance and didn’t know how to position myself for striking, not because I had gotten hurt,” he recalls. “I knew I was at a point where I had to start learning better technique, so I started sparring.” When he did lace up gloves in practice, Henderson quickly discovered that he was in possession of a devastating weapon that he’d never had to use on the wrestling mat: a right hand that could end a fi ght in a heartbeat. “When I started knocking guys out in practice, people started telling me I had a pretty good right hand. After that, I started throwing it a little less hard, or I would have run out of training partners.”

He never got the chance to return to the UFC and show off his improved game. Soon after he won the Middleweight Championship, the organization lost its cable broadcast license following a wave of damaging publicity and couldn’t afford to pay its fi ghters what they had promised. With few options but in need of some extra cash, the 27
-year-old took the biggest gamble of his young career. He signed up for the RING: King of Kings heavyweight tournament, a Japanese event featuring most of the sport’s baddest big men. After making it past the fi rst round with two victories in late 1999, Henderson returned early the following year for the fi nal, which involved three back-to-back matches. Despite weighing approximately 195 pounds, Henderson fought and beat Gilbert Yvel, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, and Renato “Babalu” Sobral in fi ghts that all went the distance. By the end of the night, the part-time fi ghter was well on his way to becoming a legend among hardcore fi ght fans.

The Team Quest headquarters lie in a strip mall just off the number 15 freeway in Murrieta, a small city adjacent to Temecula. Like most gyms affi liated with a major superstar, the facility functions both as a home base for its pro athletes as well as a school for paying customers. But on this particular evening, there isn’t a soccer mom or a pimply 12-year-old Hendo fanatic in sight. Tonight, the only men allowed inside the gym are sixteen of the pro fi ghters managed by Team Quest.

The evening begins with the usual ritual: each man is given a two-foot foam stick, and then set loose on the wrestling mat to beat the hell out anyone in sight for the next few minutes. Afterwards, team member Jason “Mayhem” Miller breaks up the fi ghters into pairs and gets them rolling on the mat. A skilled middleweight who recently avenged his loss to Tim Kennedy on an HDNet card in December, Mayhem also functions as Team Quest’s resident loudmouth. For the next few minutes, he fi res off a nonstop barrage of dirty jokes and insults at whoever cares to listen.

But when Henderson and partners Heath Sims (co-owner, co-manager) and Ryan Parsons (team trainer, co-manager) enter the room, Mayhem pipes down and gets down to business. For the next hour, Parsons (who has both the appearance and the bearing of a drill instructor), leads his team in a grueling series of BJJ drills – hand control, transitioning from a triangle choke to an omoplata, passing guard, etc.

Parsons has known Hendo since they wrestled together at ASU in the late 1980s, and his aggressive approach to training has been instrumental to Team Quest’s ongoing success. “I love working with former wrestlers because they tend to be mentally tough,” Parsons tells me. “Wrestling rooms are nasty, nasty places, and you have to be tough to stay in there. In the early days, that’s why a lot of wrestlers had success when they came over [to MMA], just because of that and that alone. That was certainly the case with Dan, and the other guys who started our team.”

Team Quest was founded in 2000 by Henderson, Couture, and Matt Lindland, when all three men were living and training in Gresham, Oregon. Henderson had failed in his bid to qualify for a third consecutive Olympic team, and money was tight. The previous year, Allison had given birth to a daughter, and was already pregnant again. Henderson had never done anything to pay the bills besides fi ght or wrestle. “The guys who started when I started all did other sports and then got into fi ghting because they wanted to make some money,” says Henderson. “I guess I wasn’t any different.”

The three elite wrestlers immediately continued to expand their games and use each other as guinea pigs to test out their new skills. “From the beginning, we knew we couldn’t just stay one dimensional and only rely on our wrestling,” says Lindland. “We had already picked up a lot of skills internationally, and we stuck with doing that, but also kept learning as much we could. I adapted to the submission game, while Dan decided to learn as much as he could about becoming a striker.”

Team Quest went on to become one of the top outfi ts in mixed martial arts, and each of the founding members are now regarded as being among the best fi ghters in the history of the sport. But their days of training and cornering each other have come to an end. In 2005, under circumstances neither Lindland nor Henderson care to discuss in detail, Couture decided to break from his partners and start his own team, Xtreme Couture, in Las Vegas.

And while Henderson and Lindland continue to train together, the Temecula branch of Team Quest has its own stable of fi ghters. Henderson also owns Clinch Gear, a highend MMA apparel company that makes board shorts and t-shirts.

Henderson’s fi rst fi ght as a full-time pro was also his fi rst loss. In late 2000, he was contacted by PRIDE FC, a Japanese outfi t that had quickly fi lled the void created by the UFC’s troubles. At that point, it was the premiere showcase for the world’s best mixed martial artists. After potential bouts with Kazushi Sakuraba and Vitor Belfort fell through, Henderson agreed to fi ght a last minute replacement by the name of Wanderlei “The Axe Murderer” Silva, the vicious, Brazilian brawler and future 205 lb. champion. Despite taking the fi ght on short notice, battling strep throat, and having only 10 days to train, Hendo went the distance in a brutal three round fi ght before losing a unanimous decision.

His crowd-pleaser style and superhuman toughness impressed the show’s organizers enough to give him another shot, and on March 25, 2001, Henderson put Renzo Gracie’s lights out with a right uppercut in the clinch less than two minutes into the opening round. It was the fi rst time any member of the Gracie clan had ever been knocked out in competition.

The highlight reel KO of Gracie and the inspired loss to Wanderlei instantly established Hendo as one of the best poundfor- pound fi ghters in the world, and a fan favorite in Japan, where shows routinely drew crowds of 40,000 or more. Henderson would fi ght exclusively in PRIDE for the next six years, during which time he compiled a 13-5 record.

The more Hendo fought the more dominant he became. In 2005, he dropped in weight to compete in the organization’s fi rst (and, as it turned out, last) Welterweight (183 lb) Grand Prix. After knocking out Japanese tough guys Ryo Chonan and Akihiro Gono in the fi rst round, he returned three months later and outworked Brazilian Jiu- Jitsu wizard Murilo Bustamente for a split decision and his fi rst world championship.

After splitting a pair of nontitle bouts with Kazuo Misaki, Hendo moved back up in weight to fi ght Belfort in a title elimination bout. After winning a unanimous decision, Henderson was fi nally given a shot at a rematch with Wanderlei Silva for the PRIDE Middleweight (205 lb) championship on February 24, 2007. The alwaysgame Brazilian continued to press the action, but on that night, Hendo was unstoppable. Two minutes into the third round, he uncorked a nasty spinning backfi st that caught Wanderlei square on the chin, and then moved in for the kill. Two punches later, Silva was fl at on his back and the referee had stopped the fi ght. Henderson had become the fi rst (and probably the last) mixed martial artist to ever simultaneously hold major belts in two different weight classes.

Henderson may not have known it at the time, but the timing of his victories couldn’t have been better. A month after the Wanderlei bout, Zuffa, Inc., the parent company for the UFC, completed its anticipated purchase the entire PRIDE organization, including all of its fi ghter contracts. Looking to settle the PRIDE vs. UFC debate once and for all, White immediately gave Henderson a chance to unify both his titles. First up was a shot at Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, a former training partner of Hendo’s who had just shocked the fi ght world with his one-punch fi rst-round KO of longtime Light Heavyweight champ Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell. The bout took place on September 8th of last year, and after fi ve hotly contested rounds, Rampage was awarded a unanimous decision victory.

While his
vaunted right hand and unmatched wrestling ability may have won him thousands of international fans, the single quality most responsible for Henderson’s enduring success remains his superhuman ability to withstand punishment and fi ght through injuries. Despite regularly fi ghting men who outweighed him by as much as fi fty pounds, Henderson has never been seriously hurt in a fi ght.

“What sets Dan apart from everything else? That’s easy: his mental toughness,” says Parsons. “Dan fi nds a way to win, no matter what the circumstances are. That’s an ability that most people don’t have. There are a lot of very talented fi ghters out there, but very few of them can get in the ring with a 102-degree fever, after vomiting for 18 hours and not holding down any food, and still fi nd a way to win. Few people can weigh 190, fi ght three heavyweights in one night, have a couple go into overtime, and still win every one of them. It is impossible to teach that kind of toughness, and Dan is tougher than anyone I’ve ever coached.”

Henderson’s list of battle wounds is longer than Charles “Krazy Horse” Bennett’s rap sheet. Among the highlights: disc herniation in his cervical spine, another herniation in his lower back, a broken and dislocated jaw sustained during the Newton fi ght, which despite two operations has never healed properly; a broken hand which he injured during the fi rst round of his rematch with Wanderlei, and all of his upper front teeth, which got knocked out sparring with Sims and Couture (he insists he was wearing a mouthpiece every time).

Henderson may be too proud to admit it, but injuries did play a part in his loss to Rampage. The Hendo that walked into the ring that night looked nothing like the guy who less than just six months earlier, had relentlessly taken the fi ght to Wanderlei. In the days leading up to the fi ght, he had slammed headfi rst into a wall during a sparring session. The impact aggravated his herniated disc, which resulted in diminished strength and sensation in both of his hands. When fi ght night rolled around, he was uncharacteristically tentative on his feet and when he did initiate exchanges, his usual crisp strikes seemed to lack their usual pop.

It didn’t hurt that Rampage was a much bigger fi ghter. Although Henderson has competed for most of career at 205 pounds, he has dominated whenever he’s been asked to go down in weight. Of his six losses, only one came at 185 pounds or below, and that was during the Misaki rematch, a fi ght that he admits he took lightly.

“Dan has no fucking argument for fi ghting at 205 – that’s why he lost to Rampage,” says Dana White. “He had no legitimate reason for staying at that weight. I think the reason is that he knows he can hang in that division, and that’s where all the big names are. If he beats Anderson, then beats all the top guys at 185, then sure, I’ll let him move back up.”

Anderson Silva may look puny compared to Rampage and Wan derlei, but he may very well represent the most dangerous challenge of Henderson’s storied career. Over the past year and a half, the 32-year-old striker from Curitiba, Brazil has cleaned out the UFC’s middleweight division with devastating authority, winning all of his fi ghts by KO or submission, including two brutal stoppages of longtime champ Rich Franklin. Not counting a controversial disqualifi cation loss to Yushin Okami in December 2006, Silva hasn’t lost a match in over three years, when Ryo Chonan submitted him with a breathtaking, once-in-alifetime, fl ying scissor inverted heel hook over three years ago. (Yes, it’s on YouTube)

But the Spider has never faced off against anyone quite like Hendo, who probably has the best chin in all of mixed martial arts. Despite regularly fi ghting men who have outweighed him by as much as fi fty pounds, Hendo has never once come close to being knocked out. In the fi nal round of his rematch with Wanderlei, Dan absorbed several fl ush shots to the chin and walked through them as if nothing had happened. Then again, Wanderlei’s technique is Neanderthal in comparison to Silva, whose lightning fast combinations are unmatched in the sport, and thus nearly impossible to prepare for.

While Henderson will most likely walk into the cage as the underdog, most MMA fans see this one as a pick’em bout, as well as a potential fi ght of the year. These are far and away the two best 185 pound fi ghters in the world, both are unquestionably still in their primes, and the style match-up – striker vs. striker, speed vs. size – should mean nonstop action for as long as it lasts ( hardly anyone expects it to go the distance).

“To me, Anderson Silva is the best fi ghter in the world right now,” says White. “If he can go in there and beat Dan Henderson, that’s more proof of just how good he really is. But if Dan beats Anderson, well, there you go, he’s the man. Either way, Dan is defi nitely one tough son-of-a-bitch.”

Henderson speaks of the upcoming fi ght with his characteristic combination of respect for his opponent, mixed with an unfailing faith in his own abilities. “Anderson has defi nitely proven himself to be one of the best guys in the world, but those are the guys I like to fi ght, those are the guys I get up to fi ght for,” he tells me. “I’m gonna be in his face, pressuring him, trying to knock him out. I’m going get him in the clinch, beat him up there, then take him down, and beat him up there. I’m going to win. It could go fi ve rounds, I could submit him, I could knock him out, but I just don’t see him winning. In my mind, it’s a defi nite thing.”

Lindland is just as confi dent about his old buddy’s chances. “Dan hits harder than anybody who I’ve ever been hit by, and he’s got the wrestling skill set that Anderson doesn’t have,” he tells me. “I have a very strong feeling that Dan’s going to win if he has a good training camp and he stays healthy.”

At 37, Hendo is most likely nearing the end of his physical prime. He has a thriving gym, a successful clothing line, a beautiful family, and more than enough money to live comfortably for a long time. But as he sees it, he’s got a lot of unfi nished business to deal with before he even considers hanging up the gloves. “Right now, my goal is to win that belt, defend it a couple times, then reevaluate what weight class I belong in,” he says. “I feel like I can be dominant at both weight classes. I guess it all depends on whether I accomplish my goals. If I do that, I’ll retire sooner.” It’s a crazy plan, but Dan Henderson has a habit proving doubters wrong. Who knows, by this time next year, Hendo may very well have added a couple of UFC belts to the pile.

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