With 14 years of battles under his belt, Dan Henderson has bridged the gap between the old-school and the new-school. He started competing in 1997 — long before “Zuffa” and “the Unified Rules” entered the MMA lexicon — and his first four appearances were in single-night tournaments, where he was often pitted against seasoned fighters with years of experience. (Luckily, Henderson had his Olympic-caliber wrestling background to fall back on, and went 9-0 in those tournaments.)
Unlike many of his contemporaries, Henderson evolved with the sport, and has managed to remain one of the world’s top fighters. Coming off a first-round knockout of Renato Sobral in December, Henderson returns to the cage this Saturday in the main event of Strikeforce: Feijao vs. Henderson, where he’ll be challenging Rafael Cavalcante for the promotion’s light-heavyweight belt. We caught up with Dan to get some war stories about his long career and his thoughts on what lies ahead…
Becoming ‘Hendo’: The Brazil Open ’97 (6/15/97)
def. Crezio de Souza via TKO, 5:25
def. Eric Smith via technical submission (guillotine choke), 0:30
Dan Henderson: “The first time I saw MMA was either UFC 1 or 2. At the time, I never thought I’d do it myself — I just didn’t want to compete against guys who were 400 pounds. But once they added a weight class, I became interested.
I’d only been training MMA for about two weeks when I had my first fight. Randy Couture called me and said he was going to do the [Brazil Open ’97] tournament. They had a heavyweight division and also a lightweight division. Plus, there was going to be some other wrestlers there — [Rico Chiapparelli was] trying to manage some guys, and started a team called the RAW Team.
But then Randy ended up getting a call from the UFC — he’d already put an application in, and ended up getting a call because somebody got hurt last-minute — so he fought in the UFC instead. I was pretty much just training with some local guys, preparing for the tournament. When they shut the cage and it was just me and the other guy and the ref in there, I said ‘oh shit.’”
A brief stop in the Octagon: UFC 17 (5/15/98)
def. Allan Goes via unanimous decision
def. Carlos Newton via split decision
“The UFC sought me out; I’d been a two-time Olympian, and I’d already started MMA, so they wanted me in there. I didn’t expect Allan Goes to come out kicking at me like he did, but I think I did pretty well as far as staying out of their submissions.”
“Randy and I had been training together for about six or seven years for wrestling, and we both started fighting at the same time. We’d go back and forth to train at each other’s house — he’d come down to California, I’d go up to Oregon. In 1999, I decided to move there full time and really push to make that Olympic team.
There was a gym that had closed down, and we were friends with the owner of the building. He said, ‘Hey, you want to just take over?’ All the equipment was there; it was a health club-type thing. So we did that, and we called it Performance Quest. We owned that for a while and started fighting out of that gym, and because it was called Performance Quest, we just called our team Team Quest.
[On his ongoing legal dispute with Matt Lindland] I’m on okay terms with Matt, it’s just about the way he trademarked the name a few years ago. He doesn’t have the right to trademark anything because he wasn’t involved in the process of starting the name and everything else. He wasn’t there in the beginning, only Randy and I were.”
Becoming champion, the hard way: RINGS: King of Kings 1999 Final (2/26/00)
def. Gilbert Yvel via unanimous decision
def. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira via split decision
def. Renato Sobral via majority decision
“It definitely was the toughest night of fighting I’ve ever had. It showed me that I could really do things if I wanted to; push through things. Mentally, it made me a lot stronger. I entered that tournament because I was broke. I’d moved up to Oregon and I needed some money to continue to train to make the Olympic team in 2000, and I did it just for the show-up money that I’d get to enter. I think I got paid like seven grand to show up for the first event [“Block A” on 10/28/99], and if you won you made a little bit of money for the win. If I took second place I would have made $30,000. For first place, I made $230,000.”
“They paid a lot more money than I would have gotten in the UFC, and the competition was, I felt, better. The matchups and the competition were tougher over there, and they drew from more of an international market. Plus, the fans were very knowledgeable. They understood the game a lot better, the ground game, all the moves and techniques quite a bit more. Especially at the time. Now the U.S. fans are a lot more educated and they understand the grappling and submission attempts and stuff like that a lot. But they did treat us really well over there and I enjoyed it.”
The PRIDE Welterweight Grand Prix: PRIDE Bushido 9 (9/25/05), PRIDE Shockwave 2005 (12/31/05)
def. Ryo Chonan via KO, 0:22 of round 1
def. Akihiro Gono via KO, 7:58 of round 1
def. Murilo Bustamante via split decision
“I wanted a rematch with Wanderlei. I didn’t actively call him out, but I thought I could beat him. He had gotten the belt, and I wanted it. I was close to getting another fight with him a couple times, and then I ended up getting a loss. So PRIDE wanted me to fight in this tournament instead. They called it ‘welterweight,’ but it was really our middleweight. I didn’t really want to do it — I wanted to fulfill the goals I had set for myself at 205 — but I won the tournament and they gave me the weight class belt, which was great. And for them to come back and offer me Wanderlei Silva was nice as well.
I miss [the one-night tournaments] as a fan, but I don’t miss them as a fighter, especially now that I’m getting older. I don’t know if I’d want to do that again. But I think that for somebody who’s an up-and-comer, or who’s trying to establish themselves as one of the top guys — you’ll see what somebody’s made of when they win a tournament like that, fighting more than once in a night.”
The Big Payoff: Pride 33 (2/24/07)
def. Wanderlei Silva via KO, 2:08 of round 3
“I’ve had some great performances, but because of where Wanderlei was at in his career at the time, and the aggressiveness that he brought, and him just being so dangerous, it was definitely a much bigger accomplishment than anything else I’ve done. When people ask me if the Bisping fight is my favorite knockout, well, I enjoyed that one, but it wasn’t my biggest accomplishment by any means.”
“I’d like to rematch either one, because I know I’d beat them. Against Quinton, I was satisfied with my performance, and I thought I did enough to win, even though every round was pretty close. But against Anderson Silva, I wasn’t satisfied with my performance. I didn’t fight the way I knew I was capable of. I was just really flat that night. And those are the performances that make me want to rematch someone. It’s not just because I lost.
A lot of my loss to Quinton Jackson had to do with not fighting in a cage for nine years, and everything that goes along with that. I tripped on the cage a couple times during the fight, and you know…I think if it was in PRIDE, I would have beat him. If you take that same exact fight and just add PRIDE judges to it, I would have won based on aggressiveness and trying to finish the fight. They judged the whole fight in PRIDE, not each round.
At the time, I didn’t know if PRIDE was going to come to an end. I was nervous about it, because the UFC would almost have a monopoly on the sport, which could be bad for the fighters in general. The UFC said they had planned on keeping PRIDE alive, so I thought I’d be able to come and fight in the U.S. for the UFC, then fight in Japan for PRIDE, and go back and forth.”
Hit it and quit it: UFC 100 (7/11/09)
def. Michael Bisping via KO, 3:20 of round 2
“I don’t think my opinion of Bisping has changed a whole lot since the fight. He’s still got a big mouth, he’s still gonna talk, but that’s him. I don’t hate him as a person, he’s okay, but I think he’s disrespectful to a lot of fans and media, and I don’t think he represents the sport well enough.
[On the secret to his knockout power:] Hit ‘em in the right spot, I guess. I know I hit hard, and the better technically I get, the easier it is to knock guys out.
[On leaving the UFC after the fight:] Bottom line, it came down to money. They didn’t want to pay me what I felt I was worth. And I know they were paying some guys that weren’t worth that much a lot more. So, it was just about business for both parties. They felt that I wasn’t worth that much, and I felt I was worth more. I got paid more going to Strikeforce.”
A long night in Music City: Strikeforce: Nashville (4/17/10)
lost to Jake Shields via unanimous decision
“I had some issues going on prior to and during my weight cut, and that was the prime reason that I lost that fight. But I also didn’t change my strategy — my strategy was supposed to change if he started to take me down and control me — but I didn’t get that from my corner and I didn’t think about that myself in the middle of the fight, where I needed to be offensively wrestling, and not just defensively wrestling. And when you’re trying to land punches, it’s a lot easier to get taken down, and I know that. At the time I just wasn’t thinking clearly, and he had the best fight of his career that night. [On the upcoming GSP vs. Shields bout:] Georges is a solid wrestler, and I think Jake’s way too one-dimensional to beat him.”
One more belt: Strikeforce: Feijao vs. Henderson (3/5/11)
vs. Rafael ‘Feijao’ Cavalcante, result TBA
“I think he hits hard, but he’s sloppy on his feet. He throws some good knees, but he leaves his chin open when he’s throwing those knees. There’s a lot of openings that I can take advantage of. I’ve got a lot more experience. He’s not a wrestler, and I’m not the typical wrestler that he’s fought. It’s definitely gonna be a brawl and a war, and a good five-round fight.
The challenge is what gives me the drive to compete. And if I have a belt again, I’ll be able to demand a little bit more money and be worth more. But after I beat Feijao, I’ll go from there and see what Strikeforce wants. I’d like to defend that belt at that weight class and then figure it out.”