Dan Henderson A Long Trek from Mobile to London
09/03/2007

Thomas Gerbasi, UFC - A lot has changed since the last time Dan Henderson stepped foot into the UFC Octagon to fight. Back in 1998, the two-time Olympian was pretty new to the sport of mixed martial arts, having just fought twice in a Brazilian tournament 11 months earlier.

It was in Brazil where Henderson found out that he wasn't in Kansas anymore and that the fight game of the late-90's wasn't anything like what he experienced as a world-renowned wrestler.

By Thomas Gerbasi

A lot has changed since the last time Dan Henderson stepped foot into the UFC Octagon to fight. Back in 1998, the two-time Olympian was pretty new to the sport of mixed martial arts, having just fought twice in a Brazilian tournament 11 months earlier.

It was in Brazil where Henderson found out that he wasn't in Kansas anymore and that the fight game of the late-90's wasn't anything like what he experienced as a world-renowned wrestler.

"The first crowds I remember were in Brazil because they were throwing stuff into the cage and they rushed the cage because the ref stopped the fight," recalled Henderson with a chuckle. Suddenly, everything was a lot more real, a lot more in your face.'

So coming home to fight for the struggling UFC at the Mobile Civic Center in Mobile, Alabama was sedate by comparison. It was also far from glamorous, and far from being the type of sport where you could make a solid living for yourself and your family. But that night, Henderson did show the type of skill that would keep him near or at the top of the sport for the next nine years, as he pounded out wins over Allan Goes and Carlos Newton to win the night's middleweight tournament.

"I was pretty new to the game and really didn't know what I was doing," said Henderson, who could have faced another newcomer to the UFC, that night's alternate, Chuck Liddell, if Newton had been injured and unable to compete in the final. "But I still managed to do pretty well. It was with the old owners, so it wasn't quite as organized and wasn't marketed very well, so it was a different engine back then."

It was an engine on a car with 200,000 miles which was falling apart mile by mile, in the years before Zuffa resurrected the brand, so it was no surprise that Henderson took his game to the Japan, competing in the RINGS organization before becoming a mainstay for PRIDE, where he became not only an international star, but the only person in history to hold the organization's welterweight and middleweight titles simultaneously, beating fighters like Renzo Gracie, Murilo Bustamante, Murilo Ninja' Rua, Vitor Belfort, and most recently, Wanderlei Silva. Add in pre-PRIDE wins over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Gilbert Yvel, and Renato Sobral, and you've got a Who's Who of MMA on Henderson's ledger, something that makes his accomplishments all the more impressive.

"It really doesn't do me any good," said Henderson, "testing my own skills to better my career to fight guys that aren't top ranked. So right from the get go, I was hoping to fight the top guys."

So it was really no surprise to hardcore fight fans that when the PRIDE organization was bought by Zuffa, Henderson's UFC debut wasn't going to be a tune-up or introduction-type match. He was going to get a killer right off the bat, and that killer is UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Quinton Jackson, who will put his belt up for grabs against Henderson's PRIDE Middleweight belt (which is the equivalent, weight-wise, of the UFC's light heavyweight class) in the sport's first unification bout Saturday night in London.

"I never wanted to do that (get an easy first match back in the UFC)," said Henderson. "It wouldn't have made any sense for me to have two belts in PRIDE and then to come here and not have a title fight right away.

He's right, and this unification bout is a big deal historically, for the fans, and for the fighters.

"To see who the top guy in the world is, finally, and to have the opportunity to be the first undisputed world champion is huge," said Henderson. "The UFC is a great platform to do that on, it's got the best marketing tools, and I'm ready to stay in the UFC for a long time. I plan on fighting the rest of my career in the UFC."

Ironically though, Henderson will be in a situation similar to the one Jackson was in before he knocked out Liddell for the 205-pound belt in May the hardcore fans know who he is, but the casual fans who may not have seen PRIDE card, may be in the dark a bit as to who the Temecula, California resident is. That's fine with Henderson."

"It's kind of fun for me to be able to educate the fans on the real world of MMA," he continues. "I think Quinton Jackson has helped do that as well. It's more fun for me to be in that situation it's almost the underdog situation.

It should take only a few highlight clips and a few seconds of fight action for newcomers to get up to speed on the 37-year old Henderson though, because he is as no nonsense as they come in the Octagon. Plus, in addition to his wrestling acumen, Henderson is known for a bone-rattling right hand, and as he made sure to point out, his "left ain't too bad either." For evidence of that you can reference the left hook that knocked out Silva in their February rematch (the Brazilian won their first fight in 2000). But one criticism that was made of Henderson in past years was that he tended to abandon his strengths in an attempt to knock foes out with his right hand. He insists that he's gotten that right hand crazy' attitude out of his system.

"I've always used my wrestling in every fight as well, but the difference is, I was just trying too hard to knock guys out before," admits Henderson. "Now, I'm just letting it (knockouts) happen, and I would still like that to happen, but I'm making sure I win every round, whether it's with my wrestling or striking."

And given Henderson's strengths and Jackson's equally impressive tool kit, Saturday's bout (which will be aired live on free cable television by Spike TV) has War' written all over it.

"He's tough," said Henderson of Jackson. "He's athletic and explosive, a good wrestler, and skilled on his feet. It's a pretty good matchup and should be pretty exciting."

It's also a long way from Mobile for Henderson and the sport of MMA, which has significantly changed since 1998.

"I think most of us knew that it was just a matter of time for people to just watch it," said Henderson of the growth of the sport in the time from his debut in the UFC to his return. "And once they watched it, they would see that it's got a lot of excitement to it. Every boxing fan I know who watched MMA doesn't look at boxing quite the same anymore. I thought all along that it was just a matter of time, and that time is now, and it's still growing exponentially."

As for the future and a possible return to 185 pounds, Henderson's an old-school wrestler, so don't even ask that question of a guy who takes it one match at a time.

"I'm focusing on this one fight only, and I'm not really looking past that," he said. "It's pretty easy for me to make 185. It's easier for me to make 205 because I'm underweight, but I don't know. I haven't even thought about it much at all. I'm just gonna win this fight and see what happens."

It should be some ride.