Two minutes of Dan Hendo versus Chael Sonnen video in the middle of the article!
When you talk about icons in the sport of mixed martial arts, a case could be made that Dan Henderson is the most iconic American born fighter to ever step foot inside the Octagon. From winning the UFC 17 middleweight tournament to being the only man to hold two PRIDE championships simultaneously to knocking out the great Fedor Emelianenko, Henderson has truly done it all and he continues to hold back the hands of time at 43 years young.
Following consecutive decision losses to former champs Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans, Henderson is determined to punch his way back into the mix at 205 lbs against a former foe in Vitor Belfort at UFC Fight Night 32 in Brazil. It seemed like an unusual pairing at first considering Henderson dominated Belfort seven years ago at PRIDE 32 in a fairly forgettable matchup. There’s also the fact that Belfort is an active middleweight fighter and potentially the number one contender in that division.
Regardless, this is the fight that was made and while he might not have been expecting it, Henderson is certainly looking forward to it.
“Yeah I was a little bit surprised with the matchup,” Henderson told CombatLifestyle.com. “It seemed like Vitor called me out and wanted to fight me so I was perfectly fine with that but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I was definitely down for it though.”
Belfort hasn’t fought in the light heavyweight division since being submitted by champion Jon Jones at UFC 152 over a year ago. Henderson was supposed to fight Jones at UFC 151 but when he fell out due to an injury, Jones refused to fight replacement Chael Sonnen on 8 days notice. Long story short, UFC 151 was scrapped entirely and Belfort was randomly bumped into a title fight with Jones the very next month.
Speaking of Sonnen, the self proclaimed “gangster from West Linn, Oregon” is getting ready to take on Evans at UFC 167. To prepare for this battle of light heavyweight elites, Sonnen has been spending a lot of time in California where he’s been training alongside his former Team Quest mentor, Henderson. It’s been years since the two were in training camp together but Henderson is quite pleased with the result thus far.
“It’s great working with Chael for this fight because we’ve been pushing each other every day. It’s one of those things where, I’ve got great guys in my gym on a daily basis and they have some good wrestling but they’re not like Chael,” Henderson said.
“This has been a great opportunity to kind of spunk my wrestling and clinch game back up and I can definitely feel the difference.”
Some fans might be surprised to learn that the former Team Quest teammates are training together again. After all, it wasn’t long ago that Henderson was voicing his displeasure over the UFC’s decision to bump Sonnen into a title fight with Jones without properly earning it. The media blew that out of proportion to make it seem like there was a beef between the two but Henderson explains that wasn’t the case.
“I never had any ill will towards Chael [for getting the title shot with Jones] at all. If I was in Chael’s shoes, I would have taken the opportunity as well. I just thought it was weird that they gave it to him because he was coming off of a loss in the weight class below,” Henderson said.
“I just felt like it wasn’t the right thing to do to have him jump the line but I know the UFC wanted to reward Chael for his willingness to take that fight on a week’s notice.”
Henderson is still hungry for UFC gold. It’s the one major championship that he has yet to grab in his illustrious career and he is very much determined to add that belt onto his mantle. A year ago, he was the number one contender and that goal was within reach. Now he’s coming off two split decision losses, two very close decisions but losses nonetheless and he knows he has to win impressively to get back in the mix.
“Vitor’s been doing well lately and knocking some top ranked guys out. I think he’s probably the number one contender at middleweight but I’m not sure what a win over him does for me right now at light heavyweight,” Henderson said.
“We’ll see though, I’m down [to fight for the title] at either middleweight or light heavyweight but I’d like to stay at 205. I guess it depends on how bad I beat him this time.”
Training with an athlete of Sonnen’s caliber who, on top of being one of the strongest wrestlers in the sport, also brings a level of intensity that only a few fighters can match has to be extremely beneficial for Henderson in this camp. Sonnen might not have Belfort’s quick hands or explosive knockout power but he’s got that ruthless in-your-face aggression that many young fighters today lack.
On the flip side, Sonnen is also reaping the benefits of training alongside a man who just fought his upcoming opponent all the way to the final bell. Henderson has 15 minutes worth of insight on Evans to offer Chael and in the fight world that’s an eternity.
“Rashad is really good at pushing you up against the fence and holding you there,” Henderson said.
“He didn’t inflict much damage to me in our fight but he did a good job of controlling me against the cage so that’s something we’ve been working on with Chael.”
As is usually the case with an athlete of Henderson’s caliber, fans sometimes forget that there’s more to the man than what they see on television. Henderson is a ferocious competitor inside the cage but once he removes his mouth piece and gloves, he is a gentle human being and family man. A father of three, Henderson spends most of his free time driving his kids around.
“I’m like their personal taxi driver,” Henderson jokes. “My kids definitely keep me busy though, we have a good time.”
The hard hitting Henderson is also an avid griller and has been known to host many barbeques from his home in Temecula, California. His annual Labor Day “Pig Roast” has become a tradition and an event that everyone close to him looks forward to all year long. (View previous pig roast pics HERE)
“I’ve been doing the pig roast for about seven years but I think I missed a year or two here and there though,” Henderson said. “Friends of mine used to have them so I just continued on with the tradition and brought it down to my house. I host my annual pig roast every Labor Day and it’s always a good time.”
In addition to raising his own children, Henderson also serves as a father figure to many young up and coming fighters in the sport. Coaching is something that he’s always loved to do and he’s looking to do it on a larger scale in the future.
“I definitely enjoy coaching and that’s something I’m going to continue to do when I’m done fighting. When that time comes I’ll be able to devote more of my focus into coaching because right now I coach and train at the same time,” Henderson said.
“It’s difficult for me to coach at 100% when I’m still training as well so I’m sure I’ll be able to give a lot more back to these young guys once I’m done competing.”
16 years of Henderson’s life has been dedicated to MMA. He could walk away tomorrow and still go down in history as one of the all-time greats but retirement isn’t on his agenda, Belfort is. Anything could happen but Henderson is still looking to add on to his already incredible legacy.
Throughout his entire career, Henderson has kept it real. He’s never acted out in the media to try and persuade promoters into giving him certain matchups like many younger fighters do today. He has always been authentic in his approach and when it’s all said and done, he believes that will shine through like a beacon to the next generation.
“I have no idea [how I will be remembered the most]. I haven’t given that too much thought but I go out there and I compete as hard as I can every single time,” Henderson said. “I’ve always been real, what you see is what you get and I‘ll never try to portray myself as someone I’m not. I’ve always been genuine.”
Photos and video by Tracy Lee