If Henderson loses, it will be four straight defeats in title matches, as he also lost in attempts at winning the UFC's 185-pound and 205-pound belts before parting ways with the promotion.
In Cavalcante, he faces a powerful striker who also happens to be a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Cavalcante won the belt last August, defeating Muhammad Lawal via third-round TKO.
Despite Henderson's decorated wrestling background and Cavalcante's black belt, both fighters clearly prefer to strike. Cavalcante in particular seems to love to stand and trade. According to Compustrike research, Cavalcante (10-2) has been on his feet for 30:50 out of a possible 32:12 over his last six fights.
His success there is the reason why. Not only has he knocked out his opponents in nine of his 10 wins (the other win came on a submission due to strikes), but he lands standing strikes at a 55 percent rate.
Cavalcante features a nice balance to his striking, sprinkling in kicks at opportune times. About 35 percent of his standing strikes are kicks, a roughly 2-to-1 punch/kick ratio. Contrast that with Henderson, who only throws kicks about 19 percent of the time in his standup arsenal, and it's clear to see that Feijao is the more versatile, unpredictable striker.
In recent fights, it seems that Henderson has become dependent on his big right hand, a serious weapon to be sure, but one that tends to become the focus of his attack at the exclusion of nearly everything else.
Witness for example the change in his wrestling game. Years ago, Henderson would and could take down nearly anyone in the sport. But over his last seven fights, he's been successful on just six of 14 tries (43 percent). Interestingly, during that same time, his opponents have been successful on nine of 21 tries, also 43 percent. What that means is a former Olympic wrestler has been equaled in that department by his peers, a seeming impossibility.
Perhaps fortunately for Henderson, Cavalcante does not look for takedowns very often. In his last six fights, he's only tried two, and been successful both times. But with his black belt and the threat of Henderson's thundering overhand right, don't be surprised to see Cavalcante try to put him on his back.
If he can't do it and the fight stays standing, Cavalcante still has the matchup edge because of his varied attack. He'll work to chop Henderson down with powerful kicks before wading in with power punches. As long as he focuses on his footwork and circles away from Henderson's power hand, he should be able to reach Henderson.
A game-changer could be who takes a better punch. Henderson has historically had a granite chin. He's never been knocked out in 34 pro fights, including some against heavy hitters like Anderson Silva, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, Wanderlei Silva and Vitor Belfort. Cavalcante, meanwhile, has had a few shaky moments. In June 2009, he was knocked out by Mike Kyle, and in May 2010, he survived a nearly disastrous moment at the hands of Antwain Britt. Given that tenuous history, Henderson is certainly capable of ending this one with a perfectly timed bomb.
That, however, seems like one of few ways he can win. There are questions about his gas tank and the creaky back that hampered him in his loss to Shields. At 40, it's not going to be easy to quiet those questions, but a win over a young, powerful opponent like Cavalcante would be a step in that direction.
I expect Cavalcante to stay away from Henderson's right hand from the outside, perhaps breaking him down with early leg kicks from the outside or pushing him up against the fence and tiring him out. As the fight goes on, Cavalcante should be the fresher of the two, allowing his multi-dimensional game to wrest control from the veteran.
Henderson will always be dangerous, as most fighters will tell you that power is the last thing to go, but Cavalcante is using more tools out of his MMA belt at a higher level right now, and for that reason, you have to go with Cavalcante by decision.