All things considered Dan Henderson has been taking things in stride. First a knee injury caused him to pull out of a UFC light heavyweight title fight with champion Jon Jones back in August. Then he roused Dana White's ire when news surfaced he sustained the injury weeks before alerting UFC officials, thereby costing them precious time to find a replacement. Finally Henderson saw whatever was left of his title hopes dashed when news broke a couple weeks back that Chael Sonnen would be coaching opposite Jones on the next season of The Ultimate Fighter and facing him for the title in April. Hendo's consolation prize in all of this? A demotion to the amorphous top contender "mix" Dana White is always talking about and a fight with the stylistically problematic Lyoto Machida in the works. Talk about a rough few months.
Machida hasn't had it much better. He was named number one contender back in August after thoroughly outclassing Ryan Bader and from all accounts was hungry to try and avenge his prior loss to Jones. Unfortunately he wasn't hungry enough to suit Dana White. When the UFC president needed someone to face Jones on a month's notice at UFC 152 the first man he called was Machida. "The Dragon" in turn declined because he felt he wouldn't have sufficient time to prepare. White then proceeded to lambaste him in the media for turning down the opportunity. His punsihment was the same as Henderson's - a spot back "in the mix" and a fight against a fellow fighter who dared to cross the boss.
Meanwhile, whenever reporters ask White why Sonnen was awarded a title shot fresh off a loss to Anderson Silva his response is invariably that Sonnen was, "the only one who stepped up to fight Jon Jones." Never mind that the stepping up in question refers to Sonnen volunteering to face Jones at the last minute back in late August and that the title bout currently being discussed won't take place until April, by which time both Machida and Henderson will be ready to fight.
White's pat answer to this question might seem like a diversionary tactic to trick people into believing the Jones/Sonnen match up was anything other than a desperate attempt to save the dying Ultimate Fighter franchise, but it's also a message to Henderson, Machida, and the rest of the roster: it's a bad idea to put your best interests before those of the UFC.
It's easy to understand Machida's rationale for turning down the title shot on short notice. Jones was going into the fight fresh off of a full training camp whereas Machida had just fought a month ago and wouldn't have had time to get back in peak shape. Given that he'd already lost once to the champ, Machida had to believe this would be his last opportunity to face Jones for the title. Why risk your last chance to fight for the championship when you're out of shape and your opponent is in peak condition?
Well, unfortunately for fighters, the answer to this question is because there will likely be a price to pay for looking out for number one rather than putting the needs of the company first. You may or may not be publicly raked over the coals by White, but you will almost invariably be sent back to the purgatory known as "the mix" where you'll stay an indefinite amount of time until either you win some more fights or the title picture rearranges itself.
In Henderson's case the cause was different but the end result was the same. From the UFC's perspective Henderson shared some of the blame for the cancellation of UFC 151 because he played his cards close to the vest about his injury for weeks after sustaining it, thereby costing them time to find a replacement.
This sounds reasonable enough on the surface, but the last thing Henderson wanted to do was let word get out about the injury and have it find its way to Jones' camp. Fighting Jones is an uphill battle as it is - giving him an injury to target only makes it that much harder. What's more, Henderson has been around long enough to know that when you pull out of a title fight its far from a guarantee you'll be slotted into another one upon your return. He held out hope he would be able to gut his way through the fight, but in the end he realized his body just wasn't going to cooperate no matter how much he willed it to.
It's a sticky situation if you're a top contender dealing with a less than ideal title shot. You spend years fighting your way to the top of the mountain only to find yourself with a Catch 22 once you get there: put yourself in an disadvantageous position by taking the biggest fight of your career on short notice or have your recent progress erased by the punitive whims of your employer. Or in the case of Dan Henderson, risk giving your opponent an advantage by broadcasting your injury before you've determined whether or not it will have time to heal or else face a demotion if you determine you can't go through with the fight.
There aren't any easy answers. The reality is the UFC is the only game in town for anyone who wants to make serious money. At the moment and fighters have little choice but to play by their rules. Sometimes that's just how life is: we find ourselves faced with two inconvenient options, pick our poison, and do our best to live with the consequences. Ultimately its up to fighters to decide for themselves what course of action to take when it comes to dealing with a problematic title shot. One thing's for certain - second chances can be hard to come by at the top of the mountain.
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