At this point, Dan Henderson doesn’t fit neatly into any scenario. He’s lost three fights in a row at 205 pounds -- the latest being the first knockout of his 40-fight career coming at the hands of the Vitor Belfort at UFC Fight Night 32 in Brazil -- which drops him through a hatch in the division. He’s capable of 185 pounds -- and even heavyweight -- but he’s noncommittal. Nor is he a young fighter with obvious upside; he’s 43 years old, and careening (at least in the Wikipedia sense of record-keeping and pattern development).
He doesn’t even have a contract. Heading into the Belfort ambush in Brazil, he was on the last fight of his deal. This was some risky business for the storied former champion of the Strikeforce and Pride leagues…to head into landlocked Goiânia and face a man who has mutated into the most ferocious fighter on the roster. On Sunday Henderson may feel like the steak that was slid under the door for a feeding lab monster, but the reality is, Henderson is immune to what we might consider vulnerable situations. By ignoring Saturday’s stakes, it was just Henderson being Henderson.
And Henderson being Henderson has always been admirable in the fight game: He doesn’t give a damn about all the conventional things that we fuss over. He just wants to fight. If there’s one thing we know for certain after the loss, it’s that Hendo wants to continue to fight, whoever and whenever, whatever. He told Fox Sports 1’s Heidi Androl as much in a post-fight interview just before he headed off to the hospital to be checked over.
"I’m definitely not done," Henderson said, in his usual nonplussed manner. "I got caught tonight, and I was ready to go for this fight. I just got caught. That happens, I guess, and after 16 years it’s bound to happen."
It was bound to happen, and it’s surprising he went this long without getting knocked out given the names he’s faced. That this is the first definitive loss he’s had in a long while is to his benefit. Henderson’s previous two losses were coin-flip affairs. He dropped split decisions to Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans, both of whom are still vital cogs in the UFC’s big picture. The more glaring offense wasn’t so much the losses but that those fights were slow, go nowhere affairs that left a lot to the imagination.
The loss to Belfort, though, was memorable. Even if it’s a little murky.
At this point, it’s hard to really gauge a loss when it comes at the hands of Belfort. The quiet (but stirring) elephant in the room leading up to the fight was that both men were on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), not that they were rematching seven years after their encounter in Pride. The biggest difference in this gray field is that Henderson, at 43, looks virtually the same as Henderson at 28 did. His TRT use feels like lawn maintenance.
Belfort at 36, though, doesn’t look like Belfort at 26 -- he looks like a Frank Frazetta illustration of Conan the Barbarian, complete with warrior mullet and deep cable-taut sinews. Which is to say, not quite human (to borrow from Jon Jones’ walkout shirt). The fact that Henderson has been fighting somewhat to his age and physique feels more natural to the naked eye, even if everything under the surface is not entirely so.
The fact that Belfort is like the Hulk turning green each time he gets in there of late feels like…something else. And that Belfort knocked out Henderson, who never gets knocked out, only serves to fly the red flags a little higher.
Whatever the thing is, the playing field was supposedly equal with both men and their asterisk exemptions heading in. And Henderson, not one to point an accusatory finger (especially from his own glass house), gave Belfort the credit.
"I just got caught, I got caught with a nice little uppercut," he said. "I felt like I was still aware of what was going on and I knew he threw a head kick and I was definitely dazed for sure. But I would have liked to have maybe fight out of it a little bit, but the ref’s there to protect us so, I can’t complain too much."
Henderson isn’t one to complain. He’s one to fight on. And he will. Three losses in a row at his age would be different for other fighters. But because he’s held up so well over the years, and preserved his chin from being crushed through stints in Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC, he still has some more miles to go. He has no real reason to stop just yet, even if he’s relegated to the dreaded role of gatekeeper.
Though, there again, he doesn’t fit neatly as a gatekeeper either. Even at 43, he can poach up-and-comers with the best of them, which isn’t ideal for the UFC trying to harvest contenders. So what does the UFC do with him, should they sort out a deal when they talk in a few weeks? Middleweight? Heavyweight? Catchweight? Light heavyweight?
It’s wait and see, but he’ll fight somewhere.
"My last three fights haven’t gone my way, and I’m a little bit farther from that title shot that I had," he said. "I’m just going to get back in there and win fights. I got caught and got finished, but the last two could easily went my way and didn’t. So, I’ve just had some unfortunate luck the last three fights. But, my body feels good and I’m able to continue. Honestly I haven’t felt this good in a while."