A week ago, Quinton Jackson, while gnashing his teeth in Memphis, proclaimed himself to be the last of a dying breed in MMA, meaning the old school knuckle-bombers from Pride. It was easy to catch his drift; they just don’t make mentalities like they used to. The other of this dying breed? Dan Henderson, who is 43 years young and at least a small percent Walla Walla.
These are just facts.
And as hard as it is to believe, it’s been 98 numbered cards since Jackson and Henderson squared off at UFC 75 in London. Both were tried-and-true "veterans of many wars" back then (in 2007). Both are still fighting, against much muttering under the breath, seven years later. Each of them carries a twilight tag everywhere they go these days, even if they’re carrying the head of a recent victim in the other hand. And now a week after Jackson mixed it up with Muhammed Lawal in Bellator -- a fight he won, even if he regretted leaving Mo’s wits intact -- Henderson is ready to make the long walk again himself.
Old bungalows to old H-bombs in the merry month of May…although, in Henderson’s case, the trouble ahead is the worst kind.
That’s because he fights Daniel Cormier on Saturday at UFC 173, and the reasonable thing to do -- the fashionable thing -- is to fear for his life. Go to any forum and you can see the open fretting, which ranges from concern (Hendo’s in way over his head) to glee (Hendo’s going to get KTFO!) to claims of cruelty (Joe Silva is a kind of Voldemort). In a clash of momentums, Cormier is a boulder bounding down a hill towards the road below, while Henderson is a tumbleweed dancing across from the other side to meet it.
And it’s true, Hendo’s task is daunting.
Cormier is an angry dieting heavyweight, who dominates everyone using his wrestling, striking and smarts. He won’t budge, either; nobody takes him down. His hands are surprisingly fast. His narrowed frame? Surprisingly agile. He packs power. He’s not prone to mistakes.
Though you don’t want to be caught in his crossfire, the most glaring thing about Henderson is he’s old. And there are no potions left for him to combat that old, as testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), that infamous elixir, is now outlawed in modern day Nevada. His neck is stiff, instincts dulled. He can’t move as well as he used to even with it. His takedown defense has become more offensive over time. And his granite chin is slipping, as witnessed against Vitor Belfort and damn near again against Mauricio Rua just two months ago in the sauna heat of Natal, Brazil.
Damn near, that is, because Henderson took Shogun’s best shots and still somehow managed to land the one that counted most, a short right that changed a lot of fortunes. Because we’ve seen him knocked out once and nearly knocked out again in recent outings, our eyes can’t unsee the evidence. He is being installed as a 7-to-1 underdog. If he has anything going for him heading into Saturday’s co-main event, it’s mercy. Cormier and him are friends.
The thing that optimists (and long-shot gamblers) point out is that Henderson has his right hand, and somewhat less conspicuously, he has a left hand. The Greco, too, don’t forget the Greco -- Henderson has clinch-game and crafty inside technique.
But we all know Henderson is Henderson; he’ll try for a pretty violent put-away of Cormier, and in doing so will leave himself vulnerable to being put away himself. If he gets taken down to the ground? It’s easy to imagine him becoming fertilizer.
Yet no matter what happens on Saturday night, the thing we love more than Henderson’s unflinching enthusiasm to fight against monsters is this idea that he -- and it -- can just sort of go on forever. He is anti-logic in an anti-PC game. And even as we make loud tick-tock noises in his ear, Hendo appears in no rush to explore life in the free world outside. You might say he’s become institutionalized over the last two decades in the cage. For as daunting as it feels to strip down to the waist and fight a guy trained specifically to scramble his frequencies, life outside of fighting is scarier still.
How long can he go on? It’s hard to say, but he seems inclined to just go until he doesn’t want to go any more. I wrote my first "it’s been a fun ride" memorial on him after he lost to Anderson Silva at UFC 82 in Columbus. That was in 2008, when he dropped back-to-back title bids to Silva and Jackson. Six years later, here he is -- one of the few active fighters to predate the unified rules -- still plugging along. Since that time he became the light heavyweight champion of Strikeforce, knocked out Fedor Emelianenko, and put on the fight of the year against Rua in San Jose. Even with the bumps in the road (narrow losses to Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans, for instance) it’s hard not to appreciate his perseverance in such a cruel, unforgiving game, especially given his style.
Henderson is perhaps the quietest spectacle the game has ever known. He’s a sure-fire Hall-of-Famer who at times has been whispered about in pound-for-pound best ever conversations, given the list of names he’s faced and defeated. And he has fought his whole career with a deficiency; he never was much of a smack talker. His fists, on the other hand, never shut up.
So here we go again, getting set to watch Hendo in a brink-like situation just two months after his improbable come-from-behind victory over Rua. Should he find a way to get by Cormier -- against all odds -- he could be in line for a title shot at some point in his 44th year of existence on earth. The idea of that is absurd. But then again, everything about Henderson at this point is a little bit absurd.
If Hendo’s the last of the dying breed, as his fellow Pride heirloom Jackson said last week, it’s in part because he doesn’t hesitate. He just says yes. Fight an unbeaten behemoth like Cormier, on short notice, sans TRT, at the tender age of 43? Yes. Dying breeds trust their hands over certain failure, so yes, yes, by all means, bring on Daniel Cormier, bring on whoever.
And when that time does come that Dan Henderson walks away, it’s that mentality, sustained for so long, through situations not unlike this one, that will end up being missed.