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If that’s it for Hendo, UFC 199 was one hell of a way to go out

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

After all the smoke (and promotional miasma) cleared at UFC 199, there stood 45-year old Dan Henderson, the old throwback who may have punched the lights out of the last man he ever will in a cage. "Hendo" alluded to his possible retirement after knocking out Hector Lombard on Saturday night. He had all his kids gathered at the Forum in Inglewood, and it felt like a farewell. He was even pointing out the warmth he felt in his heart from the California faithful.

Better, I suppose, than the rattle in his brain.

Lombard came very close to bringing Henderson’s career to a sober, Chuck Liddell-esque end in the first round, as he had Henderson flailing to survive. Henderson thought he had Lombard hurt early and rushed in to finish him, leaving Lombard all the opening he needed to find that once-granite chin. Henderson went down, as he has so many times in recent memory, though he didn’t go out. Instead, he lasted into the second round, where he caught Lombard with a head kick, then — with Lombard holding one of his legs — slammed home an elbow that closed the drapes on the former Bellator champion for good.

Henderson celebrated like a man who finally got something burdensome off his chest. Here was this old stone figure, whom we’ve tried to egg towards retirement for the last couple of years, going out on his own terms. (Or, at least we think. With Hendo you never know). And that Lombard comeback would be an entirely perfect note for Hendo to ride out on.

That’s because so many Henderson fights have the same astonishing change in cadence: Here we go…oh god, he’s hurt…stop the fight, stop the fight…this is sad…oh wait…holy sh*t!...he’s back…boom! Hendo! HENDO!

In his post-Pride years, Hendo never was one to evolve; he was more a guy who worked hard to bend the game into his wheelhouse. At his most exciting, Henderson won exactly as he did against Lombard — laying somebody out just when it looked like he himself was in the deepest bit of trouble. He did it (spectacularly) in the rematch with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua in 2014, after getting rocked on multiple occasions in the first round. He did it (improbably) against Fedor Emelianenko in a first round that belongs in the canon of all-time great table-turners. He even did it (like a roulette player) against Rafael Cavalcante to take the Strikeforce belt.

In fact, with the exception of the Tim Boetsch fight — where he stormed out of the gate and sacked Maine’s finest just 28 seconds in — Henderson always puts himself across the stormiest seas to get his arm raised. In the later years, there were plenty of times he just couldn’t come back. He was obliterated twice by Vitor Belfort, once by Daniel Cormier, and once by Gegard Mousasi. In a couple of these cases he was a little peeved that the referee thought it best to stop the fight, rather than give him the opportunity to turn more tables. Given the examples of his work, you have to wonder.

If UFC 199 ends up being Hendo’s last fight, it’s one hell of a way to go out. He dropped a thousand jaws at once. Liddell himself could be seen Octagon-side mouthing his astonishment at the way Hendo put Lombard away, perhaps with a pang of envy that he just couldn’t do the same. Hendo’s family came inside the Octagon and posed for pictures. It all happened in his native Southern California, on a night when Michael Bisping — whom he scored the greatest knockout of his career against 99 PPVs ago at UFC 100 — became the middleweight champion.

There’s really no better way to go out for a 45-year-old wrestler-turned-warrior who still has a strong sense of his own bearings to go out. In the fight game, happy endings are rare to nonexistent. Let’s be real, too: It didn’t seem like Hendo was headed towards a glorious end. It seemed like he was headed for a dose of reality that the more squeamish among us had long come to grips with. But Hendo has always been his own guy, and that’s in part what made him a champion in this sport. He had to do things his way, even when we fidgeted in our seats as he went about it.

And with all due respect to one of MMA’s greatest, if that was Hendo’s way of hitting the sunset then what a beautiful sunset it was.

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