Dan Henderson has been retired for about six months, and while most view his final outing as a positive — at the age of 46 he nearly won the middleweight title — he views it very differently.
"Obviously it's a little frustrating and bums me out," Henderson said about his Oct. 8 match with Michael Bisping at UFC 204, which he lost via unanimous decision. "It leaves a bad taste in my mouth with how I went out. I felt that I should have won that fight and retired as champion. I don't dwell on things like that. I don't wake up in the morning thinking that I got f*cked. But it's a little frustrating. I don't think a day goes by where somebody doesn't bring it up, unfortunately. It was what it was. I can move on, but I felt that I beat him up and he didn't do anything to me, so why should he have won?"
The Henderson-Bisping fight was the classic example of scoring by rounds vs. either scoring the fight as a whole, like Pride did, with emphasis on who came closest to finishing, or the schoolyard idea of the guy who won the fight being the guy you'd most want to be when it was over. Under either of those two systems, Henderson would have been the winner. Bisping looked like he was beaten up badly and was hurt the worst. But the judges felt he won the last three rounds. Henderson had Bisping in serious trouble in the first round and Bisping never had Henderson in nearly as much trouble.
Henderson is working with the UFC recently pushing Pride Week on UFC Fight Pass, from April 3 to 9, where they will have all sorts of specials from the Pride years as this is the 10th anniversary of that company promoting its last show. One of the shows, which will be put on April 9, will be a look back at Henderson's Pride career, which included two championships in fights with Renzo Gracie, Murilo "Ninja" Rua, Ricardo Arona, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Murilo Bustamante, Vitor Belfort and two fights with Kazuo Misaki and Wanderlei Silva.
Henderson, until his retirement, was the oldest active UFC fighter. He was also one of the most revered and respected fighters among other fighters. Henderson was a high-level competitor in sports dating back 30 years, placing second in the California state high school meet in 1987 and then winning the national high school wrestling championship at 165 pounds in both freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling in 1988. He was on the U.S. Greco-Roman team at 181 pounds in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics before gaining far more fame when he switched to MMA, making his name first in Japan.
There is nothing calling Henderson back to competition now, though.
"No, I don't have any itch," he said. "It was enough time, 20 years of doing it (MMA). If I had the itch, I'd go to the gym, spar with my guys, and I'll be dead for the rest of the day. And that will get rid of the itch."
Henderson had a decade as a top star in the U.S. But his MMA career, which he started more to help pay bills while he tried and failed to make a third Olympic games in 2000, started in Brazil, and after one night in the UFC, he ended up really making his name in Japan.
Even before Pride, he won a 32-man tournament with no weight classes. In the tournament he weighed in without cutting weight at 190 and faced largely heavyweights, over four months in late 1999 and early 2000 in RINGS. He became one of the key stars during the Pride era in Japan from 2000 to 2007. When the organization folded, Henderson held both the welterweight (in Pride that was 183 pounds, essentially middleweight by today's designation) and middleweight (in Pride that was 203.6 pounds, essentially light heavyweight today) championships. Until Conor McGregor, he was the only person to hold championships in two different weight divisions at the same time in a major-league promotion.
All that plays into the biggest sports moments of his life.
"The two Olympic games and in MMA, winning the two Pride belts, the RINGS tournament was definitely one of my highlights, I was the smallest guy out of 32 and won it, winning the belt in Strikeforce and knocking out Fedor (Emelianenko)," he said about his best memories.
But he won't go so far as to say the Emelianenko win, even as a fighter who mostly fought at middleweight and as a very small light heavyweight knocking out arguably the best heavyweight of all-time, was his career apex.
"Yes and no," he said. "He had lost his two previous fights, so that took away from it a little bit. I do feel like he had trained hard for that fight and came in ready to go. But I think he didn't expect a little guy to hit as hard."
Henderson's style, based around spectacular one-punch knockout power is different from most high-level wrestlers in the sport. Like Chuck Liddell, Henderson mostly used his wrestling to keep the fight standing as opposed to trying to dominate primarily with his wrestling skill developed from childhood. Ironically, he had no idea when he got into the sport that he was going to be a feared striker.
"It (his power in his right hand) was something I never realized I had until after I started," he said. "I never really got into many street fights. I had maybe two or three in my life, and they mostly turned into wrestling matches."
For Henderson, MMA was secondary to wrestling in his priorities in his early years in the sport. In 1998, he defeated Carlos Newton and Allan Goes to earn a middleweight (now light heavyweight) title shot at Frank Shamrock, but never took the shot even though Shamrock had a win over him on a submission pay-per-view show earlier.
"The UFC was on a big downslope," he said about the decision to fight in Japan instead. "They weren't on cable at all in the states, only on satellite, and they weren't paying very much. Because of that. I got paid a lot more in Pride for sure."
One of the thing Henderson noted about the Pride years was the number of exciting fights, both because of different aspects of the rules and also because of the pay.
He noted that in UFC, because for most fighters, a win doubles your income, fighters often fight to make sure they don't lose because so much can go wrong with a loss, including less money and even losing your job. In Pride, winning and losing wasn't nearly as important as entertainment.
"They had so much to show and so much to win," he said, "And it probably depended on the fighter. But it was never in the 50/50 range (guarantee vs. winning bonus). It was more like 70 percent to show and 30 percent to win. They weren't as concerned about wins and losses with the fighters as they are here. They were more concerned with how you competed. You can lose and if you're super exciting, they'll pay you more the next time."
He also remembers the different live event feel from that era.
"What made Pride unique was the show they put on," he said. "It was the production, not just the fights. They had great fights but they had a great show, especially if you're there live. You got a little sense of it on TV, but the live events were phenomenal. They had a little different rule set which made the fights a little more exciting. UFC had really exciting fights as well."
A key difference he noted in Pride was that you had less people getting a little ahead and then stalling to take a decision.
"Pride would give you a yellow card for being a little bit passive, and that meant they would take 10 percent out of your pay,” Henderson said. “Guys aren't going to be passive when they felt they were winning and risk losing pay."
But Henderson also felt things changed at the end.
"They started going over-the-top the last couple of years," he said. "They got a little happy taking 10 percent from people, but for the most part, it created a sense that you wanted to be aggressive because you didn't want to lose 10 percent of your pay. Also, the rules allowing knees on the ground made the fights a little more active. Instead of guys sitting in situations and just hanging out until something is happening, guys won't sit there and wait if they can get kneed in the face. I wish they would add that rule here."
Pride was also different in the sense that training camps to get ready for big fights most of the time didn't happen. Often Henderson wouldn't know when he was fighting or who he would be facing until a couple of weeks ahead of time.
"Pride was always pretty last minute with their match-ups," he said. "They couldn't make up their minds. They didn't need the matches to sellout the show. People were coming because it was Pride. Sometimes they were sold out before they announced matches. But there were only a few times I fought with less than two weeks notice."
One of the things Henderson prides himself on is his durability.
"I only pulled out of one fight in 20 years," he said. "It was with Jon Jones (for the UFC light heavyweight title). I was probably in the best shape of my whole life. I tore my MCL and my knee was super wobbly. The MCL heals on its own. I tried to give it a couple of weeks. My own doctors said just give it a couple of weeks. I wouldn't pull out. I was already in shape, dialed in, on my game plan and it was just about saving my leg. But two weeks later, I couldn't do anything."