Here’s a mind-bender for you: What do Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Rich Franklin, Vitor Belfort, Rousimar Palhares, Kazuo Misaki and Michael Bisping all have in common? I’ll give you a second.
*humming the Jeopardy theme*
*twiddling my thumbs*
*trimming my nails*
Okay. The answer? Dan Henderson has beaten all of them. Isn’t that an incredible list? Add to it these names: Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante, Renato “Babalu”, Murilo “Ninja” Rua and several other Brazilians with cool nicknames and you have what might be the most impressive resume in MMA history.
And yet, when you get into discussions about who the best fighter in MMA history is (I’m assuming you get into these kinds of discussions all the time), does Dan Henderson’s name come up? I bet it doesn’t. I bet it isn’t even mentioned.
Normally, comparing an MMA fighter’s resume to a basketball player’s resume is a fools game. One is a team sport, and the other is an individual one. However, the more I think about this comparison, the more valid it seems. I’ll spare you the superficial buildup. Isn’t Dan Henderson’s career comparable to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s?
Bear with me. They both have a signature move that is synonymous with their names (Dan with the right hand, Kareem with the sky hook). They’ve both competed at a high level for far longer than logic would suggest. They both won titles more than a decade apart. They both came through in big moments but were never consistently spectacular. And, as I mentioned in passing, they’re both extremely prolific, historic figures in their respective sports without being considered “the best ever.”
Convoluted comparisons aside, I want to focus on that last part a bit. Why ISN’T Dan Henderson considered the best fighter ever? He knocked out Wanderlei Silva and Michael Bisping in brutal fashion. He became the first man to ever put Fedor Emelianenko’s lights out. He has a much more impressive resume than his former stablemate, Randy Couture (who everyone talks about in reverential tones). He’s held both PRIDE and Strikeforce belts, leading to his amiable quote “Every time I win a title in another organization, Dana has to go and buy it to get me back.” If you made a list of the 50 most iconic moments in MMA history, Dan is probably involved in at least 5 of them. So what is it? Why is Dan Henderson only looked at as a solid, perennial contender?
The grappling stands out. Despite being an Olympian in the wrestling department, Dan’s defensive wrestling and positional grappling have always been subpar. If Dan wants to take you down, he’s probably going to take you down. If you want to take Dan down, you’ll probably be able to take him down. Jake Shields spent what seemed like their entire fight mounted on Hendo. Murilo Rua and Yuki Kondo both controlled Henderson for large portions of their bouts. Mauricio Shogun basically had Henderson dead to rights for the latter part of their barn burner.
Hendo has, somewhat unfairly, been dubbed “Decision Dan” by detractors of his. He’s arguably been beaten by Allan Goes, Carlos Newton, Murilo Rua, Rich Franklin, Murilo Bustamante, and Yuki Kondo. He was incredibly green in the Newton and Goes fights, and those are fights that I can rationalize him getting the nod in. Still, they were very competitive. The Ninja fight is interesting, as he was thoroughly outwrestled by a jiu-jitsu guy for most of the fight. He just couldn’t seem to get out from underneath Rua, but he put together a wild flurry of punches in the 3rd round that turned the tides and earned him the nod. Put it this way: there’s no way Hendo wins that fight under the unified rules, and even PRIDE’s “we judge fights as a whole” policy couldn’t save this decision from heavy scrutiny.
And then there’s the Yuki Kondo fight. I will go to my grave believing that Kondo beat Dan Henderson. He outwrestled him for stretches, touched his face up with punches and palm strikes, and had Dan openly frustrated by the 3rd round.
This brings me to an important point. Whenever there’s an unpopular decision, fans blame the judging, but there’s also a part of them that blames whatever fighter “undeservedly” got the nod. Thus, the “Decision Dan” moniker. As though it were somehow Darren Elkins’ fault that all three judges decided to turn in an atrocity of a scorecard and leave poor Michihiro Omigawa with his dick waving in the wind. As though it’s Dan’s fault that he’s gotten the nod a few times in fights that could have gone either way. It isn’t. The guy just finds a way to win, even when he’s not at his best. That’s the mark of a great fighter.
Where do I stand on Dan Henderson? It’s a tough one to figure. He has 8 losses, but he could easily have 11 or 12. He’s so inept at positional grappling that it’s one of the first things I think of when his name comes up. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him throw a punch to the body, which would be a wonderful way to set up even more KO’s than he already has. He’s been dropped numerous times throughout his career, even by journeymen like Akira Shoji. His gas tank seems to run on “E” after 10 minutes of hard fighting (which is partially responsible for his grappling follies). He’s been known to swing wild at times, and leave himself exposed. He has some big flaws.
Hang on though. He’s emphatically, and often in riveting fashion, beaten a who’s who of fighters from 3 weight classes (Who else can say that?). He has one of the most powerful right hands the sport has ever seen, and he has absolute faith that he’ll be able to put that right hand on someone and render them motionless, no matter who it might be. He’s a classic example of a smaller man that’s always able to find success against the big boys (due, in some order, to the hardness of his head, the angles that he throws his bombs from, and of course, the power), and he has a truly unique resume. He’s just a confident dude, and more often than not, he backs it up with results.
I’m not a fan of rankings. I’m cool with them if they’re somewhat vague, like “So-and-so is a top ten welterweight” or “What’s-his-nose is clearly the #1 contender at heavyweight.” But once you start getting into the “He has 3 quality wins, and he only has 2, but the guy with 3 quality wins beat one of those quality guys after he was coming off of a recent lobotomy, so his 2 quality wins are actually better, so he should be #5″ and blah blah blah wakka wakka wakka … it just makes me want to drop acid and wander into oncoming traffic.
But. BUT. If Dan Henderson beats Jon Jones at UFC 151, he HAS to be considered as a top 5 all time great fighter, in any weight class. He just does. Mind you, I don’t think he’s beating Bones. In fact, I think he’s going to get the kibosh put on him. If and when that happens, though, he’ll still hold a special place in history.
Dan Henderson isn’t the greatest fighter ever. At this point in MMA history, it’d be hard to give anyone that designation. Jon Jones appears to be headed in that direction. Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, Junior dos Santos, Chuck Liddell, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Matt Hughes … these are all acceptable names to mention in any “greatest fighter ever” discussion. But so is Dan Henderson’s. And for an undersized light heavyweight who’s put a hurtin’ (almost solely based on his punching power) on a Hall of Fame’s worth of great fighters, that’s pretty damn good.