Henderson discusses light heavyweight title shot at UFC 151
Dan Henderson challenges Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title on Sept. 1
Henderson is a three-time world champion but the younger Jones is favored
Fans of Henderson (42 on Friday) want him to put the "cocky" Jones in his place
He's a three-time world champion and at one point was a beltholder concurrently in two mixed martial arts weight classes. Before that he was a two-time Olympian wrestler. He's won 29 fights in a 15-year MMA career, during which he's not even once been knocked out. His list of conquests includes fighters renowned enough to be known just by their first names: Fedor, Wanderlei, Vitor, and so on.
As if all of that weren't enough, we now find out he's also a magician. He can't saw a woman in half, pull a rabbit out of a hat or perform three-card Monte sleight of hand, but he's recently done the most remarkable trick of all: a disappearing act.
Dan Henderson will step in the octagon with light heavyweight champion Jon Jones for the main event of UFC 151 on Sept. 1 in Las Vegas. But to hear some fans and even media talk, you'd think "Bones" were performing as a solo act. The most active online discussion of late regarding the 205-weight class: Would it be Lyoto Machida or "Shogun" Rua who next gets to challenge Jones? Even one of Henderson's friends and former training partners, Chael Sonnen, has announced a move up from middleweight and begun angling for a shot at the 25-year-old manchild Jones.
And off in the shadows stands Henderson, largely unnoticed.
Sure, Jones has so dominated everyone he's faced that it's easy to overlook his opposition, no matter how stout. And sure, Henderson turns 42 on Friday and, as superhuman as it might be to be competing at such a high level at his age, he's not faster than a speeding bullet and cannot leap tall buildings at a single bound. But, boy, that overhand right of his remains more powerful than a locomotive. Overlook it at your own peril.
This was the jumping-off point for our conversation when -- abra cadabra -- "Hendo" appeared out of thin air last week for a "Five rounds with ..." chat.
SI.com: Jon Jones has called you a "one-trick pony." I bring that up not to instigate some back-and-forth name calling -- your buddy Chael Sonnen has that covered, and besides, Jones also said some nice things about you before gift-wrapping the "one-trick pony" soundbite for us media rabble rousers. But I mention the quote because your wrestling credentials as a two-time Olympian always seem to take a back seat. It's not just Jones. Other fighters and media folks, when talking about Dan Henderson, tend to focus only on that big overhand right. Why do you think that is?
Henderson: I guess it's because that's the thing I use to finish fights most of the time. The wrestling is invaluable as well, but it's not what people see when the fight gets finished.
SI.com: Jones actually did have something to say about your wrestling in that interview I just mentioned. Here's what he said: "When you put Dan Henderson against a guy who can wrestle with him, you gotta throw his wrestling out the window. I'm the guy who wrestled in junior college. He's the guy who wrestled in the Olympics. If he gets taken down by a junior college kid, that's not gonna look too cool." So Dan, can Jon Jones wrestle with you?
Henderson: I've been taken down in MMA fights by guys who have never wrestled. We're not in a wrestling mat. If we were to strap on the wrestling shoes and get on a wrestling mat, I'd beat him up. But that's not what we're doing. You use your wrestling to get in a good position, and work off of your wrestling. It's something I feel I've used very well in my career, but at times I've been a little too anxious to knock a guy out and left myself open to being taken down by someone who'd never wrestled. It's part of the sport.
SI.com: Let's talk about another way in which you've been overlooked. There's been this big argument among fans and even media over whether it should be Lyoto Machida or "Shogun" Rua who gets the next shot at Jon Jones. Do you think maybe people are missing a key step here? Did you ever feel like saying, "Hello, my name is Dan Henderson, and those Brazilian dudes might be vying to fight me?" Or do you prefer to just sit in the shadow?
Henderson: That stuff really doesn't bother me. I don't pay much attention to it. It doesn't affect anything as far as my fight goes and in my mind. I'm not taking it personally. It is what it is. He's the champ right now, and sometimes people get ahead of themselves. I guess it adds a little fuel to the fire.
SI.com: It's easy to overlook a Jon Jones opponent, actually, because no one who has fought him to this point has given him much of a fight. What have they all done wrong?
Henderson: Jones is a tough guy to fight. Sometimes it just comes down to a matchup of styles. I feel like I've got a great style to fight Jon Jones. He'll have to deal with my wrestling, and I know I hit harder than he does. It's a matter of fighting my fight, not his fight.
SI.com: Does "fighting my fight" mean moving forward and putting pressure on Jones, which is something past opponents haven't done?
Henderson: Yeah, I've got to get close enough to him where I can punch him. If I stay on the outside where he can hit me and I can't hit him, that wouldn't seem like a winnable fight for me.
SI.com: So if you had to pick out one thing about Jones that poses the biggest challenge for you, would it be that 747 wingspan?
Henderson: Obviously, his reach is going to be a factor. Also, he's unpredictable a little bit. Those are two big things that definitely have helped him beat the guys he's fought.
SI.com: What's the one thing about you that stands above all else and poses the major threat to Jones? The H-bomb?
Henderson: It's pretty well known that I'm going to go out there and try to hit him with both hands, not just the right, and I'm going to try to hit him hard. I do hit hard. It's one of my better assets, I guess. I'm sure that's one thing he's going to be aware of.
SI.com: You've been doing this a long time, in case you haven't noticed. How would you stack up the Dan Henderson of today against the Dan Henderson of the old days? It wouldn't be fair to go all the way back to the beginning, because obviously you were inexperienced outside of wrestling when you started in MMA. But what about the Dan Henderson of, say, the year 2000, when you had a 9-0 record and had just won the Rings King of Kings tournament, beating the likes of "Minotauro" Nogueira and "Babalu" Sobral along the way? How does that guy stack up to the 2012 version of "Hendo," in terms of strengths and weaknesses?
Henderson: I'm sure that, the way I am now, I would kick the ass of the guy from 10 years ago. But it definitely would be a tough fight, a fight I knew I was in. Technically, I've improved so much in every area -- my striking, my submissions, what works really well as a wrestler. I feel like I've developed a pretty good style that's been improving every year that I fight. It's been fun for me to improve like that. So, yeah, I definitely would kick my own ass.
SI.com: By fight night you will have turned 42. Any roadmap in your mind for how long this run will go on? And how might the result of next week's fight factor in?
Henderson: That's a question I don't know the answer to. I feel pretty good, and I'm really motivated to make sure I win this fight. After that, we'll see. I know that if I decide to, I definitely have two years left in me and my body will hold up just fine. So we'll see.
SI.com: In MMA and boxing as well, we often see guys stick around too long. Chuck Liddell is a prime example. But even Randy Couture, who was successful well into his 40s, was eventually taken out by a younger, faster opponent. Often a fighter will say he's still good to go even after the rest of us are seeing evidence to the contrary. Do you consult with others about where they think you stand? Or do you rely on your own gut feeling?
Henderson: I typically have a good group of family and friends and teammates and training partners around me, to talk about stuff like that. It's not just me.
SI.com: You've continued to set new challenges for yourself, in and out if the cage, from training other fighters to running a business. I want to ask you about a guy sponsored by your Clinch Gear company, Jake Varner, who won wrestling gold in the Olympics. Do you see Varner going to MMA? I've read comments by his fellow U.S. Olympian and gold medalist, Jordan Burroughs, that suggest he might try it, but not for a few more years. Any idea about Varner?
Henderson: I don't know about Varner. I haven't really talked to him about it yet. I haven't seen him since the Olympics. But I would more than welcome him into the gym and give him the fast-track on what works and what doesn't work for a wrestler. It all depends on him and what he wants to do. He might want to wrestle for another four years.
SI.com: What's the first thing a wrestler needs to learn when making the switch?
Henderson: How not to get armbarred to triangled.
SI.com: Really? That's the first thing, even before adjusting to the possibility of getting punched in the face while the fight is standing?
Henderson: Well, we're typically tough enough to take the guy down. If we get hit once along the way, we're typically OK. But if you don't learn anything on the ground, you're going to get armbarred or triangled pretty quickly.
SI.com: Varner wrestles at close to 205 pounds, so he might end up in your weight class. Do you imagine yourself being champion long enough for him to work his way up to be a light heavyweight title challenger?
Henderson: No. Even if he commits to it full-time, it's going to take him three years before he gets close to that level. And I probably won't be around at that point.
SI.com: OK, let's get back to next week's fight for one last question. It seems that Jon Jones has gone from being an extremely popular fighter to one who many fans love to hate. You, on the other hand, are more popular than ever. Have you noticed that dynamic playing out in the lead-up to the fight?
Henderson: There's been only one other fight that I had coming up where fans would ask me to really beat up the other guy. It's usually "Good luck against so-and-so." But when I was about to fight Michael Bisping, fans were coming up to me and saying, "Please knock Bisping out." Or "Please shut him up." And with this fight with Jon Jones, it's the same way. I'm hearing the same messages from people. "Please knock out Jon Jones." "Please knock the cockiness out of him." "Please make him show some respect." I haven't heard this kind of talk from fans since the Bisping fight.
SI.com: And that one turned out pretty well for you, if I recall.
Henderson: Yes, it did.
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