Nineteen years ago today, Dan Henderson started his MMA journey the same way Olympic wrestlers of his vintage often did: at a single-night tournament in Brazil. Two weekends ago at UFC 199, it looked like that career made of right hands, sprawls, and fan adoration might have finally found its end two months before his 46th birthday. "I'm not sure what's gonna happen after this fight," Henderson said after taking out part-judoka-part-action-figure Hector Lombard with a gnarly backward elbow. "I'm gonna see what happens, but that could have been the last one of my career."
The audio cut to announcer Mike Goldberg. "If that is the last time, what a way to go out. But you know what, Hendo? We hope it's not, because that man has a lot of fight left in him." In the moment, Goldberg sounded hopelessly tone-deaf: wishing that the oldest fighter on the UFC roster, who's just 3-6 since 2013 and just went out on a high note on the last fight of his contract, might re-up instead of retire? Even after he broached the subject himself? It was the most Mike Goldberg-y thing he could have said.
But then, after the main event made one of Henderson's old victims into the new middleweight champion, everything changed. Within a week, Henderson wondered aloud about whether he should fight another opponent. Now, the mixed martial arts hive mind is entertaining a question that seemed unthinkable two weeks ago: does Dan Henderson deserve the next middleweight title shot?
The answer means reconciling Henderson's circumstances with basic assumptions behind who gets to fight for a title and why. Henderson doesn't have a critical mass of wins that makes him an obvious choice—he's only won two of his last three. And he's not in a weight class that needs to relax its standards to keep the title fight conveyor belt moving either: once full of prey for Anderson Silva, middleweight is arguably the UFC's most interesting division right now. Former champions Luke Rockhold and Chris Weidman, Yoel Romero (currently serving a six-month suspension for a banned substance), and former Strikeforce champion Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza are all vicious and all clustered near the top.
The most compelling reason to give Henderson a title shot is because of the man who actually is at the top: Michael Bisping, the late replacement who knocked out Rockhold at UFC 199 three fights after Henderson's victory over Lombard, is Henderson's most high-profile victim to date. At UFC 100, he caught the Brit circling the wrong way with a grenade of a right hand, then with a cluster bomb of a forearm. It was the highlight of Henderson's second stint in the UFC, and it produced the worst moment of Bisping's career, the punch face he'd never live down.
As long as Bisping's on top, it's Henderson's chance to repeat history with a belt at stake—yesterday, he told Brian Stann that he'd be up for making a Bisping bout his last one. And since it would be Bisping's last chance to rewrite it to his liking, it's a possibility the champ is eager to indulge.
"…I would love to get revenge on [Henderson] before he retires," Bisping told Fox Sports Australia. "That is the only reason for wanting him next because soon he’ll be retired and then after that he can stop using that logo of me unconscious with him floating above me. I know people are going to criticise me and say that’s a cop out but for personal reasons, that one has haunted me for a long, long time."
The only other reason to reshuffle the deck and draw Henderson as the next title contender is as a lifetime achievement award, a bonus for the fights he's already given us. By that standard, maybe Henderson deserves it. His 2011 win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was one of the most brutal, thrilling battles ever fought on canvas. That same year, he knocked out Fedor Emelianenko—the best heavyweight to wear four-ounce gloves—and took the Strikeforce light heavyweight title, all while being a natural 185-pounder. The prologue to that late career renaissance was a past in Pride Fighting Championships, where he became the only fighter to hold two titles at once.
Not that you'd really need to know any of that: just look at Henderson's mushed nose, ears like calcified side-view mirrors, and posture like a tilting tree, and you see a man who's given his life and body to combat sports. (In 2009, the defunct Real Fighter magazine ran a piece about the various and sundry injuries Henderson incurred in his years of wrestling and fighting, from a broken jaw that required two surgeries to a torn ACL in his left knee. The injuries in between could double as an anatomy lesson, and they surely haven't lessened in the seven years since.) He's endeared himself to fans along the way—a laconic, reserved Californian who strikes you more as your dad's tough friend than a professional fighter. You know, as long as you don't look at his ears.
Up until now, Henderson usually came up short when it most mattered in the UFC. In his second go-round with the promotion—a decade removed from his tournament win at UFC 17—he lost title unification bouts against Quinton Jackson and Anderson Silva and won forgettable decisions over Rousimar Palhares and Rich Franklin. After the first fight with Rua in his third tour of duty, he injured his knee weeks out from a light heavyweight title fight with Jon Jones at the ill-fated UFC 151, and never found his old form. He went 3-6 to date, including a pair of knockout losses to Vitor Belfort—both before and after the ban on testosterone replacement therapy, of which Henderson was also a beneficiary—and a one-sided submission loss to Daniel Cormier. He stopped Tim Boetsch, Rua (in a rematch), and Lombard—all good fighters, none superlative when Henderson fought them. And at times, he's looked less like an expert grappler and more like a turtle flipped on its shell, incapacitated by pain that he'd never admit.
Is a history of amazing fights, dashed hopes, and advanced age reason enough to give Henderson a title shot? Seriously considering the possibility means looking at titles not as a contest between top fighters in a division, but as the gold watch you get after you clean out your filing cabinets and cut the cake at the retirement party in the break room. It means forgetting about the aftermath in which Dan Henderson could become UFC middleweight champion, who might actually have to defend the title against all comers as he edges even closer to 50 years old. And it means elevating a veteran for whom fans have a soft spot above a logjam of fighters in their primes, who are presumably not thrilled at the idea that Old Man Henderson could leapfrog them on his way out the door.
Count Souza, the perennially shafted middleweight challenger, among them. "This Dan Henderson campaign is ridiculous," he told Porto do Vale Tudo (as transcribed by Bloody Elbow) about the surge of interest in Henderson as a title challenger. "It's actually funny, because I am next and there are others ahead of him." Elsewhere in the interview, Souza said that viewers "want to see someone who deserves to fight for the title." Like, for example, himself.
But there's a hard reality beneath the idea that Henderson could conceivably fight for the 185-pound belt just as he was ready to hang it all up: deserve got nothing to do with it.
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