By Dwight Wakabayashi
Mixed martial arts legend Dan Henderson has been here before as he prepares to fight Lyoto Machida to stay right in the mix for a shot at the light-heavyweight title.
Henderson’s last fight had similar stakes and was an absolute war with Mauricio Rua some 15 months ago. Many saw that tilt as the Fight of the Year in 2011 and Henderson won that back-and-forth battle in such fine fashion that he secured his spot as the No. 1 contender to the light-heavyweight title.
Jon Jones successfully defended that title over Rashad Evans in April 2012 and Jones vs. Henderson was booked shortly after as the main event for UFC 151 in September nearly one year after his fight with Rua.
Henderson suffered a knee injury in training shortly before UFC 151 and the bout was called off and the event cancelled. Henderson’s injury needed surgery and lengthy rehabilitation and in the meantime, right or wrong, he lost his place as the No. 1 contender in the division.
Now, Henderson finds himself having to face top contender and stylistic nightmare, Lyoto Machida to gain back the chance to fight for the title later in the year. Machida is a tough fighter for anyone to figure out and his elusive style may force the 42-year-old Henderson to chase him around a bit. Not the best recipe for a fading gas tank and that has caused many to pick Machida as the favorite over Henderson at this point in his career.
Henderson spoke with Ariel Helwani of MMAFighting.com recently and he disagreed that Machida’s style will be a problem for him.
“No, I mean I think it’s quite the opposite. A lot of times I’m a bad fight for anybody so, it’s just a matter of who can implement their style and who can fight their fight. He’s one of those fighters who has to fight the way that he normally does, and then he picks you apart and moves around well and if you let him do that he is going to win the fight. So, it’s a matter of me not letting him do that and making him fight my fight.”
That Henderson style of fight is exactly what you saw in the Rua contest and why he is one of the most popular fighters to ever step foot in the Octagon or Pride ring or any other type of combat cage you can name in his storied career.
Henderson is as real and as “old style” as you can get in a fighter, and in my opinion, if he can defeat Machida and go on to win the UFC title, he takes over for me as the G.O.A.T in MMA history. He lost to current G.O.A.T. Anderson Silva in their title fight in 2008, but it was a great fight and his Pride exploits long before Silva came around count for something. We can have that debate sometime later if it comes to play.
Henderson has done it all and beaten the very best in the world, but Machida is an incredibly tough test for him. He is at his best against a guy like Rua, or a Fedor Emelianenko, someone who likes to come in and stand in front of him come hell or high water. Machida is not that guy, and will strike while retreating, as well as make it almost impossible for Dan to take him down. He has frustrated many with that style and Henderson will have to be patient in his approach.
But Henderson has seen it all in his 16-year career, and he prepared the best way he could for Machida’s style.
“I had a couple of guys that move around real well, do a lot of kicks already, and they are both left handed and I also brought in Luke Rockhold, who’s another southpaw that kicks a lot and he’s long so it wasn’t too tough to emulate his style. But the true test is going to be on Saturday.”
This fight has a very high risk for Henderson — one slip and he may never get a shot at UFC gold again. Machida has already fought Jones for the title and Henderson should secure a shot with a win, ahead of youngster Alexander Gustafsson.
Does Henderson feel he deserves a shot at the title if he beats Machida at 157?
“It doesn’t matter, I mean I guess I was right before this and should be after but who knows what’s going to happen until it happens so the only thing I can dictate is how I do in this fight and that’s what I’m focused on.”
He is going to need every bit of his focus this weekend if he is going to beat Machida and get his one last shot at UFC gold.
Dwight Wakabayashi is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report UFC and regular contributor to Sportsnet.ca’s UFC section. Follow him on Twitter @wakafightermma.