How does Dan Henderson keep this up? How does he continue to fight at the highest level of mixed martial arts at the ripe old age of 41?
“Very carefully,” Henderson admitted on Wednesday, when he met fans and faced the media, but politely declined to engage in a public workout in San Jose, Calif. just a few days before he’ll make his UFC return against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a light heavyweight title eliminator at UFC 139.
“I don’t feel 41,” Hendo said, then flashed a rye smile. “Well, some days I do. Some days I feel older. But I’ve gotten a pretty good system down where I’m not beating myself up in training and I’m still peaking at the right times.”
Something is working for him. It’s hard to judge Henderson’s recent career resurgence as anything short of remarkable.
After looking very much like a guy not interested in fighting any longer than the first five minutes in a middleweight title bout against Jake Shields last April, he’s bounced back for three straight wins. These days he concedes he’s “not enthused” about cutting much weight, so two of those wins came in the light heavyweight division and the last – his stunning KO of Fedor Emelianenko in July – at heavyweight.
Not only has 2011 cemented Henderson’s legacy as one of MMA’s all-time greats, but it allowed him to be one of just a handful of fighters to return to the UFC on his own terms. After separating with the company in 2009 when they couldn’t come to a financial arrangement, he crossed over to Strikeforce. There, he lost his promotional debut to Shields but rebounded to take the 205-pound title off Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante less than a year later.
When Zuffa, LLC. purchased Strikeforce just a week after Hendo became champion, the stage was set for his triumphant return.
So, what’s his secret?
“Now days, less is more for me,” Henderson said. “I don’t have to beat myself so much in training to prepare for a fight.”
If he manages to defeat Shogun this weekend – where, full disclosure, he’s a slight underdog – Henderson will get the chance at the one prize that’s eluded him thus far throughout his career: UFC gold. It’ll also mean a gargantuan fight against current titlist and next-generation poster boy Jon Jones, which would undoubtedly bring with it unparalleled media attention and a significant payday.
Henderson’s honest about his desire to finish up his business in the sport during the next few years and – aside from a rematch with middleweight champ Anderson Silva – there’s nothing he’d like better than to do it with a UFC championship around his waist, especially if it comes at the expense of the promotion’s seemingly unbeatable 24-year-old penom.
“I think the older I get, the bigger a challenge it is to try to compete with these younger guys,” Henderson said. “That in itself excites me and makes me push even harder. Getting a UFC belt is definitely on the goal list.”