Dan Henderson’s final opportunity to make a run at an elusive Ultimate Fighting Championship title almost ended before it had a chance to begin.
When the 43-year-old signed a new contract with the UFC in January, he knew he was running out of chances to add the final piece to one of the most impressive resumes in the history of mixed martial arts.
It would have to start with a win over former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in March. But Rua almost finished Henderson with a barrage of punches in the first round and floored him again in the second.
Then, Henderson ended Rua’s night — and a three-fight losing streak — with a crushing right hand in the third round.
“It’s nice to knock somebody out and get a win,” Henderson said. “Last year, I had three losses, and to finally get a win against somebody like Shogun was nice. It builds confidence moving forward to the next fight.”
That next fight is tonight at UFC 173 at the MGM Grand Garden, where Henderson enters the cage as a 6-1 underdog to unbeaten top contender Daniel Cormier.
A win probably would put Henderson next in line for a light heavyweight title shot after Jon Jones defends the belt against Alexander Gustafsson later this year. That seemed like a far-fetched scenario after Henderson lost three straight fights in 2013 and was all but out against Rua.
But a dramatic comeback victory, followed by a potential stunning upset tonight, goes a long way.
Especially when combined with Henderson’s resume and popularity. A two-time Olympic wrestler, Henderson was a two-division champion in the defunct Pride Fighting Championships. He then went on to win the Strikeforce light heavyweight belt and knock out legendary heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko.
All that is missing is the UFC belt.
“It motivates me a lot,” Henderson said. “That’s the last goal I haven’t achieved in the sport. It would be nice to accomplish that, and I just want to make sure I give myself every chance to do that. I’m right on the right track.”
Perhaps the most frustrating occurrence on Henderson’s dogged pursuit of the belt happened in late summer 2012 when he had to pull out of a title fight with Jones because of a knee injury.
When Henderson was healthy, he had been passed over in the pecking order, then suffered the three straight losses. Henderson placed part of the blame for the losses on the knee being slow to heal, but says he is healthy again.
Henderson said he probably would have continued fighting even had he lost to Rua, but he could have been knocked so far out of title contention that a final run could have been made unrealistic.
“I think I would have continued to push forward because I know what I’m capable of doing. But I’m glad it worked out that way,” he said through his trademark grin. “It’s always mentally good to have that win, especially coming off the losses. I was bummed out a little by those, but it was very nice to get that confidence back. Not that I lost much confidence, but it’s a good feeling to know you’re still capable of doing things to guys you thought you could do.”
The win was spurred by the unquestioned biggest weapon in Henderson’s arsenal, his powerful right hand.
His wrestling at this stage of his career is mostly used as a defensive tool to ensure the fight stays standing and gives him an opportunity to land the appropriately dubbed “H-Bomb.”
UFC president Dana White says the right hand makes Henderson a threat to beat anyone in the division.
“Odds don’t mean (expletive),” White said. “People have been counting Dan Henderson out for a long time now. I’d lie if I said I didn’t. I’m sure most of (the media) did, too. But he’s got that one thing. That right hand is the equalizer. It can change a fight in a minute, just like it did in the Shogun fight.”
Cormier, also a two-time Olympic wrestler, called Henderson an idol. He sings Henderson’s praises as one of the greatest fighters ever.
But Cormier doesn’t think Henderson’s right hand is going to be responsible for the first loss of his career.
“He thinks he has to knock me out to win, and that’s not enough,” Cormier said. “A puncher’s chance ain’t enough in this sport anymore, man. The game’s evolving. A puncher’s chance just isn’t enough.”
Cormier said he takes special pride in taking his opponents’ best tool away.
“Roy Nelson had a great right hand. Frank Mir had great jiu-jitsu. Josh Barnett had a great leg lock,” Cormier said. “But I take joy in (opponents) walking out of the cage at the end of the fight saying, ‘I never got to use what I’m best at.’ I love nullifying it completely. I love making it seem as if they’re just lost, and that’s what I’m going to do to his right hand.”
The fight is part of a pay-per-view card headlined by a bantamweight title bout between T.J. Dillashaw and champion Renan Barao. The main card starts at 7 p.m.
The four-fight preliminary card airs at 5 p.m. on Fox Sports 1 (Cable 329). The first three fights on the card will stream live on the organization’s Fight Pass platform at 3:30.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.