What is left for a 43-year-old fighter to prove when he’s won multiple championships against the greatest mixed martial artists in the world?
Dan Henderson isn’t a title contender anymore. Far from it. He’s generously ranked No. 8 in the UFC light heavyweight division despite consecutive losses to Vitor Belfort, Rashad Evans, and Lyoto Machida. His last victory, against UFC Fight Night 38 opponent Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, came over two years ago when Henderson still had clout within the UFC.
The last two years, however, don’t embody Henderson’s illustrious MMA career.
Somewhat of a late-bloomer, the former Olympic wrestler’s first recorded MMA fight came in 1997. He defeated Brazilian superstars Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Renato Sobral, and Renzo Gracie in the following years on his way to unprecedented success with PRIDE. “Hendo” won the promotion’s middleweight and welterweight titles; the latter by way of the 2005 PRIDE Welterweight Grand Prix tournament, the former, by knocking out longtime middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva in the last middleweight title bout in the promotion’s history.
Before re-upping with the UFC for a third time, Henderson scored the victory of a lifetime in knocking out MMA legend Fedor Emelianenko in July 2011. That, in many ways, was the peak of Henderson’s career. He defeated Rua four months later in a match one of the greatest in UFC history, but never fully recovered.
UFC Fight Night 38 won’t just be the rematch to 2011’s Fight of the Year, it may be Henderson’s last in an Octagon.
With athletic commissions around the world banning testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), a treatment Henderson ushered into MMA, questions surround fighters and their abilities going forward. Henderson is one of a minority who asked for therapudic-use exemptions (TUE), along with Chael Sonnen and Vitor Belfort, before competing. Recently, the Nevada State Athletic Commission and The Comissao Atletica Brasileira de MMA banned the substance and its treatment. The Rua fight will be Henderson’s last in the UFC with a TUE.
What UFC Fight Night 38 means to Henderson relies on whether he can legitimately compete without TRT. A loss to Rua and his future in the UFC is undeniable. Dana White’s brevity in denouncing former users only means that he won’t wait for Henderson to fulfil his six-fight contract. If Henderson can’t win any of his last four fights with a TUE, what chance does he have without it?
Sunday night’s main event may be Henderson’s last on the big stage, but his career is not over. Various promotions will jump at signing the MMA veteran, regardless of four consecutive losses and they may be more forgiving of TRT needs.
If Henderson wins over Rua, his following fight will be scrutinized as it will be his first without an exemption. To some, a substance-free victory would serve as proof that victories over Rua, Emelianenko, Sobral, and Nogueira were justified. But it’s not like Henderson needs that kind of recognition. His track record speaks for itself.
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