Dan Henderson has nothing to prove in mixed martial arts. But that won't stop him from trying.
Henderson, 43, has a rematch with Vitor Belfort this Saturday in the headlining contest of UFC's event in Goiania, Brazil -- some 16 years after the American's hurried yet successful fighting debut there.
Coming off consecutive lackluster performances, Henderson (29-10) steps into the Octagon against Belfort (23-10) knowing another defeat could precipitate his departure from the UFC. Operating on the last fight of his contract, Henderson claims UFC officials are waiting to see how he fares before entering discussions over terms of a new deal. That sounds prudent after Henderson dropped split decisions to Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans.
The UFC is where he wants to be, Henderson said, and he's hoping to sign for four more fights, because winning a belt in the Octagon is "the extent" of his goals at this stage. To do that, he needs to defeat a legion of assassins at 185 or 205 pounds, and odds are long that Henderson would make good on those plans.
Even if he's sincere about feeling as healthy and prepared as he can be since having knee surgery at the end of 2012, there's no guarantee that Henderson can maneuver past Belfort, who's coming off spectacular back-to-back finishes, making this contest a rare bit of matchmaking by the UFC, because winners and losers don't usually square off.
The pair, meeting at 205 this weekend, competed at the same weight in 2006, when Pride Fighting Championships visited Las Vegas for the first time.
"He's more dangerous than he used to be, but I am, too," Henderson said Sunday while traveling from the U.S. to Brazil. "I feel I have more tools I can utilize, and that makes it tougher on him."
Belfort kicks much better than he did seven years ago, though Henderson isn't necessarily concerned about any of that. The former two-division Pride champion expects to break him like he did in Las Vegas.
Henderson's confidence stems from knowing Belfort used anabolic agents for their first fight and still fell short. The "Phenom" claimed over-the-counter supplements were the culprit for a positive test, but Henderson is of the opinion that previous steroid use is the real reason Belfort qualifies for testosterone replacement therapy today.
“That wasn't the case I had,” Henderson said. “I never touched steroids. But I still have low testosterone. I am on TRT so I can't really point fingers too bad, other than the fact that I've never taken steroids and he has. With that being said, I don't really care what he's on or not on -- I'm going to beat him up no matter what. Just like the last time I fought him."
In 2007, Henderson sought and received a use exemption for hormone replacement therapy, and has since fought the majority of his bouts, largely without controversy, while using treatments designed to lift testosterone levels from abnormally low to normal ranges.
After skipping TRT for his previous fight in Winnipeg, Manitoba, because the commission declined to approve a use exemption, Henderson is back on the treatment for the Belfort rematch. The Brazilian commission overseeing the event has required lab work each fortnight during camp, he said. None of this bothers Henderson, who has kept records and undergone tests to “cover my ass” since the start of his hormone program.
Asked if he felt right for this fight because of renewed treatments, Henderson said, "I just feel like I'm back to where I was, and I don't think it has anything to do with that."
Unless something goes unhinged, Henderson’s return to Brazil won’t mimic his experience from 1997. At the time, Henderson was set to travel to Brazil with his friend and teammate Randy Couture, who was also lined up to fight for the first time. Couture, however, got the call from UFC, and made his debut there. The rest is history.
With “The Natural” bowing out of the Brazil Open ’97, super heavyweight wrestler Tom Erikson, a coach at Purdue University, stepped in. Erikson managed two knockouts, including a particularly vicious one in 71 seconds over future UFC champion Kevin Randleman.
Henderson remembers having “fun, but at the same time I was a little nervous,” he said. "I had about two weeks of training or less for MMA. I was just a wrestler, basically."
A little more than five minutes into Henderson’s pro debut, the referee intervened and the American was declared the winner over Crezio de Souza. Fans reacted badly to the stoppage, and Henderson remembers a mob of about 50 people had to be talked off the ledge by Souza and the referee.
"Luckily, the height of the cage walls was about 10 feet high,” Henderson said, “so no one tried to climb over.”
Such was the inclination of Brazilian fight fans at the time. A couple of months after Henderson won twice in one night to kick off his important career, an infamous riot during Renzo Gracie’s fight with Eugenio Tadeu at Pentagon Combat essentially shut down big-time mixed martial arts in Brazil -- until the UFC relit the pilot light in 2011.
More than 16 years since his debut, Henderson can, without sounding silly, boast of being among the most accomplished fighters in the sport. He said the experience has flown by, and there are things yet to do.
"I will continue fighting regardless if I win or lose this fight,” Henderson said. “I'm not done at all."