There are at least two kinds of greatness in MMA. Greatness that’s current (like Jon Jones), and greatness that’s always been (like Dan Henderson). In a world of immediacy, we warm our hands more quickly to the former.
Henderson now knows the date for his title challenge with Jones, and that’ll be Sept. 1 in Las Vegas. He will celebrate his 42nd birthday just a week prior to the fight. In 1987, Jones was being introduced to onesies while Henderson was reciting lines from “Vision Quest” and winning state wrestling championships at Victor Valley High School in California. The vegetation on his ears is older than Jones.
If nothing else, Hendo definitely has the experience edge over the UFC’s current light heavyweight champion. He’s been at it a long, long time. Yet the books opened in Las Vegas with Jones installed as a 6-to-1 favorite for this UFC 151 clash. The 24-year old Jones would be a huge favorite over anybody in the 205-pound division, so nothing peculiar there. There’s no such thing as even money bet with Jones in 2012, unless he borrowed from Anderson Silva’s flight of fancy and fought his clone. (Ahem).
Yet what is interesting all these months ahead of the fight is that so many people consider it a foregone conclusion that the prodigy will smash the old ax grinder. In fact, the thing is being discussed as inevitable. Forget about odds, Henderson has no shot.
In a game that deals in shaping perception, this becomes the UFC’s task to mend for no other reason than this: it’s hard to generate buzz on a perfunctory matter. Between now and late summer the idea needs to be that Henderson does have a shot. This of course would be best sold as something believable.
And realistically -- why should that be such a tough sell?
Surely over the course of winning simultaneous titles in Pride FC and later taking the 205-pound belt in Strikeforce there should be some love for Henderson here. His list of casualties in the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce -- pan-divisional -- is next to impossible. He was wrecking guys like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Vitor Belfort and Wanderlei Silva during their heydays.
As for his own prime? It’s apparently a dozen-year venture. Henderson knocked out Michael Bisping with that anvil right at UFC 100. Since then he finished Renato Sobral, Rafael Cavalcante and Fedor Emelianenko, and he decisioned Mauricio Rua at UFC 139. He did these things in his late-30s and early-40s. These are feats that, if lost on the media, aren’t necessarily lost on his peers.
Last week on MMA Live, Jorge Rivera had Henderson in his top five pound-for-pound fighters. Daniel Cormier told MMA:30 that he “should be mentioned as one of the greatest fighters of all-time, if not the greatest fighter of all-time, but he’s missing that UFC title. He has to be a UFC champion. I think if he is, Dan Henderson will universally be considered the best fighter of all-time.”
To be considered anywhere near the greatest of all time you’d have to believe Henderson has more than a puncher’s chance to beat the greatest of right now. Yes, Jones’ landslide run through the division trumps Henderson’s legacy in forecasting how things will play out. If Shogun, Quinton Jackson, Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans failed to make Jones appear even remotely vincible, what makes Henderson any different? Nothing, it seems.
Jones is not only destroying opponents, but also our sense of imagination.
Yet the other reason that Henderson is unsung goes back to what Cormier was touching on -- he has been decorated as this sort of fugitive champion in other organizations, but not the one that we store greatness by. He hasn’t made it to the top of any weight class in the UFC.
And at 42 years old -- or any age, really -- Jones looks like a pretty imposing hurdle to get there. Imposing, that is, not unclearable. Henderson’s a guy that fights in squalls and yet has remained a lesson in perseverance for more than a decade. He has a chin, and what he gives up size he makes up for it in leverage, a tangible from his Greco-Roman days. And he has that “H-Bomb” right hand. He’s smart on how and when to deploy it.
Does all of that make for a competitive fight with Jones? Not necessarily. It still feels like a reach, as it will continue to feel until Jones is downsized into something human.
Yet given how long Henderson has sustained his own brand of greatness, it doesn’t feel like a given he’ll lose, either.