Speaking from experience, it's easy to appear foolish when analyzing mixed martial arts. Sport in general lends itself to the unpredictable, but there is, it seems, based on what I’ve come to know about MMA over the last 18 years, a special place reserved on the "And you get paid for this?" rung of the "expert" totem pole when it comes to predicting what’s next in the fistic universe.
For that reason, it can feel at times trifling to make an attempt at context. If anything can ( and does) happen in MMA, it's simple sense to question the necessity of perspective, be it regular divisional rankings or, in this case, suggesting one fighter is better than the rest.
Shut up and enjoy the fights, right? Well, I never bought into that way of thinking. I see value in this sort of discussion, and will try here and now to illustrate that.
Save politics, is there an industry that thrives on embellishment more than sport? MMA observers know this well. So when I tell you that Dan Henderson is the most accomplished mixed martial artist America has produced, please take it for what it's worth. But I’ll assure you at a minimum, I believe it to be true. And I think if you look at everything Henderson has accomplished since he entered the sport in 1997, no American fighter -- not Chuck Liddell, Matt Hughes, Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, Quinton Jackson nor anyone else -- can claim his level of sustained success.
Keep in mind, this is a man with eight losses -- such is the slim margin between triumph and failure in which fighters like Henderson operate. Eight losses. As much as I'd like it to be different, if only because it would deliver an added strain of credibility to the sport, the last two decades have proven MMA isn't a profession that yields perfection. Hardly. That threshold differs sharply from boxing, particularly if a combatant is consistently tested like Henderson has been. Perhaps that changes as the latest crop does their thing. Who's going to defeat Jon Jones? Dominick Cruz looks untouchable at 135 pounds. Frankie Edgar flat out refuses to lose. Who knows, 10 years from now, one of them could be written about in similar tones to this trumpeting of Henderson. But not yet.
So as MMA approaches its 20th anniversary of the UFC era, Henderson, all guts and guile, resides at the top of my American born-and-bred list.
What separates him from some of the decorated fighters I mentioned above?
First, let's deal with his setbacks, because if there's an argument to be made against Henderson, it would be found there. Wanderlei Silva. Ricardo Arona. Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
Misaki and Shields is the pair that should raise some eyebrows. The Misaki fight came four months after Henderson defeated the tough Japanese middleweight and, putting it mildly, he was completely disinterested in a rematch. For that reason, this one is considered by most to be an aberration. Henderson, a two-division champion in Pride, essentially no-showed.
As for Shields, Henderson walked into that fight hampered by neck and back issues. Still, he almost knocked Shields out in the opening round. And maybe it’s worth crediting Shields, who survived an onslaught many fighters could not have.
As for the rest? Well, Henderson is either on equal footing, having picked up wins in other contests, or there’s no shame to be found in losing to Anderson Silva.
Each great mixed martial artist has losses and setbacks to contend with, so in this way there’s hardly a discernible difference between Henderson and the rest of the bunch.
But if you’re looking for an argument in the affirmative, let’s not gloss over the fact that at the age of 41 he has, insofar as names of the vanquished opposition, orchestrated one of his most impressive streaks of his career. Some might say that Henderson’s success at an age better suited for retirement is tainted because he competes under the treatment and benefit of hormone replacement therapy. Without the prescription, would he have romped to similar results? No. He admits as much. Whatever side you come down on, though, it’s indisputable that he’s playing within the rules. So there’s that.
As for the wins and the wars and all the stuff that makes Henderson my choice as the best American mixed martial artist since the sport emerged in the States in 1993, you really can’t do much better. Last Saturday against Mauricio Rua, Henderson displayed everything that makes him terrific. This doesn’t necessarily make him better than Liddell, Hughes, Couture, Penn or Jackson. They all reached the highest level of the sport and delivered similar moments.
In the final analysis, Henderson deserves this recognition because of the fast start to his career; his accomplishments across multiple weight divisions; his record in high-stakes tournaments; the fact that his win-loss record is peppered with consistently grade-A opposition; and his recent successes.
Go ahead and argue that there are American fighters with résumés equal to Henderson’s. Maybe that’s the case. But as best as I can tell, I’ve yet to see one that’s any better.