Dan Henderson turned down a fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira to establish a No. 1 contender in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. This shouldn’t have been surprising. And it’s definitely not arrogant, nor anything personal. It’s just that at 41 years old, Henderson isn’t looking to be a stay-busy fighter, and he’s much too wise to be duped by dangling carrots that are being restrung by the hour.
If you’ve listened to him in interviews ranging from recent to fairly old, you know that Henderson wants a title shot, either at light heavyweight or at middleweight. The good news for him is that his wants parlay into the better fact that he has earned a title shot. Nogueira doesn’t have the title. In fact, you’d have had a tough time selling Nogueira as even a barely lateral move for Henderson right now.
Think about it. Henderson has won seven of eight fights, and four in a row in the UFC. He just beat former champion Mauricio Rua at UFC 139 in what many consider the fight of the year. Nogueira has won a single fight in his last three, and that bout was his latest against Tito Ortiz at UFC 140. Ortiz has one victory in last five years, making him arguably the worst fighter on the UFC’s roster. If the judges weren’t squinting at UFC 114, Nogueira could have easily lost the split decision to Jason Brilz, too.
In other words, Nogueira isn’t exactly riding a wave of momentum right now. And beating Ortiz doesn’t nudge him into contention, so how does that put him in the spot of challenging Henderson in a title eliminator?
It doesn’t, really. Henderson was presented with a penultimate fight that suggested equal footing against a guy who really isn’t on equal footing. The idea was to play off the history of the two, with Henderson having lost to Lil Nog in Pride back in 2005. Backstories are fun, but they shouldn’t mess with present fortune. And backstories have nothing to do with a 41-year-old man with no sense of nostalgia.
And besides, Henderson doesn’t like putting on fights that fans aren’t into, and this rematch would be one of them. He also didn’t like the fact that it was proposed as a five-round fight, as he recently said on Clinch Gear Radio.
But it is a funny coincidence that news of Henderson turning down Nogueira came out on the same night that it was announced the UFC was headed back to Atlanta. It was the last time through Atlanta, at UFC 88 in 2008, that Henderson began his quest back into title contention. That’s how long it’s taken him to be in this position. That night, he beat Rousimar Palhares to get the thing back in motion at the improbable age of 38. Having just lost to Quinton Jackson and Anderson Silva in consecutive title clashes, Henderson’s odds of returning to title consideration were long. He was supposed to be entering his twilight.
Yet he went to Ireland and beat Rich Franklin (narrowly) and followed that up by defeating Michael Bisping at UFC 100 in what he thought was a case-making knockout for a second title shot against Anderson Silva. Turns out the UFC didn’t see it that way and, long story short, Henderson felt undervalued enough to defect to Strikeforce (where he became the 205-pound champ).
Here we are at the beginning of 2012, and he’s in the same situation he was in 2009, only slightly enhanced because his position forks into two separate weight classes as opportunity dictates. Much like when he came over to the UFC from Pride in 2007, actually. But while he’s been in this situation before, it’s (very likely) the last time he’ll ever be in such a position again.
Why squander it? Why let Nogueira play with house money while gambling with the idea of losing a title shot forever? And what would be the point of beating up Minotoro, aside from avenging a 2005 loss in Pride?
Henderson was right to refuse the bout and, abiding by Dana White’s famous refrain, to “wait and see what happens” with the Rashad Evans/Phil Davis fight. He’s simply too far along and in too prime a position to play the “why not?” game at this stage of his career. In fact, he already played it once by fighting Rua in his return to the UFC.
For as willing as he usually is to accept challenges that fans would be interested in, his willingness to be patient here is the right play.
There’s no upside in staying busy, but there is in standing still. At least while things sort out.