Eleven years into a fighting career, Dan Henderson takes improvement in bits and pieces.
“It’s just a matter of who’s in front of me and what my game plan is, and that’s kind of the things I focus on for those few months,” Henderson tells MMAWeekly.com. “There’s so many things in MMA that need improving that it’s hard to get to everything at once, so I think it’s good to take one fight by one fight and improve on certain skills.”
His impending battle with Rich Franklin at UFC 93 has been a fan dream ever since the two were champions in rival organizations. No title is at stake, however, and both fighters have options at middleweight or light heavyweight. It’s just another tough fight on a road the 38-year-old former Olympian sees himself walking for another two years, give or take.
“I guess just whatever challenge is set in front of me,” says Henderson on what keeps him going. “I’m motivated, and I’m pretty excited about this fight.”
He says the two were originally scheduled to meet in mid-2008, though earlier, a source put it at UFC 88.
“There was nothing ever signed,” says Henderson. “There was an offer that was out there, and for whatever reason, he had just got done fighting, and he didn’t want to step in on short notice. Both of us would have been on short notice. I think this is a little bit better, the way it worked out. The fans get a little bit more to look forward to.”
In a recent training session, Henderson is working on getting around the beanpole that is middleweight Cyrille Diabate. He catches kicks and returns fire with his big right hand before slipping to Diabate’s right side, locking in a clinch. The French fighter keeps him honest with a lot of kicks to the inside leg and body, much like Franklin did in his last fight against Matt Hamill.
At the other side his Team Quest gym in Temecula, Calif., “The Ultimate Fighter” season 8 alum Krzysztof Soszynski barks orders and leads a group of fighters through conditioning drills. Pride and UFC vet Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou works the clinch alongside up-and-comer Lew Polley.
Henderson sees a technical battle ahead of him on Jan. 17. Though he’s sometimes been known to swing wilder than many of his original Team Quest teammates, Henderson can also play a conservative, methodical game that grinds out opponents. His wrestling base clearly stands out as an advantage, but he’s got to get close before that becomes a factor. Franklin has often punished those who stay too long at range.
“He seems to be right up there,” says Henderson of Franklin’s stand-up abilities. “He can throw some good straight punches, and he’s got some good looping overhands and hooks too. He looks like he’s got some power; he’s knocked some guys out. He’s obviously not as skilled on his feet as Anderson Silva, but I think he’s right up there, very dangerous on his feet.”
Henderson doesn’t give much weight to his advantage on the mat.
“He’s not going to outwrestle me, but this isn’t a wrestling match,” he explains. “It’s a matter of putting everything together. It’s a matter of putting your strikes in with your wrestling and using one to set up the other.”
Like Franklin, he has been displaced by Silva at middleweight. As the fight was signed, the two decided to face each other at light heavyweight, somewhat of a relief for the former Pride champion. In his earlier career, he fought many bigger men, and never felt small doing it.
“I don’t like to cut weight if I don’t have to,” says Henderson. “I’ve never felt that – and maybe it’s just a mental thing – but I’ve never felt like I’m the smaller guy out there when I’m fighting. I’m out there trying to beat him up just the same and I’ve never felt weak and that I couldn’t do what I wanted to do with my opponents, no matter how big they were.”
But even with the extra pounds, he knows the path to a title shot at 205 isn’t any clearer.
“I think it’s probably even more mucked up than ever,” Henderson says. “Forrest beat Quinton, and Rashad beat Forrest, and Quinton just beat Wanderlei. There’s a ton of fights out there before you even get to a title fight. It’s not one guy that beat a bunch of other guys and is sitting in the number two spot because he lost, (and you) beat him and get a title shot. That’s not the way it is now.”
This fight, however, lays the groundwork for a championship bout. Because of that, it’s Henderson’s number one priority.
“I need to beat Rich Franklin, then who knows,” he says. “I’ve got a couple good years left in me, so hopefully I’ll get a title fight before then.”
Henderson’s road could be long or short on Jan. 17, but he plans on seeing it to the end.
“There’s a good chance of it being a decision,” he predicts. “I think I’ve got a better chance of stopping him – from track records, I’m talking about – than he does of stopping me. Cause he’s not going to submit me, and I’m not gonna get knocked out.”