A lot can happen in 15 years, just ask Dan Henderson. At 41 years of age, the former ASU standout has developed into one of mixed martial arts' premier elder statesman, simultaneously serving as a link to the sport's infancy and a testament to what it has become. Now, after two years of separation, he awaits a third, and likely final, stint in the organization that has paralleled his career.
"It does feel good to realize this is probably where I'm going to end up and finish my career in the UFC," Henderson says, as cheerily as the normally demure fighter can muster. "I'm excited about it, and the fact that they've got a pretty big FOX deal now is even more exciting to me."
Back in 1998, at UFC 17, the youngster had no grasp of the MMA beast that was to come. And how could he? During the dark days of banned VHS tapes and "human cockfighting", no one could have foreseen the rising tide, least of all Art Davie and the entertainment group that sold the dying Ultimate Fighting Championship to Dana White and the Fertitta brothers for a cool $2 million.
With the UFC on fading legs, Henderson departed the fledgling organization for greener pastures, eventually reaching the bright lights of Japan's Pride FC. Over the following eight years, the American would become an icon for a foreign land's insatiable hunger. "This sport was already huge in Japan," he remarked to Clinch Gear. "Regularly forty, fifty, or sixty-thousand fans at every Pride event."
As Henderson blazed a trail to greatness, so to did the forgotten Ultimate Fighting Championship. Halfway across the world, under the direction of new Zuffa leadership, the promotion clawed for every available scrap of legitimacy, eventually emerging as a media-giant for the male demographic. Burgeoned by their newfound status, Henderson's old bosses acquired Pride and pillaged their roster. Suddenly the California native was stateside bound once again.
Yet the atmosphere that greeted Henderson was far different than the one he left. "They had gotten on Spike TV with ‘The Ultimate Fighter'," he recollects. "That blew up the UFC and started making them money rather than losing them money." In the new Zuffa world, Henderson prospered. In less than two years he racked up a litany of notable performances, including two title fights, a stint on "The Ultimate Fighter", and a career-defining knockout-of-the-decade against Michael Bisping. Even now, the memory elicits a sly smile to creep across his face. "There was no question in my mind that I was going to own him that night."
Yet as his star burned brightest, Henderson's relationship with the UFC had seemingly run its course. Following the knockout, the two sides engaged in protracted contract discussions until the fighter balked and signed with rival Strikeforce. "I wasn't satisfied with the offer from the UFC," he flatly stated.
"I just felt that I knew I was worth more, and I should explore other options, so I did."
Two years later Henderson had once again become a champion, capping a dominant Strikeforce run with a stunning heavyweight victory over Fedor Emelianenko, a man widely considered to be one of the greatest fighters to ever live. Left with another expired contract and little to prove in a dwindling organization, "Hendo" felt the time was right to rekindle an old flame. "I don't burn bridges," he explained. "I had no hard feelings (towards the UFC) and didn't take anything personal."
Of course, just like his last go-around, the weathered warrior now finds himself reentering a scene far different than he left it. With a seven-year network deal up-and-running, and the Fox debut collecting an astounding 8.8 million viewers, the UFC's momentum is as self-evident as the battle scars that adorn Henderson's natural scowl.
His career nearing its final chapter, the legend can't help but marvel at the craft he spent a lifetime refining. "The sport's really exploded," Henderson mused, his lips curling into a flicker of a grin. "They've come a long way."