In 1998, Johnny Cash won a second Grammy for his second album Unchained under the American Recordings label. Despite the win, there was scarce, if any, radio play given to Cash leading up to the win despite the fact he was on his unofficial 3rd career comeback after the critical success of the first American Recordings album in 1994. Yes, Cash’s career was peaks and valleys—plural. When few artists barely get a whiff of a second act in their careers, Cash had lapped them—twice. To celebrate Cash’s success, and comment on the lack of interest from Nashville, producer Rick Rubin took out a full page ad in Billboard magazine with the following caption and photo:
At the same time The Man in Black was collecting Grammys in 1998, Dan Henderson was beginning his MMA career, and capturing the first of a series of accolades for a sport still in its infancy. Fighting twice in one night, Hendo won UFC 17’s middleweight tournament after besting both Allan Goes and Carlos Newton. I’ll say that again: he fought two men in one night and beat them both. In 1998, the UFC was not the promotion it is now, especially from a monetary perspective, and the 27-year old Henderson left to ply his trade in Japan, specifically, the RINGS promotion where he fought until 2000, carving his way through a four-month tournament which saw him ring up wins over Gilbert Yvel, Babalu Sobral, and future UFC/Pride champion Antônio Rodrigo Nogueira.
The Land of the Rising Sun, much like Johnny Cash’s connection to Sun Studios, became home to Henderson as he spent the next six years in Pride FC facing a veritable Mt. Olympus of MMA divinity including Wanderlei Silva, Big Nog, Ricardo Arona, Vitor Belfort, and Murilo Bustamante. The Pride FC stint also allowed Henderson to forge a devastating right hand, fight ender—the H-Bomb. He was more than just a wrestler. In fact, he helped to create the “wrestler with power hands” prototype that guys like Johny Hendricks and Tyron Woodley emulate today. Like Johnny Cash inspiring the punk movement in the 80s, Dan Henderson’s time in Pride FC served to influence a new generation of mixed martial artists, looking to embrace all facets of MMA.
When Pride FC was bought by UFC parent company Zuffa in 2007, Henderson took his left hand, his Welterweight Championship, and his Middleweight Championship and for the first time since 1998, fought stateside, signing with the UFC. Despite a rough start with the promotion, Henderson finished strong with his second stint in the UFC. In his second tenure with the promotion, Henderson won his last three fights, punctuating his time with the company at UFC 100, one of the most watched events in the company’s history, with a second-round knockout of Michael Bisping. To the outside world, this was Henderson’s “Folsom Prison Blues”—the hit for which his is most known, but not necessarily his best.
Despite this success, much like Johnny Cash’s falling out with Columbia Records in the 80s after a more than 20-year long relationship, Henderson and the UFC once again severed ties and Henderson left for greener pastures; this time, to the open arms of one time regional-turned international promotion Strikeforce. In Strikeforce, Henderson went 4-1, capping off his Strikeforce career with a KO of MMA deity Fedor Emelianenko. Yet again, the Zuffa came calling, buying out Strikeforce and absorbing its roster of fighters into the UFC’s promotion. Henderson, however, was on the outside. He had fought the last fight of his Strikeforce contract in spectacular fashion, but it wasn’t guaranteed he would be offered a new contract under the UFC/Zuffa due to a rough negotiating history between him and promoter Dana White. The then, 41 year-old prizefighter ended up finding common ground with the promoter and signing for a third time to the UFC. In his 36th professional MMA fight, and after 5 championship titles and countless numbers of wars against MMA hall-of-famers, Dan Henderson, much like Johnny Cash in his American Recordings era, would craft his masterpiece—a five round, 25 minute war of attrition with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
This is the part of the piece where I have to insert myself. As a fan of both Johnny Cash and MMA, when I give a recommendation to someone looking into either subject, I’m sometimes at a loss, especially considering the dossiers of both men. How does one pick a single work that exemplifies the artist, whether that artist uses fists or guitar chords?
From a personal “favorites” perspective, I would take Johnny Cash’s Live at San Quentin with me to a desert island. It’s one-part church revival, one part political rally, and one part rock concert… but I also know that I have weird taste, so I might recommend a more mainstream, Cashless fan start with the album I Walk the Line.
By the same token, to call out one of Dan Henderson’s performances to an uninitiated MMA fan from his storied career is a tall task. Most MMA fans will point to his match with Michael Bisping as the zenith. It was promoted through The Ultimate Fighter weekly TV series, and it built up to a hero versus heel match where there was a clear delineation in who the audience wanted to win. Plus, it ends in spectacular fashion.
However, my go-to Hendo fight is his second fight with Wanderlei Silva from Pride 32, as it has more than just a spectacular highlight finish against an MMA legend. Because it was the last time Pride came to the US, because it capped off a night of great fights on a great card, because he became the first fighter to simultaneously hold titles in two different weight classes in a major MMA organization, this fight makes my list as a personal favorite form Hendo’s resume. Hendo himself says the same, “I’ve had some great performances, but because of where Wanderlei was at in his career at the time, and the aggressiveness that he brought, and him just being so dangerous, it was definitely a much bigger accomplishment than anything else I’ve done. When people ask me if the Bisping fight is my favorite knockout, well, I enjoyed that one, but it wasn’t my biggest accomplishment by any means.”
What I usually tell MMA converts (my goldilocks pick if you will) is to watch his fight against fellow Pride vet Mauricio Shogun Rua at UFC 139. In the 25 minute match, both men empty themselves until all that’s left are shadows and cheers from the crowd. The level of brawling, striking, and wrestling is good—not great—but the will that both men exhibit, the heart that is left on the canvas, literally, is remarkable.
At one point late in the 4th round of that fight, after 19 taxing minutes in the cage, Shogun hits Hendo with an uppercut from which any normal person would sleep. Hendo stands upright. Shogun backs Hendo into the cage to finish the job, but Hendo lifts his arms to stop the storm. Hendo circles away from the fray and is so completely drained, he stutters in his backpedal, his arms dangling dangerously at his sides. He attempts a takedown to slow the pace, but a wounded Shogun stuffs the shot and both men have to stand. In an instant, Hendo throws a straight right. Shogun wings it away. Both men are upright, but swaying, teetering. Their hands are at their waists, and as they gasp for air, they realize a minute still remains in the round. In that instance, they begin to trade shots.
A war like Henderson/Rua 1 is hard enough to come by once. This weekend, Dan Henderson, amid the clamor for superfights, the chatter of MMA royalty retirements, the debate for advanced PED testing, and the dialogues over fighter pay, steps into the cage for the 40th time in his long career, aiming to finish Rua in a much faster fashion than the decision win he eeked out in their last outing.
I don’t know if this is Dan Henderson’s swan song. At 43, time is what it is, especially in prizefighting. If the book has been written on Dan Henderson, similar to Johnny Cash, that book likely has several volumes—volumes as think as redwoods. What I do know is that every time the MMA community has underestimated Dan Henderson or written him off, with the support of fans or without them, he silences the clatter and caterwauling in very Johnny Cash-like fashion—with the hardware, with the countless encores, and with a wag of the finger that says “Not yet finished.”