In the past few months, my hardcore MMA friends and I have developed a sort of child-like adulation for Dan Henderson. We become giddy school girls for his fights. We make outrageous, Chuck Norris-esque jokes about his escapades inside and out of the cage. He brings out a the joy in us like it’s Christmas morning, and we are eyeballing the Red Ryder B.B. gun under the tree. We may have even been guilty of chanting "U.S.A." for a few seconds at the bar on Saturday, and I’ll admit that not all that chanting was in jest.
We can’t be the only MMA fans like this. Why is it that he, more than any other fighter in the past several months, has awakened my fandom to a new level? After all, there are plenty of viscerally exciting fighters out there (I’m looking at you, Benson Henderson). My speculation is that Dan’s fighting style, coupled with his attitude, reminds us why we (perhaps secretly) started watching the sport in the first place—we want to see a fight.
When I say Dan reminds us he's in a fight, I mean that I have no problem transplanting his wars with Fedor or Shogun into the parking lot, and it seems entirely believable. He throws punches with an urgency that if he doesn't hurt his opponent at that very moment, the other guy is going to pull out a broken beer bottle (or worse yet, the cops will come before the deed is done). His aggressive, wild, ground and pound-like in the third round of the Shogun fight-reminds me of an after-school brawl. Dan fights with a childlike abandon that I truly appreciate. Another example: think of his TKO sequence against Fedor. Not many fighters would throw a punch from the position he did (behind his opponent, in a scramble), but Dan's aggression and vigor won him the fight. It's no surprise that we don't hear Dan describing a detailed game plan. While I'm sure he actually has a strategy going into fights, his common answer of "I'm going to get in there and beat him up," really shines through in his cage time.
We can contrast Dan's fighting style to other, less fan-pleasing fighters. While I love watching GSP for all his technical brilliance and cerebral style, he reminds me why I love the sport of MMA, not that I love watching a fight. Would GSP have attacked Shogun so voraciously at the expense of cardio or position? Doubtful. Would GSP have thrown a punch in the position that Dan did against Fedor? GSP likely would have secured his position. Again, there's nothing wrong with this in my eyes-but GSP doesn't touch on something in the depths of my fandom.
I can think of a number of other fighters that seem to have the same effect on me: BJ Penn, Nick Diaz, Fedor. The abandon of their attack, along with their willingness to fight in any situation remind me that I'm watching a dangerous game that, while sport, is still the most primal form of competition.
With the recent NY lawsuit filed by the UFC, we are constantly being told, and we tell others, that MMA is a sport. I entirely agree with this; it's a sport that deserves more recognition and respect. But I think we're lying to ourselves if we don't admit that we are innately drawn to MMA for precisely the type of battle we saw on Saturday-a blood and guts fight. I love watching Rashad Evans perfectly time a takedown mixed with striking; I'm in awe of Dominic Cruz's unique boxing and footwork; Damian Maia's technical wizardry never ceases to amaze me. Still, there is something missing there. I forget that I'm watching one man in a very primal way try to beat the other man. Dan reminds me I'm watching a fight, and for that, I appreciate the costs he pays for my entertainment.
I'm sure my friends and I will turn into a giddy group of school girls next time Dan fights. During his walkout we'll make outlandish statements that only build up his persona ("I bet Hendo is drunk right now" or "You think he knows who he's fighting?"). And when he fights, we'll quickly be reminded why we love the sport so much, even if we're afraid to admit it.