UFC 161: Factgrinder - The Wrestling of Dan Henderson

USA TODAY Sports

In the main event of UFC 161, Dan Henderson will face off against "Suga" Rashad Evans. Coach Mike's Factgrinder is here to tell the real story of Dan Henderson's amateur wrestling career.

Remember to check earlier entries in the Factgrinder story stream for a richer discussion of amateur wrestling's various divisions and classifications.

You may have noticed that sometimes wrestlers in MMA use their resumes to barrage readers with a string of achievements and awards longer than the title of a Habsberg aristocrat. This curriculum vitae carpet bombing usually aims to mislead. After all, if a wrestler claims an endless litany of important sounding credentials, then he's naturally one of the preeminent matmen of his generation...right?

Wrong!

Dan Henderson turns this convention on its head. His wrestling resume adopts the "more is better" approach, but what is meant to dazzle with quantity, ironically obscures the true significance of a remarkable wrestling career. Hendo gives us a forest when a few trees would do the trick. Below I've taken Hendo's list of wrestling accomplishments supplied by his UFC profile, and explained the relative importance of each.

Hendo's UFC Wrestling Resume

1992 and 1996 United States Olympic Greco-Roman Wrestling team member

Well these are the big ones. I'll go into detail as to the particular significance of making a U.S. Greco Olympic team below. Pay attention to the dates as they provide some insight into just how long Hendo has been around. In his 1992 Olympic appearance, Dan competed directly against three European countries which no longer exist. Think about that for a second. Russia did not compete in the Olympics as an autonomous country until 1996. In 1992, they hadn't yet invented Turkmenistan.

1988 USA Junior Freestyle champion

The FILA Junior age group accommodates 18-20 year olds. A U.S. national championship at this competition level is a heck of an accomplishment. However, sitting next to two berths on Olympic team, a junior national title looks pretty insignificant. We should notice that this is a freestyle, not a Greco championship, and probably the apogee of Henderson's wrestling career in a wrestling style involving leg attacks.

1988 USA Junior Greco-Roman champion

The same as above, only Greco, not freestyle.

3-time USA Senior Greco-Roman champion

For most anyone else these three championships alone would constitute a fantastically successful Greco-Roman career. I've written earlier that a U.S. national championship in an Olympic style alone should be enough to claim status as a "world class wrestler". Once again, we need to keep in mind that Dan made two Olympic teams. To make an Olympic team one must win the Olympic trials, and the Olympic trials are almost invariably tougher tournaments than mere national championships.

3-time USA University Greco-Roman champion

National University championships are nice things to have. In earlier Factgrinders I've analogized the relationship between Senior championships and University championships to pro wrestling's WWE championship and Intercontinental championship. When you think of the Ultimate Warrior, the first thing that comes to mind is not his reign as the Intercontinental champion, if you catch my drift.

1990 USA FILA Junior World Greco-Roman champion

I would have included this just below the Olympic teams entry. Some describe the FILA Junior World Championship as the second toughest championship in the world next to the Senior World Championships/Olympics. While this is almost always not true, a Junior World Championship comes with great prestige, and usually portends big things in the future of the champion wrestler's international career.

1990 Amateur Wrestling News Freshman All-American

Here, we have a random NCAA accomplishment on the list. I'll discuss Hendo's collegiate career below. Inclusion on the AWN Freshman All-American team, while a huge deal for most wrestlers, probably does not merit a place on Hendo's resume.

1990-91 U.S. Olympic Festival champion

I have not a clue what this is. The U.S. Olympic Festival championship does not exist anymore and has not for a while. I will go out on a limb and speculate that while these championships sound impressive, the reality involves more sizzle than steak.

1991 and 1993-94 University Nationals champion

Um...I think these were already included above. Weird

1993-94 U.S. Nationals champion

Dan has already listed national championships in three different age groups, and two different styles of wrestling. To go and list two more national championships, absent of any further description, offers nothing but confusion. Was this even a national championship in wrestling? Who the hell knows?

The Factgrinder version of Dan Henderson's Wrestling Career

If I had the job of compiling elegant and accurate wrestling resumes for UFC profiles, I would include the following entries for Hendo.

  • Two time U.S. Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling.
  • Two time U.S. world team member in Greco-Roman wrestling.
  • Junior World Champion in Greco-Roman wrestling
  • 2000 Pan American Champion in Greco-Roman wrestling.
I included the last one not simply because a Pan American championship carries the weight of a great international championship. It can, depending on whom Cuba has at your weight, as they represent the only other Greco power in the Western Hemisphere (Canada also produces good wrestlers, but usually only in freestyle). In Hendo's case he had to beat Cuba's Luiz Mendez, the reigning world champion at that weight. This simultaneously stood as Dan's greatest wrestling victory, and his final international wrestling competition. His days as a Greco wrestler ended later that year at the Olympic Trials for the Sydney games. There, Dan finished fifth in line for the Olympic spot, one place behind current UFC light heavyweight colleague Chael Sonnen.

Outside the win described above, and despite his Junior World Championship, Hendo's four trips to the world stage did not yield great success against the world's best. Dan never came terribly close to medaling at his two world championships and two Olympics.

Dan's two Olympic appearances shine brightly as the crown jewels of his wrestling background. From the time he started fighting, they lent him credibility as a combat athlete and on Saturday Night Mike Goldberg will inevitably make some confused allusion to them. The legend of Dan Henderson the fighter anchors itself in the foundation of Dan Henderson the Olympic wrestler. We all appreciate Hendo's Olympic status, now we just need to better understand it. To do that we need to learn a bit more bout the United States Greco-Roman wrestling team.

This century has seen the USA Greco-Roman wrestling program rise to unprecedented heights, and descend to its lowest point in a generation and a half. In 2000, Rulon Gardner beat the immortal Alexander Karelin, Greco's greatest of all time, and earned the United States its first and only Greco gold medal in a non-boycotted Olympic games. Additional medals from Matt Lindland and Garrett Lowney combined for the best U.S. Olympic Greco performance ever. Things continued to look up in the following years when Americans earned three more individual world championships (Gardner again, Dremiel Byers and Joe Warren), along with an impressive number of additional top- three medals. This run of success culminated in 2007 when the stars aligned in the most pick your jaw off the floor, poop your pants shocking way imaginable; the United States won a team world championships in Greco-Roman wrestling. The 2007 team, in my humble opinion, will always claim the crown of the single greatest American sporting achievement that nobody has ever heard of.

The wheels began to fall off the American Greco program shortly after that. The stream of medals slowed to a trickle, and then stopped altogether. The U.S. failed to bring home any medals in the 2010 and 2011 Greco World Championships, then thudded audibly on the rock bottom when the entire team was very hastily bounced out of the London Games.

So how good is American Greco, and what does it mean to make the Olympic team? Team USA Greco on average is not as good as the team in 2007, neither is it as bad as the team in 2012. The truth lies somewhere in the middle. The USA runs a respectable Greco program, not among the world's very best, but one where most national team members, on a really good day, could make a run and threaten for a medal in a world championship.

While American Greco wrestlers, relative to international competition, are not generally as good as their countrymen on the freestyle side, the myth that the American Greco team consists only of Freestyle cast offs has been repeatedly refuted. In the last couple of years two wrestlers who were unable to take the U.S.'s number one spot in Greco were able to almost immediately ascend to the top spot after switching to freestyle. Cole Konrad, before his MMA career, made a notably underwhelming run on the Senior Greco circuit after some far superior results in post collegiate freestyle.

Wrestlers make the U.S. Greco Olympic team not because they aren't good enough for freestyle, but because they possess some sort of ultra-specialized, almost savant-like understanding of how Greco works. I know more about wrestling than most, and the workings of Greco still remain fairly obscure to me. How the hell are you supposed to wrestle someone if you can't grab their legs or trip them? Apparently there is a way, and some people just get it. This is why you see wrestlers who achieve levels in Greco that outpace their performance in scholastic and freestyle by huge margins.

Dan Henderson was one such wrestler. As a collegiate wrestler at Cal State Fullerton and Arizona State he was good but didn't set the world on fire. He only qualified for one NCAA tournament, where he only won one match. His level of NCAA Division 1 wrestling success is very comparable to that of Stipe Miocic who will fight in the bout immediately before Hendo's on Saturday. Stipe, while at Cleveland State, was a one-time Division 1 national qualifier as well.

Keeping in mind his level of success in college, you might be shocked to realize that the summer before Hendo took the mats for his lone and forgettable appearance at an NCAA tournament, he competed in Barcelona at the Olympics. Dan stood atop the American ladder in his weight class in Greco, meanwhile he finished just inside the top 16 in the NCAA.

Dan just "got" Greco - he always did. You might even call him a prodigy. In 1984, when his opponent at UFC 161, Rashad Evans, was only five, a 14-year-old Henderson was representing the USA on the elite Senior level in Greco-Roman at his first Pan American Championship. There Hendo placed second.

I mention the last factoid to close with this last even more interesting factoid: next year, if Hendo still inhabits a UFC roster, he will have enjoyed a career at the very highest levels of combat sports that will have lasted an even thirty years.

Factgrinder Final Analysis

Dan Henderson, domestically, was the dominant Greco-Roman wrestler of his generation at his weight. On the international level, he showed great potential and had flashes of brilliance, but was never able to put it all together and bring home a world-level medal.

Remember, however, that his Greco-Roman skills vastly outstrip his ability in other styles, so nobody should be surprised when he appears human in a wrestling situation non-native to Greco.
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