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UFC 204 Judo Chop - Revisiting Dan Henderson vs Shogun Rua, part 1 of 2

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Connor Ruebusch looks back at Dan Henderson's first fight with Shogun Rua at UFC 139, quite possibly the last great performance of his two decade-long career.

Jayne Kamin-Oncea/Getty Images

(Author's note: This is part one of a two-part piece. Part two will be published on October 7th, 2016.)

Dan Henderson may very well be the greatest American mixed martial artist of all time. He is certainly an all-time great, irrespective of origin. The question of Henderson's lasting legacy has been raised more and more as he nears the end of his career. I don't think that's an accident. When we talk about Henderson's best performances, we invariably look into the past--fights he fought five, ten, or even fifteen years ago. Names like Carlos Newton, Wanderlei Silva, Kazuo Misaki, Vitor Belfort, and Murilo Bustamante. Names that mean something to the history of this sport.

But again, it is the impending end of Henderson's MMA career that has us talking about his legacy as a true legend of the sport. Because, even if we hate to admit it, there is something undeniably romantic about the way Hendo has soldiered on in the face of old age and an increasingly dangerous field of competition. These days the names on his curriculum vitae don't stack up to the greats he spent the first decade-and-a-half of his career beating. Hector Lombard, Tim Boetsch, and Mauricio Rua are, like Henderson, run down, shopworn shadows of their former selves.

But nowadays, every time he fights--every time--Dan Henderson is the underdog. He should not still be fighting. Calls for retirement are commonplace. It has taken Henderson three brutal years--including the first three knockout losses of his career--to finally start talking retirement himself. And yet, now and again, he finds a way to win.

For fight fans, those glimmers of greatness are powerful medicine. But for many, Henderson seems a joke, perhaps more now than ever now that he has received a title shot despite winning only three of his last nine fights. But let's divorce ourselves from the politics of MMA for a moment. Instead of quibbling over whether Dan deserves his shot or not, let's celebrate the mountain of a career on which he stands.

For my money, there is no better way of doing that than by looking back at Henderson's first meeting with Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 139. It was the fight of the night, and fight of the year. More importantly, it was the last great performance of a truly great fighter.

FROM DECISION DAN TO HENDO

Once upon a time, the man now known by the affectionate nickname "Hendo" was called "Decision Dan" by fans, a fighter renowned not only for the number of dull decisions on his resume, but for the close and controversial nature of those decisions.

Every fighter goes through phases, but rarely are they as clear-cut as Henderson's. In the earliest stage of his career, he was a wrestler first and foremost. Over time, he developed a knack for knockouts, but these were not typically the laser-guided right hands we know and love. Rather, Henderson was using his wrestling to create scrambles, and then clubbing the other guy on the chin while he struggled to right himself. In some respects he relied on a brawl breaking out and when it didn't, or when the opponent was a better brawler, he would lose or just barely scrape by.

It was Henderson's fight with Michael Bisping--a pairing that will soon be repeated at UFC 204--which saw him enter the third phase of his career, and cemented him as a fan favorite. Henderson went from the ninth non-unanimous decision of his career against Rich Franklin, straight to melting Michael Bisping, and that was that. The transformation was complete. From Decision Dan to Hendo; from dull spoiler to fan favorite.

Henderson used his jab and his kicks to keep Bisping guessing. He corralled Bisping into the path of his right hand rather than relying on speed alone to land it. And he kept on the pressure, relying on an uncanny ability to avoid damage to keep him safely in his most effective range. What followed was arguably the greatest era of an already great career. After Bisping, Henderson would go on to very nearly stop the nigh-unstoppable Jake Shields, before putting together a four-fight win streak, besting Renato Sobral, Rafael Cavalcante (then the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion), a faded but still dangerous Fedor Emelianenko, and finally, Mauricio Rua.

What can I say about the Shogun fight? It has already topped many lists as the greatest UFC fight of all time. Two legends of the Pride era of MMA, both a little past their physical primes, clashed in the UFC's first ever five-round non-title fight in the main event of UFC 139. The first three all belonged to Henderson, and they were beautiful rounds. The style that finished Bisping had been perfected, but Dan was already 41 years old, and those would be the hardest 25 minutes of his entire career. You might say those first three rounds were the last great rounds of Henderson's career.

SET-UPS

Watching it now, it's almost mind-boggling how intelligent Henderson's set-ups were at UFC 139. There was nothing particularly complex of dazzling about the way that Henderson worked his way into position and exposed his opponent, but it was a far cry from the "shuffle, shuffle, right hand" approach that we have now come to expect. There is no better example of Henderson's craft than his most famous combination, put to artistic use against the chin of Shogun Rua.

1. Eager to get some momentum, Shogun comes forward.

2. As he jabs, Henderson slips and sends out a jab of his own. Both men miss.

3. Instead of abandoning the jab altogether, however, Henderson turns it into a useful guide. He grabs the top of Shogun's head.

4. And, seeing Shogun's tight guard, leads with a kick to his undefended inner thigh.

5. After landing the kick, Henderson advances that foot, moving forward and dropping his weight . . .

6. . . . right into a dynamite cross to the jaw.

You've seen this set-up before. It is, essentially, the same combination that Henderson used to KO Bisping at UFC 100. It is often called the "Quest combo," because it was used by men like Randy Couture, Matt Lindland, and other prominent members of Team Quest in addition to Henderson. It is brilliant in its simplicity. Not only does the kick distract the opponent, drawing his attention down just as the right hand is zooming in over the top, but it disguises the forward step that makes the right hand possible, and powerful. When it lands, clean, that inside leg kick can also destabilize the opponent, momentarily immobilizing him. In this case, it also seems to have given Shogun the impression that Henderson is not in range to follow up. Note how Rua begins to lower his hands and peek over his guard just as Henderson is lining up the right hand: he feels his left hand pulling away, and figures that Henderson's kick will have left his feet planted too far away to do anything else. Oops.

What makes this sequence special, however, is that left hand. It probably seems crazy now, but Dan Henderson used to have an educated left hand. It was downright learned. Not only would Hendo jab and hook with his lead, but he would use it to measure and control his opponent's position--Anthony Johnson, a similarly gifted puncher, uses his lead hand much the same way today.

In this sequence, both fighters miss with their jabs. As I and many others have said countless times before, however, the usefulness of a jab is not limited simply to whether or not it lands cleanly. A jab is a tool with many uses. In this case, Henderson leaves his jab out there, while Shogun pulls his back to cover up. Rua's idea might seem more sound, but his defensive response is precisely what leaves him open to Henderson's attack. By covering up, he leaves himself only a few small cracks through which to see Henderson's movements, making it easier for Henderson to send offense through those same cracks. Dan doesn't leave it at that, though. By leaving his jab hand in contact with Shogun's head, he further obstructs the Brazilian's view, and keeps a firm impression of the distance between himself and his target at all times. I call maneuvers like this "sticky punches," and they are a veteran trick, used most notably by men like Floyd Mayweather and Andre Ward. I bet you never thought you'd hear Hendo's name in that kind of company.

In a sense, Shogun can barely see Henderson, nor the space between Henderson and himself, while Henderson can not only see but feel that distance. As a result, he can distract Shogun with a kick, get himself into position, and quite casually land one of the heaviest right hands in the sport. Given the set-up, it looks downright predictable that Hendo managed to land the right. The only surprising thing is that Shogun managed to get back up.

Tomorrow we will look at a few more of the tricks that Henderson used against Shogun in part two. Don't miss it!

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For an in-depth discussion of age and experience in MMA as it pertains to Bisping vs Henderson II, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.