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

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Bloody Elbow's Connor Ruebusch looks back at the last great performance of Dan Henderson, and breaks down some of the techniques that made it so.

Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

(Author's note: This is part two of a two-part article. If you missed it, read part one here.)

Five years ago, Dan Henderson participated in the greatest fight of his career, and put one the last great performance of his career in the process. Though at 40 Dan's gas tank was not what it once had been, he had more than enough in the tank to best Shogun Rua and cinch fight-of-the-year honors to boot. It was the culmination of over 14 years of experience, and Hendo will almost certainly never top it.

As the UFC's oldest active competitor, Henderson is about to participate in what he promises to be his last fight. The foe, Michael Bisping, is an old one. Having followed his own improbably path to the top of the middleweight division, Bisping wears the only major belt never to have decorated Hendo's mantle. Still, even with such powerful motivation the chances are that Henderson's body just can't do it anymore. He still has the power, and his courage can never be doubted, but Dangerous Dan seems all but dried up as he creeps toward the end of two decades of MMA majesty.

What better time to look back at Henderson-Rua? What better time to remember the brilliance of which Dan Henderson was once capable? As Hendo prepares to throw his last punches, let us recall how subtle and creative those punches once were.

INSTINCTS

In part one of this piece, we looked at one of the ways Henderson set Shogun up for the big right hand. Part of Hendo's genius, however, lay in his ability to fight instinctively. The Team Quest combo we looked at yesterday was all about feeling distance, with Henderson maintaining lead-hand contact in order to measure Shogun for the right hand. However, Henderson had a knack for finding that right hand whether or not his opponent was close enough to touch. See how he dropped Rua in round one.

1. Henderson stands tucked into his trademark semi-crouch.

2. As he steps back, Shogun Rua steps forward.

3. Dan attempts to meet Rua with a jab, but doesn't quite have the reach.

4. So he pulls back a little more.

5. And Rua comes forward, matching Henderson's movement exactly.

6. Having felt air the first time around, Henderson knows he is too far away to land the jab clean. He throws it all the same . . .

7. . . . and lunges in after it with a long, leaning straight right hand.

8. Surprisingly, Shogun's ear is still attached, but his knees go watery, and he collapses for the second time in just over a minute.

We spoke about the versatile utility of a jab in yesterday's installment, but typically the jab is expected to land before it can be used as a measuring stick. That is the understanding, anyway, held by most fighters. Most fighters aren't operating at the peak of their powers after 24 years of hard combat sports experience. Few mixed martial artists ever put experience to good use the way Henderson did, and the result was an outstanding feel for distance, in a fighter who only had to miss in order to learn how to hit you.

On that note, there's a bit of commentary that has always stuck with me. Frank Shamrock was calling Henderson's Strikeforce title fight with Rafael Cavalcante. Henderson had just knocked Feijao out, and Shamrock, awed by the result, explained Henderson's ethos perfectly. "He just holds [the right hand] there, like it's a cocked gun . . . It's not flashy. He doesn't do a whole lot. He just throws it."

He just throws it.

There's a video out there in which Bernard Hopkins visits Rashad Evans in the locker room before his fight with Tito Ortiz at UFC 133. Right off the bat, Rashad asks the boxing legend about his famous lead right. Hopkins advice is as simple as it gets. "They can't even time it. You just throw it." He demonstrates, snapping the punch out from his shoulder with no telegraph, no setting of the feet. "Don't even think about it. When you think about it, that's already that second. You already blew it. It's an hour already . . . it don't even have to be hard. Long as it's accurate, it feels like a hard punch."

Perhaps the biggest myth about Dan Henderson is that he is nothing more than a powerful puncher, when in fact the instinctive way that he throws his right hand--just letting it go in a clean straight line--has always been his most dangerous quality. True, Henderson's hands are heavy. Other fighters might throw the same shots without the same titanic results. But if Henderson loaded up on every shot, he would never have gained such renown as a knockout artist. Like Hopkins says, "That right hand . . . that a lot of people ask me about--'how do you throw that right hand without even setting it up?' The distance. I know where you at. Boom."

DEFENSE

There are other aspects to that Bernard Hopkins video. If you know Hopkins, you know he loves to talk, especially about boxing, and he's liable to go off on a fascinating tangent at any time. In this case, all it takes is for Rashad to make a remark about blocking with the shoulders, and there he goes. B-Hop compares tucking his chin behind his shoulder to an ancient Hoplite protecting half his body with a shield. "My helmet," he says, placing his hands on the top of Evans' skull, "You gon' break your hand on that. You can hit me here--I'm not gon' voluntarily give it to you--but just in case you get a shot, I'd rather you hit me in the cranium . . . then hit me from here--" he describes an area from the eye socket to the chin, "--to here. It's not because I got a chin. I'm not a fool. What, I'm gonna show you that I got one? You gotta earn that."

It might seem crazy to compare Dan Henderson to Bernard Hopkins, one of boxing's greatest modern slicksters, but Hendo was not always the fragile, hittable man that he is today. His defense was rarely beautiful, but then he wasn't a stick-and-move fighter, or one who delighted in making his opponent's miss just to see them flail. He wanted to make his opponent miss without uprooting his feet, staying close enough and well-balanced enough to fire off a salvo.

Most of the the time Henderson leaned on a simple maneuver. Bruce Lee might have called it a stop-hit, while Jack Dempsey knew it as the glance-off. Neither is a perfectly accurate term, as Henderson didn't care too much if he hit his opponent with the technique, nor did he take special care to send the incoming blow careening off to the side. What he did was simple, and effective: when his opponent threw, Hendo jabbed. That's it.

1. Hendo stands en garde.

2. Shogun Rua takes a deep forward step, plainly loading up his right hand.

3. Standing his ground, Henderson bends his knees, slips slightly to his right, and jabs into the arc of Rua's punch. Rather than knuckles to chin, Shogun's forearm slaps against the back of Hendo's shoulder.

4. Henderson frames a bit to reevaluate his distance . . .

5. . . . and steps back into his comfort zone.

A little dip, a little slip, and a stiff jab right into the arc of the incoming blow. Sometimes the jab would land on the chin of his advancing opponent, and that was even better. Whether it connects or not, the extended arm creates a long bar between the punch and Henderson's chin which, thanks to the subtle slip, is well hidden behind the left shoulder anyway. And as we saw in part one, Henderson was always more than happy to have a hand touching his opponent; that outstretched left could just as easily become a measuring stick for Dan's imminent counters.

That's really it, and it really does work. For Henderson, especially against a dangerous but fairly crude striker like Shogun, it worked like a charm. And with simple defensive tricks like this in his pocket, Hendo was able to stand his ground and keep himself in position to land devastating blows.

PUTTING IT TOGETHER

Experience has many benefits, but feel is the most important one. You can take a young fighter and train him up perfectly on the pads and bags. No matter how clean his technique or hard his punches, he will fall apart at least a little bit the first time he steps into the ring across from an opponent intent on hurting him. The man to beat him might very well be a sloppy brawler, so long as he understands the way a fistfight really, truly feels. When it comes to live fighting, technique matters less than we like to think, and feel matters more than we know.

With feel comes flow. Dan Henderson was 40 years old when he battled Shogun the first time, and his body was nowhere near as limber as it once had been. Nonetheless, the old man had a unique flow all his own. Every piece of his skillset fitted neatly together with seemingly endless permutations. When the punches started to fly, Hendo was something to behold.

1. Once again, our fighters square off.

2. Shogun comes forward behind a jab this time. Hendo thinks about his long block, but the right hand is already on its way . . .

3. . . . so instead he ducks his head and rolls under the punch.

4. Since his weight is moving forward anyway, he brings a short right hand along with him, touching Rua to the body.

5. What goes forward must come back. Hendo rips his weight from lead foot to rear, nailing Rua with a left hook in the process.

6. And because there is some head movement built into that weight transfer, he evades Shogun's left hook at the same time.

7. Having just countered, Henderson decides to go on the offensive. He flicks the jab.

8. Next, the straight right, but Shogun follows Dan's example and ducks under.

9. Not one to give up on a good thing, Dan ducks himself as Shogun responds with a counter right . . .

10. . . . and once again comes back with a hook.

11. Shogun gets under this one, but Hendo's punches are sticky as ever. That missed hook turns quickly into a clinch grip . . .

12. . . . and Henderson snaps Rua's head down into a vicious right uppercut.

Again, this isn't pretty stuff--not by most standards, anyway. Dan Henderson wrestled for years before discovering his talent for MMA, and it took him a decade yet to really get the knack of striking. When he did, the different techniques had to fit into an already well-developed game. Sometimes that means warping the textbook a little bit. What really matters, however, is that those different tactics come together to form a complete game. Every technique is readily followed by a number of others, and so on and so forth, a fluid system of strikes and slips, takedowns and trips.

Maybe the best way to describe Hendo's striking prowess is this: you can call it ugly, or wrong. But I dare you to stand in front of him, even now, and try to surprise him. My guess is, he'll have a violent answer for every question your fists can think of.

TRAGEDY AND TRIUMPH

Dan Henderson might be old, but his attitude is older yet. His is the mindset of the true old school, fighters like the great Sam Langford. Langford battled a man named Harry Wills an incredible 17 times. He was 31 at the time of their first fight, impossibly old for a small heavyweight in that era of constant fighting and lackluster medical care. He was 37 by the last. In each contest, Langford suffered more and more from blindness in one eye, and was increasingly unable to keep up with the long legs of his younger opponent. Like Henderson's, the last years of Sam Langford's career were a sad story. But they were also inspiring. A win over an elite opponent is always impressive, but they were the sad circumstances surrounding Langford's final fighting years that made his sparing wins all the more impressive.

Langford fought Wills 17 times, and lost 14 times. But Langford, well past his prime, also managed to knock Wills out twice, once after surviving 19 rounds of punishment. The record isn't great, but somehow, through it all, Langford proved that he was.

I said that every fighter goes through phases, and it seems that Dan Henderson has entered a new one. He still goes by "Hendo," but the come-forward style isn't doing the trick anymore. Dan learned that when Vitor Belfort uppercutted him clear off his feet before he could land a single punch, or when Lyoto Machida led him on a wild goose chase for fifteen minutes before walking away with a (deserved) split decision. Gone was the shocking footspeed, and the credible takedown threat. Fading, too, was the legendary chin, as was the reaction time that might have protected it.

So, in the twilight of his career, Henderson uses all that he has left: 19 years of professional experience, and a cannon of a right hand. The Hendo that fought Shogun is gone, but Dan continues to remind us that he did not become a legend of this sport by accident. He is more patient now, because he has to be. More cautious too, and there's not much choice in that either. Henderson the counter puncher is more limited than ever, hamstrung by slowing reflexes, dwindling stamina, and diminished durability. Michael Bisping is no spring chicken, but most are confident that he'll get his revenge on Dan Henderson at UFC 204.

But God help him if he gets caught by that right hand.