TORRANCE, Calif. — The history of mixed martial arts is written in the scars on Dan Henderson’s rugged face and in the swollen creases of his cauliflower ears.
The 46-year-old former Olympic wrestler has been fighting in a cage professionally for nearly two decades. He has spent almost every month of his adult life in a perpetual state of recovery, nursing a training injury or a physical breakdown. These days, he’s usually just battling the cumulative weariness of a lengthy athletic career entering early middle age.
“I don’t even notice anymore,” he said before a recent workout in his native Southern California. “Happens every training camp. I get cuts and bruises. It’s part of the job.”
Henderson is tired of getting hit in the face, and he longs for a life without daily cardiovascular training. He plans to retire after one last bout this weekend in Manchester, England, and he is determined to finish his fighting life on his feet — with a belt around his waist.
Over 16 years and 42 fights after Henderson participated in a four-man, one-night tournament at UFC 17, he will meet middleweight champion Michael Bisping in the main event of UFC 204.
Henderson (32-14) relishes the chance to finish his lifelong climb at the summit of his sport. He has held titles in the Strikeforce and Pride promotions, but he never claimed a UFC belt, losing back-to-back title fights nine years ago.
“I’ve had title shots before, and I know that for whatever reason, I didn’t do well in them,” Henderson said. “Especially the UFC title shots that I’ve had. Yeah, I want to make sure that I make the most of this opportunity.”
Henderson has lost six of his last nine fights, and he is only getting this title shot at the insistence of the UFC and Bisping, who wants revenge.
At UFC 100 in 2009, Henderson knocked Bisping out cold with an astonishing overhand right to the jaw. Henderson punctuated one of the most spectacular knockouts in MMA history with a flying elbow to Bisping’s defenseless head as he fell.
Henderson won’t apologize for taking the spot of a more deserving contender against the 37-year-old Bisping (29-7), who claimed the title in similarly stunning fashion this summer by knocking out Luke Rockhold.
“Obviously, it’s the last goal I’ve set for myself in the sport,” Henderson said. “It’s definitely going to rank right up there with everything I’ve done.”
Bisping has called Henderson a cheat for his past use of testosterone replacement therapy. A loophole in UFC regulations allowed fighters to legally compete on steroids, but Henderson dropped his TRT use when the practice was outlawed.
Henderson said he plans to return to TRT use after his fighting career ends, saying his body “felt a little better back then. Obviously I’m still able to compete without it, though.”
He could have walked into that future in June after his stoppage victory over Hector Lombard at UFC 199 in Inglewood, his wife and four children in attendance. His UFC contract was up, and he owns a thriving gym in Temecula, where 300 of his closest friends and family are waiting to hold their annual Labor Day pig roast until after his title shot.
But Henderson is fighting on. He wants one more shot to land one of his heavy right hands, dubbed the “H-Bomb” by his fans many years ago.
“Every day, I try to learn things and improve,” Henderson said. “Over the years, I wouldn’t have been able to compete at the level I’ve competed on if I hadn’t improved, because this sport has evolved, and it’s still evolving. Everybody is getting better every year.”
So Henderson has vowed this will be his last fight — but even he knows fighters can’t be trusted to stick to these declarations.
His children won’t make the trip to England because of school, and he would hate to end his career without them. He has also said he would definitely consider fighting again, particularly as the UFC champion, when he knows his body would keep going for another half-decade.
He needs only one more brilliant performance to take this two-decade career to a new pinnacle.
“I guess everybody has a price, you know,” he said. “If they really had to have me back, I suppose they could make me smile.”