Teflon Dan’s Perpetual State of Greatness and Forgiveness

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No one has ever denied that the UFC 204 main event rematch between Michael Bisping and Dan Henderson is a bit of a farce. After all, it’s not just a rematch of one of MMA’s most iconic knockouts, it’s a rematch that features a 46-year-old Dan Henderson, 4-6 in his last 10 bouts, fighting for Bisping’s UFC middleweight championship. But, as history has shown us time and time again, people are willing to forgive just about anything that involves ol’ “Hendo.”

Consider how the main event was announced, even. This was not a cynical Zuffa concoction that came out of left field, flabbergasting folks into dumb silence. No, the UFC started teasing Bisping-Henderson 2 as the likely next step almost immediately after UFC 199 ended, the night Bisping took the crown from Luke Rockhold and Henderson improbably elbowed Hector Lombard into oblivion. In a division featuring recently dethroned champs like Rockhold and Chris Weidman, a division with challengers like Yoel Romero and Ronaldo Souza, we got Dan Henderson.

The fight is transparent and even the most fairweather MMA fan can appreciate its fundamental conceit. It’s a chance for Bisping to extract revenge and have a potentially successful title defense in his Manchester backyard, even if live fans will likely need to resort to narcotics in order to stay awake for when he finally gets into the cage at 4 a.m. For Henderson, it’s a final chance for an MMA legend to claim the UFC title that has eluded him throughout his career, about the only title of any kind that’s eluded Henderson in his nearly 20-year career.

This is exactly the kind of ploy that riles MMA fans up, especially in the Conor McGregor age, when the UFC has explicitly prized spectacular fights over sporting challengers in some instances. McGregor one-punched the greatest featherweight ever and is now going to face one of the five best lightweights ever for all the marbles at UFC 205, yet my inbox and Twitter mentions are still awash with those crying foul, wondering why Jose Aldo and Khabib Nurmagomedov got screwed and how the UFC could support it. If you’re the sort of person concerned with the sanctity and legitimacy of UFC title contendership, Alvarez-McGregor is not your hill to die on, it’s Bisping-Henderson 2. But, like I said, Dan Henderson breeds forgiveness.

Think about how unique and truly exceptional, in the purest sense of the word, Henderson’s treatment in MMA is. If you’re a pro MMA fighter who wins a slew of questionable decisions, you’re usually reviled to some degree, even if you didn’t judge the fights yourself; see Leonard Garcia, for instance. On the other hand, Henderson was given the derogatory nickname “Decision Dan” early on his career due to his penchant for winning lame decisions, yet, even in the heyday of the UFC-versus-Pride culture war, defenders of both promotions tended to love Henderson and use the nickname ironically.

Henderson arguably lost to both Allan Goes and Carlos Newton in his UFC 17 one-night tournament win. In the 1999 Rings King of Kings tournament, the single most prestigious MMA tournament held to that point in the sport, Henderson won a poor decision over Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in the semifinals before somehow beating “Babalu” Renato Sobral by majority draw — yes, you read that right. In Pride, his wins over “Ninja” Murilo Rua and especially Yuki Kondo stretched the boundaries of believability. Henderson is one of the 10 best fighters in MMA history based on his achievements and even if many of those victories are highly questionable, his good fortune with the judges is never held against him, but almost celebrated with tongue in cheek.

Henderson isn’t necessarily what you’d call “charismatic” but he’s got a way of deliberate and jocular straight shootin’ that appeals to people. For example, in the early 2000’s, Henderson was once asked if he thought he had fought any fighters on steroids, to which he replied, “I’m sure I’ve fought lots of guys on steroids. I fight for Pride.” Fast forward a decade, and Henderson is resurgent in his 40’s using testosterone replacement therapy, knocking out men years his junior with surprising vigor. Given the USADA climate we’re now in and the fact the TRT era is now viewed as an ill-conceived black eye for the sport, you’d think people would call Henderson a hypocrite, or something of the sort.

Yet, other than Michael Bisping calling him “the Godfather of TRT” to build up this fight, you don’t really hear that. In fact, Henderson tends to get a philosophical pass from most people when discussing his TRT use for a variety of reasons: Henderson was actually of an age where TRT would be prescribed by a doctor, he seemed a very unlikely candidate to have used steroids prior, he never flunked a test with off-the-charts testosterone levels and when TRT was banned in the sport, he stopped. I’ve talked to many fans, journalists and fighers who still feel Henderson’s late-career successes deserve an asterik, but even the most vehement anti-PED sorts save their venom for the likes of Vitor Belfort, the real Godfather of TRT, not Henderson.

Hell, even Zuffa forgives Dan Henderson. Think back to UFC 100, when Henderson smashed Bisping in the jaw, then walked on the UFC and took a massive deal from Strikeforce. Was Henderson lowballed, mocked or punished when the UFC bought Strikeforce and brought him back? Nope. He has been given main event star treatment the entire time, even before this unwarranted title shot. Up until UFC 199 in June, Henderson was a main event or co-main event in all nine of his Octagon bouts since his November 2011 return. Dana White might love to bury certain people in public, including some of his own champions, like Tyron Woodley or Jose Aldo, but he seldom has a harsh word for Hendo.

Most of this is because Henderson comes across as a Norman Rockwell painting about American ruggedness, with his crooked aquiline nose and cartoonish lantern jaw. He’s an Olympic wrestler who has abandoned his grappling skills for his whole career in favor of right-handed haymakers, taking on all comers from middleweight to heavyweight in a stained, camouflage trucker hat. Henderson is middle American normalcy taken almost to the point of parody: witness this self-penned article where Henderson shockingly reveals he misses beer and chicken wings during training.

But just because he seems like your neighbor that would help you fix your car, that doesn’t mean Dan Henderson is always a righteous dude. After all, why are we talking about this particular fight? At its core, it’s not because the UFC wanted Bisping to have a softball first title defense, or because they wanted to afford Henderson the chance to ride off into a golden sunset, or even because they fought one another before. If someone else had derailed Luke Rockhold on short notice, Dan Henderson would not have a title shot.

We’re not getting Bisping-Henderson 2 not because Henderson simply knocked Bisping out seven years ago, we’re getting this rematch because Henderson knocked him out and then dropped arguably the most famous cheap shot in MMA history across Bisping’s already-unconscious face. While violence ensues in the heat of battle, there was never any question about whether Henderson’s flying forearm was grimy and unsportsmanlike, as Henderson admitted after the fight the final blow was to “shut him up a little bit.” He turned the silhouette of him dive bombing on an insentient Bisping into personal walkout merchandise.

Even in his clear, shining moment of sociopathy, the most flagrantly unsportsmanlike act in his entire career, Henderson is celebrated. Owing to the ever-present animus around Michael Bisping, I’d venture to say Henderson’s flying forearm is not only the most well-known MMA cheap shot, it’s probably the most popular cheap shot in MMA history. It’s the kind of thing that would get most fighters fined, maybe even cut. It got Dan Henderson paid, and now, seven years later, a title shot somehow.

At the very worst, Bisping will exorcise his demons on Saturday in Manchester, sticking, moving and beating an aged Henderson up with volume kickboxing. Bisping will win, celebrate in front of a raucous crowd and we will tolerate it, in appreciation of everything Dan Henderson has done in rings and cages over the last two decades. Even if Henderson is roundly embarrassed in a title shot he in no way deserves, no one will hold it against him, or even the UFC.

On the other hand, if Henderson knocks Bisping out, he will create one of the most unthinkable, incredible MMA moments ever and can retire finally having earned a UFC championship. Twitter will creak and heave under the weight of passionate odes about the man. However, the UFC middleweight title will also suddenly be vacant, leaving the 185-pound division in a state of limbo, just as the weight class has finally come to thrilling prominence. As usual, I’m sure all will be forgiven.

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