Live As a Champion, Die As One

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Posted March 6, 2008 in Feature Story

On the 19th floor of the Renaissance Hotel in downtown Columbus, still hazy from a morning radio interview, a night of bad sleep and the adjustment to East Coast time, Temecula’s Dan Henderson and a small entourage of trainers, Team Quest teammates and photographers made their way to the elevator to attend a press conference at the Nationwide Arena. At this exact moment, a team in black and yellow “Sinister” gear emerged towards the elevators from the opposite direction, one of them with a gold-plated UFC belt slung over his shoulder and that typical handler’s look that says, “this is how we roll.” As the camps stood idly together watching the numbered lights climb towards them, nobody said anything for a few moments. Then Anderson Silva stuck out his oversized hand, which was still smooth, scented and cold from skin lotion, and said hi.  

 

First to Team Quest’s head trainer Ryan Parsons, then to team member Vinny Magalhaes, then reluctantly to hired gun Darrell Gholar who at one time lived with the Spider in Brazil but was now, disrespectfully, training a man in the States to destroy his livelihood  . . . and finally to Henderson himself. 

 

Hendo was tying his shoe drowsily, as if he didn’t even notice the Middleweight champion and his pride. But when he looked up and heard “Hi, Dan” in that high-pitched Walter Payton voice, Hendo flashed that coyish smile, lips sitting atop that miraculous chin of his like a Valentine’s heart, and shook the man’s hand who would choke him near to unconsciousness a couple of nights later.

 

One thing about the UFC—it is nothing if not civil. 

 

As the two factions rubbed elbows in the elevator, one of Hendo’s camp whispered “I wonder if he carries that belt around all the time,” and another voice from the back of the elevator lofted the word “fag” at no discernible target. There were stares for that long half-minute down. To the Hendo camp, the Brazilians came off cocky in their stone-faced wait-n-see smugness, and to the Brazilians there was a sentiment that they would only tolerate these over-confident rubes for as long as they had to. For the next few days that word “fag” could be heard in earshot in casual conversation. Dana White, the President of the Ultimate Fighting Championship, would use expletives in his press conference that afternoon rather than edit his enthusiasm for the cameras.

 

Another thing about the UFC—it ain’t exactly PC.

 

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Perhaps that’s one of the reasons that the MMA fight game is widely becoming the hottest sport in the world. It’s not only an open-concession of brutality, not only a coming-together of globally different disciplines and styles, not only gladiatorial blood and guts and sweat put under a microscope for the sake of entertainment, but it’s actually the definition of rock & roll. What is the spirit of rock & roll other than utter disregard? Not of form, but of ideals. 

 

The UFC quashes many of our restrictive behaviors while fascinating our more primitive natures, which taken together makes for the greatest spectator sport since Dempsey-era boxing. But more importantly, there’s something more meaningful than mere savageness at stake when its players take to the octagon because, like art, it has the ability to awaken our senses in ways that the NBA doesn’t. For one thing, it reminds us that no man is immortal. For another, it reminds that man as a whole is resilient.

 

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At 37 years old, Hendo is a legend. Going into this fight he’s still the Welterweight Pride champion, though that organization is technically defunct. He’s still the showman who gives spectators a fight, and gives pay-per-view customers their money’s worth. He is a people’s champion. He will earn $100,000 for the fight, plus bonuses and sponsorship money. He is a prizefighter.

 

As with battle-tested warriors who first made names as wrestlers, the vegetation on his ears tells you all you need to know about his ground-and-pound game, about the many years of grinding, pummeling and gnashing. Those ears are a reason to believe. They remind you that he can beat a stylish assassin like Silva, because everything lies in imposition of wills. The poetry of a man’s heart. If he imposes his will and the fight goes to the ground, he can beat anyone, just as he’d been doing since attending Victor Valley High School in Victorville growing up with Randy Couture, Heath Sims and others. If he stands up and bangs, he’s susceptible to the kinds of abuse that Silva can bring—and yet that in itself carries an intrigue for Hendo. To beat him spectacularly, at his own game. If he lands one of his big rights, then Silva’s techniques all come crashing out of him like a jackpot. 

 

The night before weigh-in, it’s not a dial tone in his stare as a UFC cameraman calls it, but the cumulative experience that has delivered him here. With a father as a coach in his formative years, college wrestling national championships, the Olympics, the long trips to Japan to compete in multiple fights in a single night in Pride, the hard-earned belts he’d fought for, the defeats. He’s granite through-and-through. And he’d just spent the past eight weeks rigorously training for Silva in diminishing comforts, first at the Team Quest gym in Murrieta, then three weeks at Tito Ortiz’s compound in Big Bear, and now in a small banquet room at the Renaissance with the likes of Yushim Okami, Rich Franklin and Chris Wilson taking up mat space around him . . . and a very steep southpaw Frenchman named Cyrille “the Snake” Diabate swinging simulations at him. 

 

Diabate, known for a strong Thai clinch, has been a replica Silva for the past several weeks. The idea was to familiarize Hendo to the 77.5-inch striking reach he was about to chin. While at Big Bear he trained twice a day, six days a week in a gym that is more or less a barn, without the comforts of his Temecula ranch, his wife and three kids and horses and dogs. A fighter’s sacrifice. Now he was drenched from another workout, the last real one before the fight, and immediately afterwards he puts on sweatpants and a hoodie to sweat as profusely as possible. As the Team Quest motto runs, pain is merely weakness leaving the body. So is sweat.

 

Henderson was 197.2 pounds only 16 hours before weigh in. Being a former Greco Roman wrestler who competed for the USA in the 1992 and 1996 Olympics, cutting a dozen pounds overnight was as easy as dehydrating a stick of beef. Ryan Parsons said Henderson could cut that weight in and hour and a half, because wrestlers manipulate water weight their whole lives. Nothing easier. There wasn’t any concern whatsoever that Henderson would turn up like Travis Lutter and not make weight for his fight against Silva. He sat in the sauna that night, wringing the muscles and bones of moisture. He was wearing two pairs of sweat pants and a plastic sheet the next day. He worked out, and would empty a rivulet of sweat from the sleeve ever so often. 

 

In a separate banquet room at the same time is Anderson Silva and his faction. The Spider had been very accurately referred to as a “ballet of violence” because of his long-range striking ability and the fluidity in which those knees and elbows and fists so gracefully tenderize his opponents, and the choreographed motion in which he brings them. When he first fought Rich Franklin at UFC 64 in 2006, Franklin was the Middleweight champion and had only one loss on his record. Now he has three, two of them at the hands of Silva, and Franklin compared being in the Brazilian’s Thai clinch to being in that of heavyweight Tim Sylvia’s. He conceals freakish strength in those long sinews, the instruments of his God. When he beats an opponent there’s always a moment of something like remorse, as if it sickens him to divest a man of his will like that, to divest him of his livelihood, of his belt. But for some men it’s an uncomfortable calling. In the aftermath of those Franklin bouts came the hype that he was the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game, ahead of Jackson and Fedor Emelianenko. 

 

He’d breezed through the Middleweight division, thus rendering the Henderson bout an obvious “dream match-up” for MMA fans. Henderson had just dropped a close decision to light heavyweight Quinton “Rampage” Jackson in London several months earlier, losing his chance at unifying the light heavyweight (205 pounds) UFC and Pride belts. The consensus was that Henderson was too tentative in the Jackson fight, a little too hesitant to commit and go, and head trainer Parsons, a New Englander by birth who is the conscience of Team Quest, reminded him of this frequently. 

 

With Spider the game plan was to be more aggressive, to commit to a takedown and to take him down and leave nothing to chance. Spider was a moveable object. He was moveable. He was. That night Darrell Gholar, who trained Murilo Bustamante against Dan Henderson back in the day, when asked how Henderson could beat the Spider, said that it was important not to make a giant of your opponent. 

 

“An 800-pound gorilla is an 800-pound gorilla, and there’s no way out once you let your opponent become that 800-pound gorilla.” 

 

Which calls to mind what Robert Frost wrote: “The best way out is always through.”

 

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At first it was reconnaissance by both fighters, a minute-long dance to feel the other out. Henderson took Spider down about two minutes into the first round, and the madrigal of the corners was submerged in a loud roar from 16,000 people. He drove him into the ground, covered his mouth and nose with his gloved hand to cut off his breathing, lashed at him, hammer-fisted Spider’s head while a knot of limbs shot haywire from the mount. He positioned, tried to posture, went for a side-mount, and dropped a series of uncomfortable shoulders into the mouth of the champion. It was all Hendo. He swung loudly once but missed, tried for a devastating blow again late in the round but came up empty. He controlled everything about the first round, and all three judges gave it to him. It was Hendo’s fight.

 

The second round, Henderson and Spider danced. They tied up, and Hendo began a series of knees to the inner-thigh, just as Ryo Chonan did to Silva to weaken his spring. In that particular fight, Chonan chopped Silva’s legs in the stand-up game so long and thoroughly that he was able to execute that famous flying scissors move into a foot-bar submission. Now it was Henderson weakened the legs, controlling the upper body with the bear hug of a seasoned Greco wrestler. They separated, and dukes got higher. Dan can practice technique, but his instincts are unalterable. Blows were thrown from both men, Hendo coming on with that right, and Spider jabbing with the left. 

 

It was a counter-jab that caught Henderson first, just as fast as a staple-gun, right on the chin. That jab preceded a wild haymaker that Henderson threw and missed, and just like that he was off-balance. Spider coiled up. He lifted a straight knee towards Henderson’s head but glanced, then lifted another one and caught his head with the full-force of his thigh, every ounce of pent-up energy expulsed in the blow. Henderson staggered. He was in trouble. As the round got deeper, Henderson lay in every vulnerable position on the ground, covering his face from the hooks, pulling on Spider’s head to regain his wits, to get his bearings. He tried to pop the mount. He attempted to set Spider up with back-elbow from his side but missed it, and got into further trouble. Spider nearly got him flat on his stomach, and then like an incubus looming over a molten body, wrapped his long arm around Dan Henderson’s head. Henderson tried to hang on for life as the time ticked away in the second round, but the Spider sank the rear-naked choke.

 

It was in his tearing eyes as he looked to see the time left, as he gauged how long until unconsciousness versus the bell. The inevitable moment, when he knows tapping is next against every fiber of his being. All the hard work, the training, the years of a life fighting, the deprivations of a regular life to earn money in the prize ring, to be caught in a rear-naked choke so close to the end of the round and so close to the end of his career. He tapped. He tapped just as the ten-second warning rattled off. 

 

The crowd roared its bloodthirst. Sated. That’s another thing about the UFC—people like a good fight more than a specific champion.

 

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One elevator goes up, and another one goes down. Where Hendo ends up next is the question—a rematch with Jackson at 205?—but he says he’s got some asses yet to kick. His is a fighter’s life. It’s what he knows. He can take this one blow on that impossible chin. 


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