It’s been said at least a hundred times since Saturday night and it’ll be said about a hundred more before UFC 188 fully takes over the collective consciousness of MMA fans this week, but in a perfect world, Dan Henderson would have left his gloves in the cage following his win over Tim Boetsch this weekend.
At 44 years old and heading into the 44th fight of a career that’s lasted over a decade, Henderson walked into the cage and delivered a trademark “H-Bomb” to the chin of Boetsch to set up a fight-ending uppercut just 28 seconds into the fight. For Henderson to have walked away at that particular moment would have been about as close to a storybook ending as the legendary fighter could get at this point in his career. However, we knew before the fight that Henderson had no intention of hanging up his gloves after Saturday night. Now that the future Hall of Famer is coming off an emphatic knockout win, you have to wonder what’s next for him.
Although Boetsch was a dangerous opponent for Henderson last weekend, he ended up being the perfect man for “Hendo” to have across the cage from him on fight night. Boetsch is tough and can take a punch in order to send one back, but the key to beating Henderson as of late has been to outwork him, counterstrike and avoid the “H-Bomb” at all costs. That’s a tough game plan for Boetsch to follow because he’s at his best when he gets into brawls, which just happens to be the last thing on Earth any fighter should want to get into with Henderson. Funnily enough, Boetsch’s game plan really didn’t even matter. It’s always said that a fighter’s power is the last thing to go, and when Boetsch ended up on the wrong side of a Henderson right hand in the first 20 seconds, he found that out firsthand.
Henderson’s power is the reason he’s been able to survive in this sport for the last few years, and it’s going to be the thing that keeps him afloat as he continues to move forward in his career. With the possible exception of a Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic’s head kick, there isn’t a more devastating strike in the history of MMA than Henderson’s right hand. Until that power goes away, the former Olympian is going to have a very real puncher’s chance to win any fight he’s in, no matter who’s standing across the cage from him. The blueprint to beat him may be as simple as staying out of the way of his power and landing a few shots on him, but actually implementing that game plan is easier said than done when Henderson is winging that “H-Bomb” towards your dome.
Now that Henderson’s earned his first win since taking out Mauricio “Shogun” Rua over a year ago, it’s going to be extremely interesting to see what the UFC decides to do with the 44-year-old legend. A fighter of Henderson’s star power is almost guaranteed to be in a main or co-main event spot every single time he steps into the cage, but the problem with that at this stage of Henderson’s career is that high-profile spots on fight cards mean high-profile opponents. Henderson’s fought the best in the world for a really long time now, with Boetsch being the first non-top-10er he’s fought since he returned to the UFC almost four years ago. While Henderson’s certainly been able to hang with those fighters, the fact that he’s 3-5 (with two of those wins coming over Shogun) has proven that he’s not at the elite level anymore.
The best-case scenario for Henderson would be if he ends up slipping into the bottom part of the middleweight rankings after beating the 13th-ranked Boetsch and starts getting the match-ups that make sense with that ranking. Henderson has struggled to beat the cream of the crop since he’s been back, but he might still be able to make some noise and stay out of danger against the guys on the fringes of the rankings. Henderson’s recent resume proves he doesn’t deserve any major opportunity, despite his win over Boetsch, and to give Henderson a fight with anyone in the top 10 is just taking an opportunity from someone else. It’s hard to treat someone of Henderson’s caliber as what amounts to a middle-of-the-pack fighter, but that’s the route the UFC is going to have to go if it wants to do right by Henderson and not feed him to the dogs every time it lines up a fight for him.
The worst-case scenario would involve the UFC basically just continuing to do what it’s been doing in giving Henderson high-profile opponents. Boetsch was a nice change of pace for the Pride veteran, who had been fighting former champions for the last four years straight to the tune of lackluster results. If the UFC decides to treat his quick knockout win as a career resurgence and immediately throw him back into the cage with a guy like Tim Kennedy or Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, things are going to go very badly for “Hendo.” Henderson still has enough in the tank to compete against damn near anyone, but competing and winning are two completely different things. A win against someone in the top 10 more than likely isn’t in the cards for Henderson at this point.
Henderson sticking around in the UFC is putting the company in a difficult spot. The UFC wants to have the legend on the roster and there are definitely fans that want to see him fight, but there’s a growing number of fans who are starting to worry about Henderson’s safety with each passing fight. He’s only been stopped by punches twice in his 15-plus years in the sport and his ability to take a punch has been one of his calling cards for over a decade. While that’s great for a fighter who is 25 and on the rise, it’s not a skill that should top the list when describing a fighter who is over 40 and has been getting punched in the head on a daily basis for the last 20 years.
No one wants to see Henderson hurt or experiencing health problems once he’s decided to hang it up, and that means the UFC needs to be extremely selective with its matchmaking for Henderson. There are a hundred different ways the UFC could handle the future Hall of Famer, but the next step in the career of Henderson lies in the hands of UFC matchmaker Joe Silva as much as it does with Henderson himself.