As a 40-year-old former PRIDE champion, Dan Henderson has had plenty of "been there, done that" moments in his storied career. But his fight with Rafael "Feijão" Cavalcante this Saturday night in Columbus, Ohio, borders on something more like déjà vu.
Three years ago almost to the day, also in Columbus, Henderson challenged another Black House product for his second crack at a major title within an organization. On that occasion, the fight came against Anderson Silva in Henderson's debut as a middleweight for the UFC to unify the 185-pound titles. Henderson lost that bid, just as he did bouts against Quinton Jackson (at UFC 75, for the unification of the light heavyweight belts) and Jake Shields (a middleweight title fight). And here we are now -- three years, five fights and a punch heard 'round the world later -- all to arrive at a dangling set of parallels.
"I don't know, maybe a little bit," he said. "Feijão is from the same team, and it's the same town, but he's a different fighter and I'm a better fighter than I was then. I'm a lot more accustomed to the cage now."
If you've followed his career at all, you already know that Henderson (26-8) doesn't go in for mind games. It's one of the reasons the one-time holder of simultaneous PRIDE belts no longer competes in the UFC, becoming a rare fighter in such a position to defect on his own terms. It's why he stayed composed against an ever-chirping Michael Bisping long enough to land that fabled right hand and earn knockout of the year honors in 2009.
And heading into what could be his last chance at a Strikeforce title -- or any title, realistically -- it's not lost on the former Olympic Greco-Roman wrestler that windows often close as quickly as they open.
"I'm 40 years old, and I'm still able to compete with the top guys, and that's what motivates me," Henderson said. "To still be able to compete with the top guys, which I know I can. There's absolutely zero reason why I should lose this fight. In my mind, I'm going to win it. It's one of my goals, and it's right in front of me and I'm not going to screw this one up."
It's that last part that carries the import. Henderson has become a perpetual challenger of late, and since 2008 when he came to the UFC as a carry-over PRIDE champion in both the light heavyweight and middleweight divisions, he has gone 0-3 in those challenges. In between, he has beaten every non-titleholder in his path -- a solid decision against Rousimar Palhares at UFC 88 and a narrower one against Rich Franklin at UFC 93, followed by the mammoth knockout of Bisping at UFC 100, in what turned out to be his swan song in the organization.
His vow to make good this time comes after a very loud, very violent reminder of why he's still a very real threat to carry whatever weight class in which he fights. Back at 205, he needed less than two minutes to put away Renato "Babalu" Sobral in St. Louis this past December to earn his recent shot.
"I felt that I was going to catch him, but I didn't think I'd catch him that quick," Henderson said. "I cracked him pretty good with a right and a left, and then followed him, and he scrambled down to the mat to get ahold of something to stop me from hitting him. And then I landed a pretty good one."
In Cavalcante (10-2), who beat Henderson's former Team Quest training partner King Mo Lawal for the 205-pound belt in August, Henderson thinks he will get a chance to duplicate the feat. Although he and Lawal are no longer on regular speaking terms, Henderson didn't need a firsthand breakdown of what to expect from Feijão once the cage doors are shut.
"He's very well-rounded and he's dangerous," Henderson said of Feijão. "It looks like he hits hard and he's got some good knees. So he's a guy I've got to be careful with. He's also a little bit sloppy and vulnerable, and I think I can push the pace and wear him out."
And that has been the emphasis of Henderson's camp -- to build up his cardio for a five-round fight. After nearly finishing Shields in the first round of their April clash, Henderson faded noticeably in subsequent rounds. Similarly, he had a bad weight cut against Silva at UFC 82 -- to go along with his unfamiliarity of fighting in a cage -- and didn't feel quite right during the fight.
"Those are probably the two nights of fighting that my body wasn't there for me, that I was real flat or tired or whatever," Henderson said. "Jake Shields beat me, and he had a great fight that night. I fought so bad, and my body was just not there."
Whether that means he's done with 185 for good, Henderson doesn't know. But just days before his March 5 fight at Nationwide Arena, he was walking around at his natural weight of 203 pounds. He has been training with the likes of Dave Herman, Ovince St. Preux and Tom Lawlor at his gym in Murrieta, Calif., and said he's feeling more like the old Dan Henderson than an old Dan Henderson.
"I like to go in feeling good," he said. "I don't care how strong a guy is, it's all about positioning. The more experience you have, the better your positioning is, and I think that's where I'm at right now. I try not to waste energy; I'm not fighting against a guy's weight and size so much as I am trying to stay in position and wear him out, making him move and carry my weight. So I've never felt weak at 205, and I don't now."
What about at heavyweight? With one fight left on his Strikeforce contract (after Cavalcante), Henderson said he'll entertain the idea of fighting anybody, including the much bigger Fedor Emelianenko -- whether it's at 205 or at heavyweight.
"I don't like looking past fights, and I need to beat Feijão and go from there," Henderson said. "As long as you're winning, everything will take care of itself. It's when you lose that you've got to figure things out. But, you know, I think a fight with Fedor would've been more attractive to a lot more people before he lost his last couple of fights. But he's still a legend, and he's still really dangerous, and at 205 especially -- people would be watching that just as intently."
But on this Henderson is clear: Whether he's the champion, or fighting to be a champion, or fighting just for the love of fighting in the twilight of his career, he doesn't regret his decision to bolt the UFC in favor of Strikeforce. And he said it had less to do with selfish reasons -- such as appearing on CBS, earning more money and gaining more autonomy -- than it did with providing more options to his fellow fighters.
"Yeah, I am happy," Henderson said. "Obviously the UFC is a marketing machine, but I was just another worker bee there, and I don't think they have the athlete's best interest in mind all the time. I feel part of my motivation for going to Strikeforce was having the sport in mind, the other fighters in mind, to help build another promotion that could give another stream of revenue to some of these guys."
Ultimately, Henderson marches to the beat of his own drum. Like any competitor, his motivation stems from challenging himself in the form of challenging others. So long as he believes he's competing against high-caliber guys who would do well no matter what banner they fight under -- guys like Cavalcante -- he feels right at home.
"I think we're both probably going for that knockout," Henderson said. "Feijão seems to be a pretty tough guy, with a great heart, and he may be tough to finish. But he's been knocked out with a broken jaw before [against Mike Kyle]. That's definitely a possibility, because I hit hard as well. But I could also see this thing going the distance and wearing him out."
For now, at 40 years old, Hendo himself shows no sign of wearing out. And come Saturday night in Columbus, with so much intrigue and so many coincidences looming over his fight, he'll take a lot of experience into the cage to ensure that history doesn't repeat itself.
Chuck Mindenhall covers MMA for ESPN.com and is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.