Commentary

How Hendo got his groove back

Updated: March 7, 2011, 12:48 PM ET
By Chuck Mindenhall | For ESPN.com

Dan Henderson is not getting any younger, but he might be getting better. Using a time-biding strategy to overcome hard-hitting Rafael Cavalcante -- a strategy that one of his cornermen likened to "breaking a horse" -- Henderson brought back his Greco-Roman wrestling and patiently went about picking his moments to throw the big right hand. In the third round, after overcoming some teetering moments, it landed. Just like that, Henderson became Strikeforce's light heavyweight champion.

"I didn't want to stand there and trade toe-to-toe with him that much, because that's where he finished most guys in the first round," Henderson said at the postfight news conference. "He hits hard. I wasn't afraid to be there, but he's pretty powerful and I wanted to make sure I won every round along the way. I felt like I was accomplishing that goal. I was just going to be patient with him, and if I never landed that punch I still wanted to make sure I won the rounds."

[+] EnlargeRafael Feijao and Dan Henderson
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comThe right mix of wrestling and right-handed bombs proved too much for Rafael Cavalcante.

With no champion in the light heavyweight division having defended the belt since Bobby Southworth in 2008 (a collective 0-5 since), the former two-time Pride champion becomes an intriguing champion with names like Gegard Mousasi and Muhammed Lawal hovering near contention. When asked who was out there for him in the light heavyweight division, he didn't name names, though it's believed the winner of the Mike Kyle/Mousasi fight might get the next crack.

"There's some tough guys in Strikeforce in that weight class," he said. "I think there's two or three guys who could definitely be right in there. That's up to Strikeforce. I'm a fan of most of those guys, most of them are pretty exciting, and I think any of them would be a good fight for me."

With one fight left on his Strikeforce contract, and already having stated he would like to defend the belt now that he's earned it, Henderson is likely to stay put for the time being at 205. Though, as usual, he said he'd happily bounce to wherever the most intriguing fight is. Whether it's middleweight or even heavyweight, he said he wouldn't be opposed if the matchup was right.

"There's always those matchups," he said. "I'm not opposed to cutting weight either. But it's not up to me. It's up to the fans and Scott Coker at Strikeforce."

But Henderson seems most comfortable at this point in his career at light heavyweight. After a poor weight cut against Anderson Silva three years ago and gassing out against Jake Shields in his middleweight title bid 11 months ago, Henderson was happy and feeling good heading into his fight with Feijao, even if it meant being at a size disadvantage.

"I think that throughout most of my wrestling career, my years as an amateur and my MMA career, I've always had the belief that it was all mostly about positioning and technique and that kind of saves a lot of strength and energy," he said. "So if you're in the right position you don't need as much strength.

"I think that could have been the case tonight. Not saying I'm weak or anything, I just don't feel weak against big strong guys because of that reasoning. Mentally, I've never felt weak or outmatched in any weight class. That plays a big part of it, knowing I'm big on the inside. That and punching them in the right place."

Against Feijao, who fights out of the same Black House gym as past opponents Anderson Silva and brothers Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, he punched the right place. With so many questions about his cardio and his age heading into the bout, Henderson put a few of those worries to bed when he overcame some tense moments and looked as fresh in the third round as he did in he first.

"He definitely knocked me down," he said of being dropped early in the first round. "Everything happens so fast, you don't remember everything in a fight, especially when he knocks you silly. I wanted to be patient in the first one or two rounds and wear him out a little bit and have a little bit less power.

[+] EnlargeRafael Cavalcante and Dan Henderson
Dave Mandel for Sherdog.comDan Henderson, left, admits being rocked by Rafael Cavalcante in the first round.

"I know I was ready to go five rounds in this fight, especially with the way he paces himself also. I think he's not one of those really aggressive guys that makes you work the whole time, which helps an old man out when he's 40."

Henderson may be 40 years old, but with back-to-back knockout wins against Renato Sobral and now Cavalcante, he looks as powerful as he did in his Pride days, and he's not showing any signs of slowing down.

"Inside I felt like I could still compete with the top guys, and that was something I needed to prove to myself tonight, and I definitely accomplished that for myself," he said. "Beating a tough opponent like that meant the most, and [getting the belt] was just the cherry on top. And I do like cherries."

Going 0-3 in his three previous title fights, this one certainly is the cherry on top of an already storied career. Next thing? Become Strikeforce's first legit light heavyweight champion by defending it.

Chuck Mindenhall covers MMA for ESPN.com and is a features writer at FIGHT! magazine. He can be followed on Twitter at @ChuckMindenhall.