Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 | 8:20 p.m.
SAN FRANCISCO — If 41-year old Dan Henderson has a secret to his longevity in mixed martial arts, he isn’t sharing it.
Henderson has won three straight fights and six of his last seven heading into Saturday’s UFC 139 main event against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at the HP Pavilion in San Jose. No one has an explanation for the way he’s defied the traditional constraints of age — at least not a rational one.
“This guy is a unique cat,” said fellow UFC 139 fighter Urijah Faber of Henderson. “He’s like a pirate or something.”
Those are the only types of conclusions anyone can come to when trying to make sense of a 14-year fighting run as successful as Henderson’s. He’s held championship belt in the two most notable MMA organizations other than the UFC.
Henderson (28-8 MMA, 5-2 UFC) captured the Strikeforce light heavyweight championship earlier this year by beating Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. He also won titles in both the welterweight and middleweight divisions during his tenure with PRIDE.
Henderson’s only two losses in the octagon have come in a title fights, to former light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson at UFC 75 and to middleweight king Anderson Silva at UFC 82.
“I think it is fair to say I’ve accomplished a lot in the sport, but one thing I have not accomplished is winning the UFC title,” Henderson said. “I like to set goals and that’s a big one — winning the UFC title.”
Beating Shogun (20-5 MMA, 4-3 UFC) would figuratively put Henderson inches away from getting his third opportunity at UFC gold. UFC President Dana White had previously said Henderson was assured a title shot with a victory, but that’s less clear now with Rashad Evans still waiting for a 205-pound championship bout of his own.
Henderson is taking it all as a challenge.
“With any fight where the winner could be in a possible title fight, it depends on how the fight goes or how it finishes,” he said. “If it’s a boring fight or not a whole lot happens, then (a title shot) might not happen.”
The forecast for Shogun vs. Henderson is far from boring. Out of a combined seven fights between the two men since 2010, only one has reached the judges’ scorecards.
The showdown is also a long-awaited one. Shogun remembered PRIDE twice trying to match him against Henderson, but the arrangement fell apart both times.
“Dan Henderson is a guy I respect,” Rua said through a translator. “He’s someone I wanted to fight for a long time, since the PRIDE days.”
Conventional wisdom would say it’s a good thing Shogun got the bout now, because the chances are running out. But it’s not that simple with Henderson.
Many have speculated that Henderson could fight until his late 40s like former teammate Randy Couture, who retired earlier this year at 47. Although Henderson joked that he hoped he wouldn’t stick around that long on Thursday, he wouldn’t rule it out.
Henderson has a few factors working in his favor. Most notably, he’s never lost via knockout and has learned how to train without putting too much stress on his body.
“I feel I have got a lot of fights left in myself,” Henderon said. “I am 41 and feel great. I’m not putting a time limit on anything. I think I can put a game plan together to beat anyone out there.”