MMA is a young man’s game.
Though many veterans change and evolve with time as the oft-cruel tides of the sport wax and wane, youthful fighters at the elite levels of MMA tend to replace their predecessors every few years. Young, athletically gifted prospects training at world-class camps with skillsets that fit neatly into, or even directly counter the current metagame of their divisions; these types of fighters tend to develop into the modern elites of the sport. In such a landscape, there is often no place for the savvy veteran. A fighter is a product of the era in which they came to prominence, and as the sport and its viable strategies continue to evolve, older generations of fighters find themselves cannibalized by tomorrow’s champions.
At UFC 204, 37-year-old Michael Bisping will defend his UFC middleweight championship against 46-year-old Dan Henderson in a fight which feels wholly unusual by title fight standards. By all rights, the two men (former opposing Ultimate Fighter coaches and bitter in-cage rivals) should not have been capable of reaching this position. As incredible athletes with polished skillsets, such as Luke Rockhold, Chris Weidman, Yoel Romero and Ronaldo Souza, prowl the upper echelon of the division, successfully securing a title fight can be a Herculean task.
Though fortune and circumstance are often as much factors as merit in any title shot, Bisping and Henderson’s persistent relevance and unique positions in the division can be attributed equally to maximization of their skillsets as they continue to age. While neither man possesses quite the physicality they did in their mid-twenties, both have reinvented themselves through circumventing any athletic limitations and crafting approaches which extract the most value from their existing physical and technical ability.
When the two fought seven years ago at UFC 100, Michael Bisping was not yet ready for Dan Henderson. A far cry from the polished technician he would become, Bisping seemed uncomfortable and inadequately prepared for a fighter like Henderson. Constantly skipping his feet, moving both feet simultaneously, circling into Henderson’s power hand and choosing his strikes poorly, the Englishman was unable to keep the bruising power puncher at bay. While his jab is today one of the sport’s finest, it was, at this early stage of his career, ineffectual against Henderson. It lacked the authority and commitment of its modern day counterpart, while often falling short of the mark due to his inability to properly gauge the distance.
Always seen as a fighter who did not sit down on his punches, this trait was on full display as Bisping attempted and failed to halt the cleaner puncher’s advances. In the second round, he would succumb to Henderson’s gruesome right hand and a follow-up forearm shot to his unconscious body, in what would become one of the most famous knockouts in UFC history, forever emblazoned for posterity on Henderson’s logo.
In the current day, much has changed. Now 46 years old, Dan Henderson has repeatedly discussed retirement, even in the wake of his sensational knockout of fearsome power puncher Hector Lombard. Meanwhile, at age 37, Michael Bisping has experienced a career resurgence on the back of consecutive wins over Anderson Silva and Luke Rockhold, claiming the UFC middleweight title on just twelve days’ notice in one of the most remarkable upsets in the organization’s history.
Before this incredible reinvention, Bisping was largely seen as a fighter who easily dispatched all but the highest tier of the middleweight division, yet stumbled against the elite. Incredibly consistent, he seemed to win every fight that he was supposed to win, and lose every fight he was supposed to lose. Perhaps the result of several losses throughout his career, Bisping has never quite received the credit he deserves as a technician. Under Jason Parillo, one of the finest boxing coaches in the sport, the perpetual runner-up turned middleweight champion has developed into one of the most skilled kickboxers in MMA.
Always known for his high-volume striking and incredible cardio, much of Bisping’s renewed success can be attributed to the development of his footwork under Parillo. His old habit of moving both feet simultaneously is nowhere to be seen, and what were once unnecessarily long strides have been replaced with tight, efficient movements. Every inch of space Bisping covers is space claimed with purpose. With the experience he has accrued over such a lengthy career, he makes excellent split-second decisions about how and when to attack or retreat within that space.
In broader application, Bisping’s crisp footwork enables him to dictate the range of engagement against most any opponent, generally preferring to stand on the fringe of his punching distance. Allowing him to stifle advancing foes with front-leg sidekicks to the thigh and similar lengthy weapons on top of his trademark jab-cross, the slight adjustment steps he makes to carefully maintain this exact distancing also allows him to maximize his reach and punching combinations, while minimizing defensive exposure.
In more specific terms, this footwork is a key which opens many locks. Against Brian Stann, his circular movement and solid base allowed him to quickly capitalize on moments of poor balance to shoot reactive takedowns against the aggressive American, planting him on the mat numerous times. Though not known for his grappling, Bisping is a highly technical defensive wrestler with understated scrambling ability and a great sense for finishing takedowns.
The degree of mastery with which Bisping manipulates range has allowed him to make some very specific adjustments to opponents in the past. Anderson Silva has long been one of MMA’s most deadly counter fighters, feasting on men who overextend or commit too greatly to predictable strikes. Against such an opponent, throwing the lead right cross may seem ill advised; however, Bisping did exactly that. With impeccable timing and precise spacing, he repeatedly threw the same sequence of a lead right hand followed immediately by a lean-back low kick to the outside of the southpaw’s right thigh.
The exact nature of the distance and timing involved already created unfavorable circumstances for countering the right straight, but the low kick acted as a subtle barrier, preventing Silva from stepping in and committing to any sort of answer. In many ways, it was a tactic indicative of who Bisping is as a fighter; brash, incredibly confident, but with a thoughtful mind for the fighting arts and a commitment to craft above all else.
Against Rockhold, this penchant for honing in on small exploitative tactics was what enabled him to claim the middleweight strap. Rockhold, a southpaw, had always been a fighter who kept his right hand low, often down by his waist. In addition, he had a tendency to overextend on his jab, making him even more susceptible to attacks from an opponent’s left side. Against an orthodox opponent like Bisping, the most dangerous weapon is usually the right cross, and Rockhold’s defense on the right side was significantly more calculated than on the left. Bisping realized this, and quickly began to end punching combinations with a long left hook directly over the top of Rockhold’s shoulder.
Eventually, a perfect opportunity presented itself as Rockhold overextended on a long jab while the challenger retreated. In a moment that defied many of the criticisms leveled against him over the years, the Englishman threw a quick right hand before stepping forward, planting his feet, and putting all of his weight into a crushing left hook. As Rockhold staggered backwards, Bisping connected with another left hook and a series of follow up punches to finally achieve what many considered a virtual impossibility. Michael Bisping was the UFC middleweight champion.
Conversely, Henderson’s game is in many ways simple, but simplicity should not be confused for a lack of effectiveness. Earlier in his career, he relied on his decorated wrestling pedigree more frequently. Always an excellent clinch fighter, he has maintained his remarkable strength and craft in the "in-fight" throughout his career. The cornerstone of modern-day Dan Henderson’s toolkit, however, is his tremendous punching power. One of the sport’s hardest hitters, he has come to rely on this power more and more as his other physical gifts have deteriorated with age. Though not as quick as he once was, his game is more carefully structured to maximize the effects of this power.
An already short, stocky middleweight, Henderson’s base is grounded and largely immobile, leaning forward with his right hand constantly at the ready. Though this style may seem counterintuitive in the age of the hyper-mobile, volume kickboxer, this stance is a potent structure from which to throw his destructive right cross, colloquially referred to as the “H-Bomb." The rigidity of his stance belies how quickly he can cover distance in sudden bursts with his weapon of choice.
Though it would be easy to dismiss him as a murderous hitter with nothing but one big punch, there is real craft to what Henderson does. The devastating effects of his right hand are enabled in part by how skillfully he throws it; he shifts his weight into it perfectly, pulls his head off of the center line to avoid retaliation, and can throw it as both a lead and a counter, in combination or as a single strike. From distance, in the clinch, as a hook, straight, or uppercut, Henderson’s right hand is a diverse tool.
The PRIDE legend’s setups for the right hand are numerous; against Hector Lombard, we saw perhaps his most varied array of setups yet. Taking outside foot positioning against a southpaw like Lombard is usually a preferable strategy for an orthodox fighter, but Henderson repeatedly used this outside foot positioning as a feint to bait a reaction from the Cuban. Jabs and low kicks served as tools to increase his volume and open up opportunities for combinations involving the right hand.
Reaching towards Lombard’s lead leg with his left to give the impression of a takedown attempt, Henderson would quickly pop back up immediately into a straight right. Feints have become a larger part of his arsenal as he has adjusted his skillset in the twilight years of his career. While his game may be predicated largely on a single weapon, his applications of that weapon are technical, and come with a veteran’s consideration for the flow and strategy of a fight.
Though the mechanisms of their incredible longevity at the apex of the sport are different, they share some key commonalities. Both men are noted for their incredible mental fortitude and dogged determination. In his unanimous decision victory against Anderson Silva, Bisping was badly hurt and almost finished by a flying knee in the closing seconds of the third round. Lesser men would have proven unable to recover, but Michael Bisping is no lesser man. Seemingly unphased, he marched forward and continued to implement a consistent, attritive gameplan, winning the pivotal fourth round and securing the victory.
During his most recent outing against the aforementioned Lombard, Henderson was dropped and staggered multiple times, yet his determination was unwavering. After almost succumbing to Lombard’s power in round one, the American calmly approached with the same kill-or-be-killed mentality, undeterred by his close encounter with defeat. This is a common theme in Dan Henderson’s fights; until the moment the referee stops the bout, it is impossible to completely dissuade the threat of the H-Bomb.
The knockout came swiftly afterwards, as Lombard braced for a kick to the body, and instead received a thudding shin, colliding directly with his skull. A backwards elbow and a series of followup forearm strikes left Lombard motionless in the cage for what seemed like several minutes. The only person who did not seem surprised was Dan Henderson.
As strange a middleweight title bout as it may seem, the persistence with which each man has extracted every last piece of utility from their skillsets, and from their bodies, has allowed a truly special fight to come to fruition; a fight which seems to be outside of the realms of time and space, defying conventional expectations. That such a fight should be contested for the most important prize in mixed martial arts can be attributed largely to the immense grit and audacious defiance of two of the sport’s most unflappable figures.
Time will cause even the greatest of men to wither and decay, eventually. This is a universal truth which cannot be denied. For these two men, however, the limits of human willpower present the most compelling argument that even the universe’s truths may not be absolute.
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