Sweat poured down Dan Henderson as he pumped his arms and legs through the final minute of a 25-minute Versaclimber workout that closed his final rigorous day of training last week. In relief came reflection.
"That's the last … time I've got to do that thing," Henderson exclaimed to no one in particular, perhaps himself. "That thing is so great to get you in shape, but I … hate it."
This is a sentimental journey, UFC-style.
Temecula's Henderson, 46, has one fight left in him, and it's the biggest one possible.
It arrives Saturday, a rematch of his UFC 100 knockout-of-the-night destruction of England's Michael Bisping in 2009. Henderson has now ventured to Manchester, Britain, to challenge new middleweight champion Bisping, 37, in the main event of UFC 204.
There's much to dislike about fighting for a living.
Fists and kicks to the body and head have afflicted Henderson, who moves and speaks slower than he did even five years ago. Early during his recent workout, his stride looked to be one of a man in his 60s. He complained of being "tired," hobbling toward a treadmill.
Henderson (32-14) made his professional mixed martial arts debut in 1997. He's worn belts in the UFC and the now-defunct Japan-based Pride and Strikeforce circuits, fighting legends Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson while winning a Rings MMA tournament that required three fights in one night.
"That was the hardest night of them all," he said.
Friends and family gathered at the Forum on June 4 for what many expected to be Henderson's goodbye fight. It was the final bout on his UFC contract. Yet he resurrected the old energy and produced a stunning second-round knockout of Cuban Hector Lombard that bore resemblance to then 45-year-old George Foreman's title-knockout of Michael Moorer.
"Knowing I'm still capable of being dangerous and vicious, able to beat the top guys definitely makes me feel confident," Henderson said.
Later that night, his old rival Bisping landed enough heavy punches to win the UFC middleweight belt by knockout over younger Luke Rockhold.
Something always seems to get in the way of retirement for Henderson, and suddenly it was a rematch of the memorable 2009 bout when Henderson not only rendered Bisping unconscious with a massive punch to the jaw, but followed with a flying elbow to the face on the canvas that generated cheers and scorn.
"That one was just to shut him up a little bit," Henderson said in the octagon that night. But the devastating finish hasn't quieted Bisping, who surveyed the field of title contenders and found the Henderson option most appetizing.
The fact that UFC President Dana White pushed for the Bisping-Henderson rematch qualifies as a considerate gesture to the old-timer — not that anyone's getting mushy.
"I don't know that it shows Dana White has a heart. It shows this fight is his biggest money maker and he's giving the fans what they want," Henderson said. "To have the opportunity to have my last fight be a title shot is huge for me. … I'm not emotional that this is my last … though my focus is on making sure I win the belt.
"Our first fight obviously gives me confidence going into the second … you'd think it's still in the back of his mind [that] I'm capable of doing things to him. He's an arrogant guy and coming off a knockout win. I'm sure he'll be a little more confident than usual with his hands, and I welcome that."
Although he signed a multi-fight contract for the shot at Bisping, Henderson insisted, "I will absolutely retire with that belt."
Doing so would be like parting with an old friend. Fighting has sustained Henderson through getting married, raising his two children, getting divorces and marrying again.
It's left him distraught over consecutive title losses to Jackson and Silva in 2007-08, perplexed over setbacks to later PED-tainted opponents Vitor Belfort and Jake Shields and overjoyed in landing his signature power right hand on former Pride champion Wanderlei Silva.
"I'm definitely going to miss the competition," Henderson said. "I don't know what's kept my body going at 46, other than I know this is part of my life. I need to wake up and prepare for competition."
Henderson said he's been assured by UFC officials there will be a discussion about a possible future role with the company following Saturday's fight. His own gym, Dan Henderson's Athletic Fitness Center, has 850 members, so he could serve in an ambassador's role as the UFC moves toward opening a new training campus early next year in Las Vegas
"I know I have a lot to offer to the fighters and the fans, and I speak to the media well. It's something I'll figure out after this fight," Henderson said. "There's plenty of things I'm capable of doing and I'm at that point mentally that I'm ready to do something different."