Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Temecula fighter holds two major titles in mixed martial arts

By David A. Avila

Minutes before stepping into the ring, Dan Henderson had a face of steely calm despite facing the feared and internationally revered Wanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva.

No problem.

Henderson knocked out Silva, a highly touted mixed martial arts fighter, on Feb. 24 to capture the Pride Fighting championship middleweight title to go along with his welterweight title. He's the only MMA fighter to hold two major titles in two weight classes simultaneously.

Few expected Henderson to avenge an earlier loss to the Brazilian.

"I'm a much better fighter now than six years ago," Henderson, 36, said almost apologetically. "We both improved."

Though the Temecula resident is not one to boast of his exploits, the impact of his win sent shivers across the mixed martial arts world.

"I jumped out of my seat," said Craig Rice, who was filming Henderson for a local television station and is an avid MMA fan.

Henderson has that effect on MMA fans.

Long an Olympic-style wrestler, Henderson attempted to make the 2000 U. S. Olympic team that competed in Australia but was not chosen.

"I came up a little bit short," Henderson, who had qualified for the 1992 and 1996 Greco-Roman teams, said. "I had set goals to medal in the Olympics."

But life can make some crazy turns, and though he had not considered MMA as a career path, suddenly Henderson realized the door was open.

Despite being reared as a wrestler from age 5, Henderson, who grew up in Apple Valley, quickly adopted striking skills to supplement his world-class skills as a grappler.

"I've been known to be more of a knockout guy," he said. "Most of the guys in the elite level are able to get out of submission holds. I've learned to finish a fight with a punch. I hit kind of hard."

The Team Quest gym in Murrieta that Henderson co-owns, and another one in Oregon, have histories of producing MMA fighters with a background in wrestling who quickly adapt to fist- and kick-fighting techniques. Randy Couture, who holds the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight title, and Matt Lindland, who is set to face Russia's Fedor Emelianenko for the Pride heavyweight title, all come from wrestling backgrounds.

Recently, Henderson returned from Japan to California, where MMA has quickly emerged as a fan favorite after being sanctioned by the state in January 2006. Pride Fighting's success was based in Japan, where crowds of 70,000 people are not uncommon. That kind of fanfare has prepared the Temecula fighter for the bright lights of Las Vegas.

So when Henderson was told he would fight Silva, one of the icons of MMA, he was quietly excited despite being a 6-1 underdog according to Las Vegas bookmakers.

"I was very confident I would win," Henderson said.

From the outset of the match at the Thomas & Mack Center, Henderson dominated.

"He destroyed Silva from the beginning," said Cesar Garcia, a reporter for Combat News. "It was no contest."

Henderson has propelled himself to rarified air in MMA circles. But it hasn't stopped him from sharing fighting knowledge with his teammates.

"He really tries his best to share his knowledge and wisdom," said Aaron Crecy, a friend and business partner.

After his win over Silva, it was revealed that Henderson broke his right hand, possibly in the first round. But he has big plans once the hand heals, including bouts against rival MMA organization UFC stalwarts such as Anderson Silva and Chuck Liddell.

"I hope they do come together," said Henderson, of the rival MMA companies agreeing to pit their best against each other.

MMA fans are salivating about Henderson and anyone else after his victory against Silva.

"He's a superstar," Garcia said.

WEC in Las Vegas

The World Extreme Cagefighting organization will hold its second event in Las Vegas at the Hard Rock Hotel and Casino on Saturday.

Rancho Cucamonga's John "The Natural" Alessio (19-10) faces Carlos Condit (19-4), of New Mexico, for the vacant WEC welterweight title, and Urijah "The California Kid" Faber (17-1) defends his WEC featherweight title against Dominic Cruz (9-0), of San Diego. A third title bout features WEC featherweight champ Eddie Wineland, of Indiana, defending against Chicago's Chase Beebe (9-1).

For information, call 800-929-1111 or 702-891-7777.

MMA in Irvine

Roy Englebrecht Promotions will stage its first MMA event April 1 at the Irvine Marriott Hotel. Givanildo Santana meets Virgil Lozano in a cruiserweight bout and Bao Quach meets Shad Smith.

For tickets or information, call 949-760-3131.


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