While he was on the short end of a razor-thin decision loss to Lyoto Machida at UFC 157 last night (Feb. 23, 2013), Dan Henderson is not erased from the short list of likely challengers for Light Heavyweight champion Jon Jones within the next year.
In a stacked division like, say, Lightweight, that wouldn't be the case, especially for an aging star with limited fights left in the tank. But Henderson, 42, wasn't grossly outclassed against Machida, and he remains the best combination of punching power, chin and experience to provide a real threat to the "Bones." And given Jones' run of terror through the big-name cadre at 205-pound contenders, the most marketable Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) star is already in the position of having cleared the cupboard of virtually all the marquee-level challengers who existed when he seized the belt in March 2011 from Mauricio Rua.
The UFC's present cupboard isn't particularly deep for fresh challengers; however, its working to develop young talent into marketable contenders, which is why Alexander Gustaffson is taking on Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel TV 9 on April 6, 2013, as the undeserving Chael Sonnen occupies the The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 17 slot opposite Jones, and gets a title shot at UFC 159 on April 27, 2013.
It's quite possible that Gustaffson wins without looking particularly impressive, especially if he reverts to the shake-and-bake, stick-and-move style he used to decision Rua. Mousasi, meanwhile, is probably one of the most accomplished fighters in mixed martial arts (MMA) who few casual fans know of. He could also win that fight without necessarily looking impressive, though the chances of that are smaller that Gustaffson's, and even if he does win in memorable fashion, the UFC still needs a big-name opponent.
Glover Teixeira is on his way toward becoming a big name, and his decision win over Quinton Jackson was a nice boost. However, he'll have to best Ryan Bader May 25 and do so in stellar fashion to keep the momentum moving.
And out of he, Gustaffson and Mousasi, the latter is the only one who seemingly possesses the tools to even give Jones a whiff of trouble as it is. Gustaffson's wrestling and lack of stand up power are serious concerns, while Teixeira has considerable gifts, but his stand up would never let him get within a cab ride of taking down Jones. Mousasi would be a longshot as it is, but I've always believed the key to beating Jones is a helluva chin and persistent commitment to stand up, and Mousasi is the kinda guy who can take a beating and keep firing away.
Ditto for Henderson, whose takedown defense might actually be good enough to deny Jones early takedowns enough to stay competitive. And that's where Henderson's accrued name value and a Hall of Fame career make him a lock. It's no accident Sonnen -- who has zero meaningful wins at light heavyweight -- landed the TUF 17 gig and title shot, because the UFC has clearly tilted its priorities toward dollars and selling tickets when it needs to.
The business model requires some semblance of sellability, and at least a highlight-reel's worth of impressive stuff (which Henderson has) or smack-talk (which Sonnen is eminently capable of supplying) to sell them as challengers.
Given that he's 42, I won't be surprised to see the UFC park Henderson in a nice spot for his next bout and give him someone he can look good against. A rematch against Rua would be a solid move, and keep him in the win column, most likely, given Shogun's considerable mileage and faded showings of late.
Saturday night wasn't a win for Henderson in the record-keeping sense. But, it wasn't a glaring loss to knock him out of the Jones sweepstakes, especially given the fact that he brings a lot of threats to the table that nobody else does where Jones is concerned.
At this point, that's enough to keep you on the short list for a light heavyweight title shot.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst