Meeting Dan Henderson

Dan Henderson added another victory to his Hall of Fame career last weekend when he stopped Tim Boetsch in less than an minute.    I first met Henderson in late 2007 as he  first began to compete in the UFC  after his run in the old Pride FC of Japan.  Two things that stand out in my mind about this story, which I originally filed for FIGHT! Magazine in 2007; the first is  that it was the first time I met Jason “Mayhem” Miller, a fighter  who would go on to achieve minor celebrity and infamy in the sport over the next few years  and secondly that Henderson assured me that he could beat Fedor Emelianenko.  At the time this seemed like the height of over confidence since Fedor was obliterating everybody in site and was much bigger than Dan, but four  years later Henderson made good on his prediction, stopping Fedor in the first round, surprising everyone in the world but himself.  


About 50 miles north of San Diego on High­way 15, right in the mid­dle of South­ern California’s wine coun­try, is a non­de­script build­ing next door to a bal­let stu­dio. This is Team Quest’s Cal­i­for­nia MMA train­ing cen­ter and on any given day you are likely to find sev­eral of the most tal­ented fight­ers in the world here.

As I enter the Team Quest Gym, I am greeted by a cacoph­ony of grunts, shouts, and exha­la­tions, as the fight­ers go about their work­outs. The sound of a huge man hit­ting the biggest tire that I have ever seen with a 20 pound sledge­ham­mer thumps heav­ily through the air. The Red Hot Chili Pep­pers’ Snow is barely dis­cernible on the gym’s sound sys­tem over all the noise.

Where did they get a tire that big? I wonder.

Scan­ning the gym, I see an intim­i­dat­ing assort­ment of equip­ment. In addi­tion to the punch­ing bags, box­ing ring, ply­o­met­ric steps and free weights there is a more sin­is­ter array: the mam­moth tire which I learn later weighs 400 pounds, a long rope hang­ing from the high ceil­ing for climb­ing, ket­tle bells, and a col­lec­tion of mys­te­ri­ous look­ing blue metal bars. There is also Red Man, the long suf­fer­ing 130 pound prac­tice dummy used for devel­op­ing throws and slams.

The team’s con­di­tion­ing coach, Dr. Ryan Par­sons, is putting the team through one of his patented work­outs. Dr. Par­sons stands to one side of the gym floor, giv­ing instruc­tions to his fight­ers in a steady monot­one voice that is dis­pas­sion­ate and yet some­how commanding.

Hit the tire,” he tells the huge guy.

Climb the rope,” he orders another man, who then shim­mies straight up to the ceiling.

Pick Red Man up and slam him on his head… and again.” Red Man has a tough life.

Don’t rest, don’t rest,” Dr. Par­sons says if any­one starts to lag.

Go to the pull-up bar, go, go, go!”

The pace is mer­ci­less. I lose track of the num­ber and dura­tion of the exer­cises, but the ses­sion actu­ally inten­si­fies the more fatigued the ath­letes get. I later learn that Dr. Par­sons changes the order and length of the exer­cises.

“By call­ing out the exer­cises, it teaches guys to lis­ten and builds rap­port between an ath­lete and his coach,” he tells me. “In a fight, any­thing can hap­pen. A fighter has to be able to lis­ten to his cor­ner.” Dr. Par­sons designs the work­outs to imi­tate the con­di­tions of an actual fight as closely as pos­si­ble. His exotic array of exer­cises requires multi-joint move­ments along sev­eral planes, mim­ic­k­ing the type of move­ments made in a fight.


Shawn Thompkins and Ryan Parsons Photo Credit Paul Thatcher

I work them for a lit­tle longer than they will fight. If they are fight­ing in Pride with two ten minute rounds and a five minute final round then, maybe we’ll go for two twelve minute peri­ods and a seven. Dur­ing the cir­cuit, I work them really, really hard for forty to sixty sec­onds before let­ting them rest with a lighter exer­cise for a bit, because this is what hap­pens in a fight.” As he tells me, this I won­der which part of the bru­tal gaunt­let I wit­nessed would qual­ify as light.

Remark­ably, what I have just seen has been the warm-up. The real work­out is about to begin. Now it is time for grap­pling training.

The team runs through four or five drills to per­fect their tech­niques on the ground. They pair up and prac­tice how to most effec­tively clinch an oppo­nent, how to take him down, how to pass his guard and how to main­tain dom­i­nant posi­tion. In the escape drills, Dan Hen­der­son, the team’s reign­ing monarch does a lit­tle more than the rest and actu­ally escapes to a stand­ing posi­tion each time before resum­ing his posi­tion on the ground and begin­ning again.

After about thirty min­utes of this tech­nique train­ing, the first hints of real fatigue are begin­ning to show. After only a one-minute water break, the spar­ring por­tion of the work­out begins. Here is where it gets ugly.

The fight­ers work six five-minute rounds, switch­ing part­ners at the end of each round with no rest in between. The spar­ring becomes more real­is­tic and intense as the rounds progress. The fight­ers begin with take­downs and defense at about three-quarter speed in the first round. By the sixth round, they are punch­ing, kick­ing, and slam­ming each other around, doing every­thing they would in a real fight. Many of them look like they are at the point of utter exhaus­tion, but some­how they push on. This sav­age ordeal is designed to require the max­i­mum effort by the ath­letes at the finale, which sim­u­lates the late round push that is often the dif­fer­ence between vic­tory and defeat.

I real­ize that there is a win­now­ing process going on. For the mem­bers of Team Quest, there is no hid­ing from them­selves, or from each other. There is no ego here, no pos­tur­ing, or self-deception. Or if there is, it will not last long. If any­one does not have it in him to fight to the last breath, or if there is one iota of quit in him, it will be revealed in these work­outs. Team Quest has a proud tra­di­tion, and before some­one can rep­re­sent its stan­dard in the ring, he must prove him­self in the unyield­ing cru­cible of this gym.

Between the fifth and sixth round, Hen­der­son lit­er­ally works until he drops. His legs shak­ing from their exer­tion, he misses a step and col­lapses. He lies on the floor for a few sec­onds, seem­ingly injured, before he leaps up and is at his final spar­ring partner’s throat. Of all the fight­ers in the room, the only one who never appears to tire is Jason “May­hem” Miller.


Dan Henderson and Mayhem Miller. Photo Credit Paul Thatcher

In the early days of MMA, when the world was being intro­duced to the Gra­cies and the baf­fle­ment of Brazil­ian Jiu Jitsu, the game was all about tech­nique. Royce Gra­cie was not a bet­ter ath­lete than Kimo or Ken Sham­rock or Dan Sev­ern, but he beat them because he had knowl­edge of cer­tain tech­niques they did not know how to defend.

While the mem­bers of Team Quest all have exten­sive tech­ni­cal knowl­edge, they are first and fore­most world class ath­letes. If you face a mem­ber of Team Quest, not only will he likely know every tech­nique you do and how to counter it, but he will also be faster, stronger, and in bet­ter shape than you are.

The con­vic­tion that con­di­tion­ing and phys­i­cal­ity are keys to suc­cess was incul­cated in Dr. Par­sons and the other found­ing mem­bers of Team Quest when they were com­pet­ing as col­le­giate wrestlers. Every­one I ask points to this back­ground in com­pet­i­tive wrestling as a key fac­tor in the team’s remark­able success.

A col­lege wrestling room is the nas­ti­est place on the planet,” he says. “Its the hard­est work­out that any­body has ever done, so when guys go through that, they develop a cer­tain men­tal toughness.”

Dan Hen­der­son, a sil­ver medal­ist in the 1992 Olympics, explains the advan­tages of a wrestling back­ground like this:

While today I may fight three times a year, when I wres­tled it was maybe ten or twelve tour­na­ments a year with five matches a tour­na­ment. So our wrestling back­ground has built men­tal tough­ness. I mean, you fight the way you train, and we don’t quit when we train or when we fight. We have passed on that mind-set to the other mem­bers of the team.”

This mental toughness and the confidence it produces was one of the big advantages wrestlers like him, Lindland and Couture had when they first started breaking into the MMA.  Henderson mentions that he thinks he could beat Fedor—who had just defeated his old training partner Matt Lindland in less than 2 minutes and who outweighed Henderson by 50 pounds—without a hint of bravado, just one predator sizing up another.

As the final round ends and the work­out con­cludes, the tem­per­a­ture in the room has risen ten or fif­teen degrees, and the fight­ers are com­pletely drained. It is rare and impres­sive to see peo­ple spend them­selves so totally. Hav­ing wit­nessed what they go through in the gym, it is dif­fi­cult for me to imag­ine them ever fac­ing any­thing worse in the ring. I later dis­cover that they work out like this twice a day, five days a week!

I catch Dr. Par­sons after the work­out. “I would like to try the work­out,” I blurt out, not really expect­ing him to allow it. “Show up tomor­row at eleven,” he tells me, mat­ter of factly.

Why did I do that? The sane part of me wonders.

I don’t really have an answer, but when you see men like the Team Quest fight­ers who have so mas­tered them­selves through hard work, dis­ci­pline and force of will, it is hard not want to be at least a lit­tle bit like them.

While mem­ber­ship in the Team Quest Fight Team is invi­ta­tion only, the Cal­i­for­nia gym is open to the pub­lic. Pay­ing stu­dents can take a vari­ety of classes, and even be pri­vately coached by some of the fighters.

As I enter the next day, Thierry Sok­oud­jou, who has recently made a huge splash in Japan with back-to-back knock­outs of two of PRIDE FC’s biggest stars, is in the ring coach­ing a man on how to throw punches. Imag­ine being able to go to Yan­kee sta­dium and have Alex Rodriguez give you a bat­ting lesson.

The man slowly prac­tices the right upper­cut, left hook com­bi­na­tion Thierry has taught him to throw. His punches grad­u­ally get tighter and crisper as his mus­cles learn the move­ments. “Hey Sean, do you give a fuck that Thierry has won two big fights?” Dr. Par­sons shouts so that Thierry and the rest of the gym can over­hear him.

NO!” shouts back Sean Tomp­kins with the­atri­cal vehe­mence, as Thierry smirks and gives them a side­long glance from inside the ring.

Tomp­kins, a pro­tégé of the leg­endary Bas Rut­ten, is the team’s strik­ing coach and was recently named the head coach of Rutten’s old IFL team, the Ana­con­das. He has helped the mem­bers of Team Quest develop dev­as­tat­ing strikes to go along with their grap­pling abil­ity and con­di­tion­ing. When Thierry got his first shot in Pride, against Roge­rio Nogueira, he knocked the favored Brazil­ian out with a sin­gle left hook in only 28 sec­onds. In Dan Henderson’s last fight, a rematch with the vicious striker Wan­der­lei Silva, Hen­der­son com­pletely dom­i­nated the stand up exchanges and then knocked the dreaded Chute Boxe cap­tain out cold, again with a left hook.

I hit Wan­der­lei pretty hard with the right hand, then I missed one left hook but the sec­ond one got him. The key is I am start­ing to throw more punches.” Hen­der­son says. He cred­its Tomp­kins with much of his suc­cess with striking.

When I started, I wasn’t a nat­u­rally a dev­as­tat­ing puncher, and dur­ing the begin­ning of my career I wasn’t knock­ing any­body out. I didn’t know exactly where to put my punches or the cor­rect way to throw them, but now I have been able to refine that a lit­tle bit.”

This is typ­i­cal Hen­der­son under­state­ment. The left hook that sep­a­rated Mr. Silva from his senses was as pic­ture per­fect as ever seen. Not fast, but tight, short, and smooth, gain­ing its power from the weight Hen­der­son put behind it, along with the angle and lever­age with which he threw it. It showed Tompkins’s coach­ing exper­tise in action.

As Thierry’s pri­vate ses­sion ends, Tomp­kins and Jason Miller are sit­ting on the ring apron dis­cussing some­thing intently. What­ever they are talk­ing about, a wide-eyed and ges­tic­u­lat­ing Miller seems to be vehe­mently mak­ing his point.

Jason Miller is bois­ter­ous, inde­fati­ga­ble and decep­tively intel­li­gent. His ring name “May­hem” is as fit­ting a descrip­tion of what his life might be like with­out the dis­ci­pline of MMA, as it is of what he causes for his oppo­nents in the ring.


Jason “Mayhem” Miller Photo Credit Paul Thatcher

When Miller talks to you, there is an off­beat energy that draws you in. He has the sort of dan­ger­ous charisma that peo­ple who are half crazy some­times do.

I was a local tough guy with about bazil­lion street fights, always beat­ing every­body up. I had a crush on this girl so I got to know her brother. Well, he and I became friends, so I quit hav­ing a crush on his sis­ter but he was this lit­tle guy and a mar­tial arts geek. One day he shows me this tape of the Ulti­mate Fight­ing Cham­pi­onship. After I saw it I was like ‘man I can beat all of those guys up,’ not real­iz­ing that there is a lot more to it than being able to take a punch and punch a guy back Well one day he asks me to spar and I say, ‘against lit­tle you?’ So we go in the back yard and he kicks me in the stom­ach. I take him down and before I know it he has choked me uncon­scious with a tri­an­gle choke. I didn’t even know what it was. When I woke up I told him, ‘Man that was awe­some! I have to learn that.’”

It was a turn­ing point in young Miller’s life. From there Miller went on the road trav­el­ing wher­ever he could to get the best train­ing. He bounced around, train­ing with sev­eral camps, but has appar­ently found a home with Team Quest. He is Henderson’s most fre­quent spar­ring part­ner. Miller’s car­dio is sick.

As eleven o’clock rolls around, Dr. Par­sons asks me if I am ready. “I’m as ready as I get,” I tell him. Dr Par­sons, in a rare mer­ci­ful ges­ture, says he will only put me through two five-minute cir­cuits with a healthy rest in between.

Pick up the ham­mer and hit that tire,” He says.

Is there some tech­nique to it?” I ask before beginning.

Yes there is, you pick the ham­mer up swing it over your head and hit the tire,” He deadpans.

I see,” and so it begins.

Keep hit­ting. Breathe, you’re doing well,” he says look­ing at his stopwatch.

This isn’t as hard as it looks, I think to myself.

Start doing push-ups.” Still not so bad.

Run down there and jump up and down on the box,” he says, refer­ring to the ply­o­met­ric steps. I start to won­der how much time is left.

Go do pull-ups” I am now offi­cially gassing, and am embar­rassed by the fact that I can only do a cou­ple with­out resort­ing to using the nearby wall for help.

Pick up the med­i­cine ball and slam it down as hard as you can.” Hard but bet­ter than the pull-ups. “Sprint down there and slam Red Man.”

How?” I gasp, think­ing he will give me some secret lever­age trick that will make the task easier.

It doesn’t mat­ter, just do it. Pick him and throw him on the ground.” Tech­nique is not the point, phys­i­cal exer­tion is.



Again, slam him until I tell you to stop,” Dr. Par­sons’ instruc­tions come in the same con­stant cadence I remem­ber from the day before.

Do wind sprints to that wall and back. Keep going.” This sucks.

Now jump up on the ring and down.” Ryan expects me to be able to jump from the floor to the apron of the box­ing ring, but I have to cheat by using my hands for an extra boost at the last sec­ond. Again, the point is not so much the action as the phys­i­cal exer­tion involved.

Now take this med­i­cine ball and do squat jumps to the wall and back.” I’m an idiot.

Now throw the ball and hit the X on the wall,” He says point­ing to a blue X high on the wall by the pull-up bars and climb­ing rope.

Are you kid­ding me that must be 15 feet up there.

Do it and catch it on the way down, and do it until I tell you to stop,” Dr. Par­sons says tersely.

After what seems like about three days, he tells me that five min­utes have elapsed and I can stop. My arms are on fire, I’m utterly out of breath, and my head is spin­ning, but I didn’t have a heart attack, (which had been a pos­si­bil­ity), and I didn’t throw up, (which had been a prob­a­bil­ity). That wasn’t so bad.

Rest a lit­tle and we’ll do the sec­ond one,” he tells me.

Ouch! In my momen­tary hubris I have for­got­ten that I am sup­posed to do two circuits.

After a char­i­ta­bly long rest, I embarked on the sec­ond 5 minute cir­cuit. Suf­fice it to say that it was much, much harder. I hit the wall and thought I was done about the third time I swung the sledge­ham­mer at the start. Now, I real­ize what Dr. Par­sons meant when he spoke to me about lis­ten­ing. At a cer­tain point you become so fatigued that there is not enough energy for your con­scious mind and your body at the same time. What­ever men­tal dia­logue you have ceases, and the voice of the coach is like a rope which pulls you along as your body per­forms what it is instructed to do. Even though I feel like quit­ting after about 20 sec­onds I don’t. I some­how make it through the sec­ond cir­cuit as well. I can only attribute this to the fact that the fear of shame is a pow­er­ful moti­va­tor. I will also men­tion that while my shit list is not very long, Red Man is on it.

As I col­lapse next to the ring, gasp­ing like a drown­ing man, the thought runs through my mind that while this has prob­a­bly been the great­est phys­i­cal exer­tion that I will ever expe­ri­ence in my life, for the mem­bers of Team Quest it would have been just a warmup, and an easy one at that.

The next day it is time for me to go, and when I come in to tell the team good­bye I notice a rack of Team Quest mer­chan­dise. There are some cool Tshirts and var­i­ous types of fight gear and equip­ment. I pon­der a rack of baby hood­ies bear­ing the logo of this fear­some fight­ing club.

As I make my round of good­byes, there is a kick­box­ing class being run by Tomp­kins going on. There are sev­eral very attrac­tive women in the class, their pretty faces con­torted into grim and bel­li­cose expres­sions as they con­cen­trate on their punches and kicks.

As the class fin­ishes and they begin to file out, these women, who moments before seemed so intense and vio­lent change back into them­selves; into the peo­ple they are out­side of the gym. Their good­byes bub­ble through the air in the cheery strains of South­ern California.”


Dan Henderson wraps his hands before training. Photo Credit : Paul Thatcher


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