First Blood: Dan Henderson recounts the crowd riots & instincts from his first fight

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JUNE 06: Dan Henderson reacts to his victory over Tim Boetsch in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Smoothie King Center on June 6, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/ Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

NEW ORLEANS, LA - JUNE 06: Dan Henderson reacts to his victory over Tim Boetsch in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Smoothie King Center on June 6, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. (Photo by Stacy Revere/ Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Dan Henderson entered his first MMA fights, nearly 20 years ago, with just a couple weeks of specific training, but also a lifetime of wrestling, and fighting instincts.

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Friday afternoon Dan Henderson walked out on stage in the Ibirapuera State Gymnasium, Sao Paulo to weigh-in for his fight today against Brazilian fighting hero Vitor Belfort and was greeted with loud chants of "You're going to die!" in Portuguese. The 45 year-old smiled, seeming genuinely amused, stepped on the scale, made weight, then faced-off with Vitor for the photographers in attendance.

There are probably few people on earth who could walk into a room with thousands of people screaming for their death, and respond calmly with a knowing grin. How does Henderson do it?

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Well, it can't hurt that he'd been there before. Well, at least down the street.

"It's actually right down street," Henderson tells FOX Sports.

The fighter is talking about the location of his very first MMA, (or, as it was back then, Vale Tudo, or "everything goes") fight, in 1997. The two-time Olympian had agreed to fight in a one-night tournament in Sao Paulo with limited rules and a hostile crowd as his first bout of the night came against a Brazilian - Crezio de Souza.

When Henderson's attack prompted the referee to stop the contest, the Brazilian crowd did not react well. "We were fighting just across the way from where I'm fighting Vitor, Saturday. The crowd was pretty amped. The ref stopped the fight a little bit soon and they weren't used to fights getting stopped at all in Brazil. They started throwing things, and storming the cage, trying to get in the cage," he remembers.

"I was hoping they were going after the ref, not me (laughs). I just took it in stride. Luckily the cage was 10 feet tall and nobody got in. I had one more fight after that, and they switched out the referee."

Surprisingly, Henderson says that the harrowing experience that followed his first ever MMA win isn't what helped him cultivated the mental toughness that he'd go on to be known for throughout his now near 20-year and legendary fight career. Dangerous Dan's mind has always been war-ready, in large part to his lifetime of high-level wrestling experience.

"No, mentally I've always been pretty solid," he says, matter-of-factly.

"I think a lot of that was because of my wrestling career. That was probably the biggest thing going in my favor when I got into fighting - my wrestling background."

It may have very well been the only thing Henderson had in his favor. Before that night in Sao Paulo, Henderson said he'd not really ever been in street fights, had never sparred, and really didn't have any skills beyond his considerable wrestling ones.

Oh, and he took the bouts on just two-weeks' notice. Just because.

"I probably had two weeks of training before those two first fights in Brazil," he remembers.

"[Former heavyweight and light-heavyweight UFC champion] Randy [Couture] and I were training partners for awhile and we had talked about maybe doing some fights for a little money. The next thing you know, Randy filled out an application to fight in the UFC. He was turned down so he decided to go fight in Brazil. They had a spot for a lightweight also, so I said, 'yeah, I'll do it.' Then, someone got hurt in the UFC and they called Randy to fight, there. So Tom Erickson went to Brazil instead, and I still went."

So both Henderson and Couture began their fight careers in unlikely and inconspicuous ways. They would go on to become two of the most accomplished MMA fighters in history, but heading into their first fights, they really had no idea on how to prepare.

"Mostly we trained submission defenses and stuff like that," he recounts.

"Because, I didn't know how to do anything. We didn't do any sparring. Even before my first fights in the UFC, I hadn't sparred before. We just hit pads and bags, and started."

In 1997 most athletes outside of Brazil, or without experience in the new UFC, or Japan's Pancrase or UWF organizations, had no idea what to expect in realistic fights. It was natural, then, to be especially nervous.

"I was probably a little nervous before the first fights, because I hadn't done this before," Henderson admits.

"I hadn't been in any street fights, either. I got a little nervous but then they shut the cage and after in started, it was instinctual. We were off, and it was fun."

Dan Henderson (L) has had killer instinct and mental strength in him from the very start.

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Every man or woman enjoys winning, but whether or not they get enjoyment from the moments of simply being in a scrap is probably the most accurate measure of if a person is meant to be a fighter or not. So is how they respond to getting hit.

Dan Henderson had his answers for both, very quickly. He fought and won twice that night, June 15, 1997.

He liked hitting other fighters, and learned that getting hit himself wasn't too scary. "It wasn't that bad getting hit," he says.

"I was able to keep going, moving forward, and stay aggressive."

In that way, Henderson's fighting style would never change. The two-time Olympic wrestler brings world-class skills to bear in his MMA contests, to be sure, but he still chooses to be that same instinct fighter that he was during his fight fights.

When there's a man in front of him, Henderson tries to hit him. When he gets hit, he tries to get up and hit his man, again.

There is no backing up, there is no time to waste. Brazilian crowds storming his ring or chanting "You're going to die," notwithstanding, fans have greatly appreciated and rewarded Henderson for his approach.

The remembering may have been fun for Henderson, and the career symetry worth noting, but he's got his next fight in front of him. For the instinct fighter, all the reflecting in the world takes a back seat to the business on hand, tonight.

"It is pretty neat that where I'm fighting [tonight] is literally down the street from where I had my very first fight," he allows.

"It is interesting, but at the same time, this fight is its own thing. And, I've got to make sure I win it."