Josh Gross
Tuesday September 1st, 2009

Randy Couture said it simply enough after dropping a competitive decision to Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira: The Brazilian great is who the former two-division UFC champion thought he was.

UFC 102's instant classic main event brought out the best in both men, but no one needed it more than Nogueira, whose previous three fights in the UFC did little to inspire memories of the "Minotauro" that swept, submitted and willed his way through wars in Japan. In his previous UFC fight, a loss to Frank Mir in December 2008, Nogueira seemed to have lost his edge, his tenacity and grit in the Octagon. And now 33 with a (32-5-1), Nogueira had been questioned more than his 46-year-old opponent with a 16-9 record.

But against Couture, Minotauro appeared a transformed fighter, and those questions can disappear for a while. It's time to appreciate how terrific he's been throughout a decade-long career. And just the same, it's possible to envision him mattering again. When he's healthy, motivated and in shape, Nogueira remains one of the top heavyweights competing in mixed martial arts. When he needed it most, Nogueira was great against Couture.

Watching from inside what everyone involved described as one of the most raucous arenas to host a UFC event -- "That was like concert loud," UFC president Dana White said of the Rose Garden. "My ears are still ringing after that one." -- it's possible no one has more competitive knowledge about both Nogueira and Couture than Dan Henderson.

The current UFC contender at 185 and 205 pounds dealt with Nogueira twice in Japan (winning a controversial decision and losing by armbar) and conspired with Couture to create one of MMA's first great fight gyms, Team Quest.

Sunday night after returning home to California, Henderson said he was surprised by Nogueira's ability to hurt Couture on the feet during their 15 minutes together. (Couture was surprised as well.)

Though Henderson believes his old sparring partner has good fights in him still -- nice for the UFC since The Natural just re-signed with the organization for an additional 28 months and six fights -- "I think there's some guys in the sport that don't have the chins they used to, and maybe Randy's one of them," he said. "He got caught a little too much in that fight."

But Henderson had his eyes fixed on another tough battle at UFC 102.

After his over Michael Bisping in July, Henderson was told he was next in line to fight for Anderson Silva's UFC middleweight title. But Henderson was given another story leading up to Saturday's card. If Demian Maia or Nate Marquardt were impressive in victory, either could join Henderson as Silva's next challenger, White said during a pre-fight press conference.

And Marquardt was as impressive as they come in knocking out the previously undefeated Maia in 21 seconds. Sure enough, White confirmed afterward that both fighters are "in the mix for a title shot against Anderson."

There has been some chatter, mainly out of Silva's camp, about Henderson fighting the Marquardt-Maia winner -- the idea being a true No. 1 contender would be crowned, making a championship fight with Silva even more significant -- instead of a rematch versus "The Spider."

Henderson, however, isn't open the idea.

"I think I'm the one guy that poses enough dangers [to Silva] style-wise," he said. "If I were his manager, I'd be trying not to have him fight me as well. I know that Anderson Silva is really trying not to fight me. It's obvious."

Henderson said if the UFC came to him with a bout against Marquardt, he would turn it down and seek challenges at light heavyweight.

"I think he's right in line for a title shot as well, but I feel I've earned that already," Henderson said. "That's a fight that more than likely will happen in the future, but I think right now, from the UFC's standpoint, they shouldn't be having me and Nate fight each other. They're going to get stuck without any new opponents for Anderson Silva.

"Silva is the only fight that interests me at 185. I said that before Nate's fight."

It's hard to get a read on Dana White sometimes, especially when he doesn't know what he wants.

Watching Couture-Nogueira alongside Brock Lesnar on Saturday, White mentioned to the UFC heavyweight champion how much he'd love for the three-round war to be pushed to five. Lesnar agreed.

"You know how many times I've been ringside and said, 'God, I wish this was a five-round fight?'" White said.

But when he was asked about implementing extended non-title fights in the UFC, which became possible earlier this month because of a rule change in Nevada, White said he "won't do it."

"I think that's what's so special about fighting for the title," he responded. "When you fight for a title it's a five-round fight. When you don't, it's a three-round fight. So if everything can be five rounds, what's the point in having title fights five rounds? It just doesn't make sense to me. Even though, as a fan myself, I'd like to see some fights go five rounds that aren't."

It's rare when a fan is actually in position to do something about it.

For his part, when it comes to fighting opponents like Couture, Minotauro agrees: "It was an amazing fight," he said. "I was enjoying it a lot. It was tough. But I know I could go more than that. I was ready to fight five rounds."

And many people, including myself, were ready to watch.

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