Appreciate Henderson-Rua II for what it is, not how it's billed
"Ten years have passed," you'll say to yourself some day in 2021, "and we're still talking about Hendo vs. Shogun?"
It didn't seem like hyperbole when those words opened an SI.com story published a few days after a mixed martial arts fight in the fall of 2011. Dan Henderson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua had created a resounding buzz with five heart-thumping rounds in which they'd traded punches and kicks, blood and sweat, a killer's relentless brutality and a survivor's unimaginable doggedness to persist. Their meeting in the main event of UFC 139 in San Jose, Calif., ended up being the consensus Fight of the Year. And what they created was bigger even than that. Their masterpiece's aura was vast and beautiful and seemed even eternal.
Well, 10 years have not passed, not even quite two and a half trips around the sun. Hendo vs. Shogun does still luxuriate in the memory of many fans. But the UFC isn't satisfied with reminiscence. It's selling us on a rematch.
Overselling, really. It's not that Sunday night's Henderson vs. Rua II in Natal, Brazil (7 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1), is an uninteresting matchup. Both men are what keepers of history like to call legends of the sport, and we know from experience that they are capable of co-authoring a thrill-a-minute tussle. But ...
"The most anticipated rematch in UFC history"?
That's the angle being taken -- and the words being gushed -- in the company's prefight promotional spots on Fox. Yes, it's undeniable that selling fans on a fight often does come down to a barker's confidence game playing on emotions and expectations to extract money or time. But still, words do matter, especially superlatives.
Amplifying momentousness is a natural occurrence in sports. It's an understandable and practically inevitable outgrowth of the excitement of The Big Moment. Back on the night when Henderson and Rua first threw down, exclamations took hold of the telecast to the point where it turned into an infomercial for "wow!" At one point, blow-by-blow announcer Mike Goldberg just said what the hell and proclaimed that we might be witnessing "the greatest fight in UFC history." In the moment, even that seemed a reasonable claim.
One of the things that Henderson vs. Rua had over other heart-pounding fisticuffs was that the matchup was bigger than the way it played out. Think about more recent fights that have gotten the blood boiling. "Bigfoot" Silva vs. Mark Hunt sure was a slobberknocker, but what did it mean, really? Those two guys met down near the bottom rung of the heavyweight Top 10, a factor that made the fight not irrelevant but not so impactful, either. The same could be said for many other greatest fights ever.
But remember where Henderson and Rua were in their careers when their paths crossed. Remember what they had done. "Shogun" was one fight removed from having been UFC light heavyweight champion. Sandwiched around his drubbing in the coronation party of Jon Jones and his failed first attempt wresting the crown from Lyoto Machida, Rua had notched knockouts of three fighters who'd worn UFC gold: Chuck Liddell, Machida and Forrest Griffin. "Shogun" was a killer.
So was Henderson. The Rua fight represented his return to the UFC for his third stint with the company. Two years earlier, after decapitating Michael Bisping with a thunderous right hand in the final bout on his contract, the two-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling had taken an offer from Strikeforce. Hendo stumbled in his debut, a middleweight title challenge of Jake Shields, but then scored a couple of knockouts to win the light heavyweight title. For the final fight in his deal, he elected not to defend the belt but instead to take a fight at heavyweight against perhaps the greatest of all time. He KO'd Fedor Emelianenko in the first round, and the UFC rolled out the red carpet.
So when Henderson and Rua stepped into the octagon on Nov. 19, 2011, each man was at or near the top of his game. After Hendo won the decision that night in San Jose, he was slated to challenge Jones for the belt. But the fight never happened -- nor did the UFC 151 as a whole -- and a moment in time was gone forever.
Sunday's fight is not going to undo all that has unraveled.
Henderson (29-11) has lost all three of his fights since beating Rua. He dropped a pair of split decisions -- to Machida and Rashad Evans -- and while that's a narrow margin on which to judge an athlete, he did seem to have lost a step. That sense grew demonstrably back in November, when he was knocked out by Vitor Belfort in barely a minute.
"Shogun" (22-8) has faded as well. After recovering from the Hendo beating, he came back from oblivion to pull off a fourth-round finish of Brandon Vera. But then he lost his next two fights, including being submitted by Chael Sonnen. In December he got back on the marked trail with a highlight-reel KO, but James Te-Huna is no Top 10 light heavy.
So where is Henderson? Where is Rua?
Hendo's circumstance seems more dire than Shogun's. Dan is 43 now, and with testosterone replacement therapy having been banned by the Nevada State Athletic Commission and other regulatory bodies making it near impossible to get an exemption, his days in the sport are numbered. Will a fourth loss in a row make the UFC decide to no longer do business with him? Probably not. But it's not out of the question that Henderson would walk away.
Rua, on the other hand, might still have some fight left. He's a 32-year-old with a lot of miles on him, but he could derive momentum from Sunday night. He'd be wise to use that momentum to propel himself into the middleweight division, where he's not going to get bullied and where opportunities are not so far off into the future. (In the 205-pound class, there are two guys already in line for the winner of next month's Jones vs. Glover Teixeira bout.) Then again, Shogun needs to show us that he's still worthy of relevancy.
Relevancy isn't everything in this game. Sometimes a fight is just a fight. It appears out of nothingness and takes us nowhere, but in the here and now it's sublime. That's the mindset that best fits this bout. If we attach to it all of the expectations built up from watching Henderson and Rua do battle back in 2011 -- that is, if we treat it like "the most anticipated rematch in UFC history" -- we're destined for disappointment. But if we just sit back and watch, with no rewriting of a glorious past and no expectation for a crowning future, we might just end up with another exhilarating viewing experience.