Henderson-Rua II shows that the fighters still have what it takes
It was 94 degrees inside the Ginásio Nélio Diaz, with humidity at 86 percent. The main event was scheduled for 25 minutes.
Too much to bear for a 43-year-old fighter and an opponent who, though 11 years his junior, has put a lot of blistering miles on his body and soul?
While doing the math, don't forget to add in all the turned-up heat of the metaphorical kind. Dan Henderson, though an everlasting elder, had lost three fights in a row. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua had dropped four of seven since reigning as light heavyweight champion. Another defeat could flip either man out of the frying pan and into the fire.
Of course, the essential number in these fistic calculations was II. Sunday's UFC Fight Night main event in Natal, Brazil, was a rematch. Not just any do-over, though, but the second coming of a 2011 bout glorified as one of the greatest brouhahas in mixed martial arts history. There was a lot of history to live up to.
There were questions to be answered, too, but in the end here's the sum total of what the Q&A process wrought:
A: An upside-down map of Brazil.
Q: What did Shogun's nose look like after Hendo got through with him?
Yes, Henderson did the flattening (with a craggy bend to the right) at 1:31 of the third round to get his career chugging on an uphill track again. That's not to say Rua was derailed, though, because this fight was his until the moment when he and his proboscis ran into a right hand that sent them tumbling backward, head over heels, battered nose over tested chin.
So both men's careers live on. Each had moments that suggest he'd be a handful for some Top 10 light heavies. But there were spells during the slow-paced fisticuffs -- and maybe the thermometer had as much to do with this as the calendar -- when time seemed to have passed both of these fighters by. We ended up more or less where we started, not quite sure what we still have in Dan Henderson (30-11) and Shogun Rua (22-9), at least in a big-picture sense.
Zeroing in on just these two men and their two fights, we do know we have something special. The sequel might not have provided the sustained exhilaration of the original -- what bout could live up to that thrill-a-minute tussle won by Hendo via decision? -- but there was drama and plenty of it.
The fight began in earnest with 40 seconds to go in the first round, when Henderson's left hook dropped Rua. The Brazilian rose immediately, but Hendo backed him against the fence and went into swarm mode. Nothing landed, however, until Shogun's quick right-left counter put Henderson on the canvas and sent the crowd into a frenzy. For a moment, it appeared that Hendo had gone stiff, and referee Herb Dean rushed in for a closer look. But Henderson staved off a stoppage by slowly, deliberately making his way to his feet. Even though Shogun dragged him back to the mat, there were less than 20 seconds left for Rua to unleash some ground-and-pound. He got full mount position, but with only five seconds left. The horn sounded. Henderson had survived.
Curiously, Rua didn't launch an attack at the start of the second. Perhaps that's because the arena was a Bikram yoga studio and there were potentially 20 minutes left. The Brazilian was patient. Finally, midway through the round, Shogun landed a lead uppercut that felled Henderson. Dan looked wilted, but after Rua pounced on him, he was able to tie up Shogun's arms and minimize the damage. Rua remained measured in his assault, and Dean stood them up with 45 seconds to go. Again, Henderson endured.
Between rounds, Henderson's corner fed him a piece of advice: Rua was dropping his left hand after throwing jabs, Dan was told, leaving an opening for the right hand known as the H-Bomb. Hendo heeded the tip, countering Shogun's first jab of the third round with a huge overhand right. It hit nothing but air. Rua, out of harm's way, took in a breath and reset. Again and again, Shogun jabbed and Hendo flung big leather that created nothing but wind. But then Henderson changed things up, lunging forward for a takedown attempt. Rua defended it well, but Hendo spun him around and landed a crushing right.
Shogun was sent backwards, head over heels, and Henderson chased him down, connecting with a solid right to the chin of the fallen fighter. Rua ended up on hands and knees, grabbing for a leg, grasping at air. Henderson kept hitting him in the head until Dean intervened, whereupon Shogun tried to get up and rubber-legged onto his back. He lay there, arms limply at his side, nose bloodied and bruised purple and rearranged, as Henderson stomped across the cage and leapt up onto the fence in exultation.
Then Henderson went over, helped Rua to his feet, and hugged him. As much as he was holding the wobbly Shogun up, he was feeling the brotherhood.
"This one probably means more than most," Henderson said after his hand had been raised. "Shogun has been such a big part of mixed martial arts, and such a talented and tough fighter. Especially the year I had last year, coming off of that, I wanted to make sure I got a win."
That he did. Maybe it saved his career. Maybe it simply prolonged one that, in a division with a title fight looming in a month and two challengers waiting in line, no longer exists in the heady clouds where men dream of championships. Wherever Hendo is headed from here -- and Rua, too, for that matter -- the thing that cannot be taken away is that there's some fight left.
"That third round," said Henderson, "I think we both decided to get after it and leave things where we left the last fight."