Dan Henderson is an old middleweight who may well be eight weeks away from beating the best heavyweight fighter anyone has ever seen into retirement. The fact I can write that sentence at all is a wonderful thing. There isn't much left of what fighting was before The Ultimate Fighter and mob scandals in Japan moved the sport's center of gravity from Tokyo to Las Vegas. After Henderson's fight against Fedor Emelianenko, there may be nothing left at all.
Long ago as it now seems, it was just four years ago that Pride FC, the Japanese fight promotion that ruled the sport for years, was dying. Its heavyweight champion, Emelianenko, was 30 years old and had spent years beating everyone put in front of him. Henderson, its welterweight champion (middleweight in American terms), was 36 and months removed from a loss to the fairly unremarkable Kazuo Misaki. One man was the most valuable commodity in the fight game. The other probably could have walked the Vegas strip wearing his title belt and not been bothered for an autograph.
In the years since, Emelianenko has been unique in that even his wins have harmed his reputation. Henderson has been unique in that even his losses have aided his. Their fight -- scheduled to take place July 30 in Hoffman Estates, Ill., just outside Chicago -- will carry the pattern forward.
From 2007 on, Emelianenko would never fight for Pride again. He spent years as a wandering mercenary, matched against unworthy opponents on second-tier shows for large sums of money before making a deal to fight for Strikeforce. A year ago he tapped to Fabricio Werdum, and in February Antonio Silva battered him senseless. The first two real losses of his career cost him his mystique and led the public to notice just how sketchy the quality of his opposition had been all along.
Henderson's last four years could not have been more different. In February 2007, he knocked out Wanderlei Silva in the main event of one of the greatest fight cards ever to become the first man to hold titles in two weight classes at the same time. He then joined UFC and lost them both, one to Anderson Silva in a bout where he came closer than anyone in years to putting the great man in trouble, and the other to Quinton Jackson in a close decision many felt he should have won. He's had six fights since, three coming after a move to Strikeforce, all against tough competition, and his only loss came in a bout where he more or less knocked out Jake Shields in the first round.
As a light heavyweight perhaps best known for competing in the middleweight division, Henderson essentially can't lose here. A loss to the best heavyweight of all time won't be held against him at all. He'll doubtless just tip his cap to a great and go off to train for a title defense.
The converse of this, of course, is that if Emelianenko wins, he will just be scoffed at for having beaten a smaller man (never mind that the two are roughly the same size). If he doesn't, he'll be scoffed at for having lost to a middleweight. Those are two bad spots to be in.
This is a fight that by its very existence violates the main principle by which UFC operates. While sometimes honored in the breach, the first rule of UFC matchmaking is to only make fights that make sense, in which there is a clear benefit for them no matter who wins. That the promotion, which now controls Strikeforce, is allowing a fight in which one man can't lose and the other can't win tells you a bit about where Emelianenko stands with them.
For just this reason, though, this will be a special fight for everyone who remembers the days when Emelianenko, Henderson, Jackson, the Silvas, the Nogueira brothers and so many others fought in Pride rings. UFC's booking philosophy has proved in the end to be the most lucrative. That doesn't make it the best. A promotional style in which the house always wins, after all, is one in which there is fundamentally nothing at stake in a given fight.
Pride, intimately tied as it was to Japanese pro wrestling promotions, was infamous for booking fights that made no sense at all, fights in which one man had everything to lose and nothing to win. The promotion made no sense as sport and all the sense in the world as entertainment, and that was what was glorious about it at its best. There is no question that Anderson Silva and Georges St-Pierre would have fought years ago if they had been fighting for Pride, for instance. There are many reasons why such a bout should never be made, but there is a lot to admire about a promotional strategy that would ignore all of them.
In the weeks to come, there will rightly be a lot of analysis of Henderson vs. Emelianenko strictly as a fight. It is a fascinating matchup between two men with iron chins and wills who do nothing fancy at all. Between them they have beaten or matched everyone worth fighting at 185 pounds and above. They've done as much as any other two fighters to turn a spectacle into a sport. It is by far the toughest fight either man has had in years. It will be something.
What might be best about it, though, is that it's happening at all. For one night, perhaps for the last time, we'll be reminded that UFC's way of doing business is just one among many, and that if events had taken a slightly different turn, it might not have been the way that won out. There are a lot of levels on which this fight is an absurdity. That's just what makes it special.