Fedor vs. Hendo? Fedor vs. Hendo!
OK, it's debatable whether a meeting of Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson in the summer of 2011 is an exclamation point-worthy event. There's no question, though, that at some point in the history of mixed martial arts -- say, in the winter of 2007, when Emelianenko wore the heavyweight belt of the Pride Fighting Championships and Henderson was the Japanese promotion's champ in both the middleweight and lightweight divisions -- this matchup most certainly would have been an exclamatory happening for the sport. But Fedor is no longer riding a decade-long unbeaten string. Hendo is 40 years old.
Still, Saturday night's Strikeforce main event in a suburb of Chicago (10 p.m. ET, Showtime) is a mouth-watering example of the fan-friendly creativity prevalent in MMA matchmaking. There's no championship on the line, which means there's been no linear, logical progression for either fighter from up-and-coming prospect to serious contender to title-belt challenger. Instead, this is one of those rare, delectable why-not? collisions of champions -- Hendo the current owner of the Strikeforce light heavyweight belt, and Emelianenko, a champ from the past whose name still evokes a kind of regality among devout followers of the sport.
Maybe this summit meeting is coming a few years later than ideal for maximum impact, but it's nonetheless a battle of fighters still capable of firing live ammo. This isn't Joe Louis putting down his AARP Magazine long enough to get pummeled by Rocky Marciano. Both of these guys are fully relevant. It's a fight that means something.
Who's going to win it? Let's break it down:
1. He hits harder: It's a matter of physics, isn't it? If you saw my college transcript you'd know I'm the wrong man to explain the science behind this, but it seems to me that if you have two men throwing overhand rights with more or less equal velocity and one guy weighs in at around 220 pounds while the other is 205 after dessert, the heavier dude will be the one dishing out the heftier punches. Putting it in mathematical terms, if one train bound for Chicago leaves Temecula, Calif., carrying Henderson and another chugs out of Stary Oskol, Russia, with Fedor aboard ...
2. He's younger: Emelianenko seems to have been around forever, but he's just 34. That's not exactly toddlerhood in MMA terms, but it's a whole lot younger than 40. Now, it's true Henderson hasn't been showing his age, but as a couple of ancient philosophers once posited, "Time waits for no one, and it won't wait for me." Age has a way of catching up with us all, suddenly and devastatingly (unless you're Keith Richards).
Maybe this weekend -- facing a man younger but no less experienced (both guys have 35 pro fights), one who's put his body through the meat grinder of combat sports competition for only a single fight in each of the last two years, one who hasn't been the younger man in the cage or ring for several years -- Hendo will finally start acting his age. Don't expect Fedor to show much respect for his elder.
3. He has everything to gain: In some respects, this is a lose-lose situation for Emelianenko. If he beats Henderson, big deal, it's a win over a light heavyweight who not long ago fought at 185 pounds. And if Fedor loses, boy oh boy.
That's all true. But there's another way of looking at it. Coming off a pair of losses, the first two he'd suffered in nearly a decade, Emelianenko is in dire need of a win. Who's he supposed to right the ship against, with Strikeforce's other top heavyweights still occupied by the Grand Prix? Surely not fellow first-round castoffs Andrei Arlovski (been there) or Brett Rodgers (done that).
A rematch with Fabricio Werdum, who started Fedor on his downward spiral last summer, might have been an attractive reclamation fight, but the Brazilian jiu-jitsu ace wasn't eliminated from the tourney until last month, long after M-1 Global began plotting Fedor's immediate future. Werdum's date with Emelianenko will come, though, you've got to figure.
So will Alistair Overeem's. The Strikeforce heavyweight champion was the one who ousted Werdum, but last week he, too, was bounced from the Grand Prix after declining a September date for a second-round match, saying he needed more time to heal a toe injury. Now he has all the time he needs, and when he's got two healthy feet under him, maybe he can use them to step into a cage with Emelianenko.
For either of those appealing and lucrative bouts to become reality, though, Fedor must beat Henderson. If he loses for the third straight time, no one's going to care when M-1 management announces that its fighter has a free Saturday on his schedule. That's called incentive. That's called career survival. Fedor has to win.
Then again ...
1. He hits harder: Yeah, I know. I've already said the other guy is this bout's heavy hitter. But go back and watch both of these fighters' recent bouts. Henderson landed big rights on each of his last four opponents -- "Feijao" Cavalcante, "Babalu" Sobral, Jake Shields and Michael Bisping -- and all four went down like they'd run full speed into a stone wall. Shields did manage to get up; the others were done for the night. Contrast that to Fedor's last four fights, in which he KO'd Arlovski and Rodgers but barely laid a glove on Werdum or "Bigfoot" Silva. (It appeared that Emelianenko knocked down Werdum with a punch, but replays revealed that his big swing missed and Fabricio shrewdly went down anyway to draw Fedor into some BJJ.)
That's the thing about determining which fighter hits harder: It's not just about the "harder" part; you've also got to hit. A hard punch will leave a bruise -- unless it doesn't connect, in which case it results in nothing more than a breeze. If Fedor too often swings and misses Saturday night, as he has in his latest fights, a return punch will come his way from the more accurate Hendo and he'll get hit. Hard.
2. He's younger: Now wait a second. It's one thing to hedge one's bets by claiming that each fighter "hits harder," because that's a judgment call, something none of us truly knows anything about -- unless Sobral, "Minotauro" Nogueira or Ricardo Arona is reading this, because they've all been hit by both Hendo and Fedor. By contrast, age is definitive, a number you need not interpret and can't argue with. Or is it?
True, Henderson has been alive on this earth for six more biological years than Emelianenko has, but as a fighter he's retained his vitality while Fedor has begun to shrivel up. Hendo acts the part of the younger man.
3. He has nothing to lose: What a line on the resume it would be for Henderson if he can list a "W" over Fedor Emelianenko. Even if the big Russian is on a downward slide, he's a heavyweight legend, so beating him -- even now -- would be easily as impressive a feat for Hendo as beating Wanderlei Silva for the Pride middleweight title or beating Murilo Bustamante for the Pride welterweight belt.
Yet, with an accomplishment such as that within his grasp, Henderson has no pressure on him. He's not supposed to beat the bigger Emelianenko, "The Last Emperor." And if oddsmakers are right and Hendo fails to conquer Fedor, he can just get up, brush himself off, strap his light heavyweight belt back around his waist and wait for someone to come along and fight him for it. Someone his own size.