Of course, the hype machine for Saturday night's bout between Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson -- two of the biggest names in mixed martial arts history -- never quite shifted into high gear. Henderson is the Strikeforce light heavyweight champion but he's 40 years old. Fedor once went nearly a decade without losing a fight but came into this one on a two-bout losing streak. So anticipation was measured for the main event in the suburbs of Chicago.
But by any measure, Fedor and Hendo delivered.
In a bout that wasted no time in getting the blood boiling and had exhilarating flashes that saw both fighters hurt by the other's fists, it was Henderson who delivered the telling blow. After being bloodied and knocked to the ground by an Emelianenko uppercut in the final minute of the first round, then pounced upon by the aggressive Russian, Hendo withstood a flurry of wild punches while lying on his back and covering up. Suddenly he grabbed a hold of a leg and smoothly reversed position, ending up behind Fedor. From his knees, Henderson then landed a big uppercut to the face, sending Emelianenko belly-first toward the mat. After a couple more Henderson bombs flattened out Fedor, referee Herb Dean jumped in at 4:12 of the first round to declare it a TKO.
"I've been a huge fan of Fedor's forever, and I respect him so much as a fighter and what he has done for this sport," Henderson (28-8) said afterward. "For me, that's a huge accomplishment compared to a lot of things I've done in this sport."
For Emelianenko (31-4, 1 NC), a third straight loss will fuel speculation that his career is over. Afterward, speaking through an interpreter, the 34-year-old would only say, "It's God's will."
Fedor might not fight again on any other night, but he wanted to continue fighting on this one. "I was clearly hit, but I wasn't hit flush, directly," he said. "And it seemed like I could have continued. But the referee chose to stop the fight."
As Emelianenko spoke those words, the video screens in the Sears Center showed that Henderson's uppercut from behind, thrown underneath the arm Fedor was using to defend against punches, did indeed land flush and with dizzying effect. Fedor's face told the same story.
However, while the stoppage was just, the result was only part of the story of this fight. How often does a meeting of two legends of a sport turn out to be a dud? Well, this one was a thriller right from the start. Fedor and Hendo engaged immediately, with Emelianenko the aggressor until he ran into a left hook just seconds in. From there, it was Henderson who seized control, first by throwing punches in the center of the cage, then by neutralizing the heavyweight against the fence, landing knees, elbows, even a shoulder. Any question of whether the lighter man would be outmuscled was quickly answered.
It was Henderson's fight, in fact, until Fedor caught him with a glancing right and then a left that sent him into retreat. Then a left uppercut put Henderson on his back, where it turned out he lived up to his nickname: "Dangerous."
"At the end of the fight, he hit me with a little uppercut," said Henderson, who has won six of his last seven fights, four by KO or TKO. "I was aware the whole time, I just felt it sting a little, like it cut me. I kept going, and landed a nice uppercut when he was on his hands and knees. I think he just wasn't expecting that punch to come up underneath."
Just like the fight itself, the punch exceeded expectations.
The winning submission: Talk about sticking to -- and believing in -- what you do best. In the first round, the second round and the third round, Miesha Tate went for a takedown as soon as she could close the distance, and while the former high school wrestler never failed to get the fight to the mat, each time she had to fend off Marloes Coenen's submission attempts. So what does she do in the fourth round?
In a display of if-at-first-you-don't-succeed relentlessness, Tate took down Coenen again and this time pulled off a sub of her own, locking in an arm triangle choke to take away the women's bantamweight championship when Coenen tapped -- for the first time in her career -- at 3:03 of the fourth.
"I couldn't have asked for anything better," Tate (12-2) said afterward. "Most of her wins are by submission. She'd never been submitted. And that's what I came here to do tonight."
It wasn't easy. In the second round, Tate's takedown attempt put her in a bad position, as the submission-savvy Coenen (19-5, 14 of the wins by sub) controlled her back and worked for much of the round to sink in a choke. But Tate hung tough. "Marloes is no joke," she said. "Toughness got me through that fight."
Blood and guts: It wasn't pretty. Or maybe I should say: He wasn't pretty. By fight's end, Tim Kennedy's face was a mess, the mat stained with drops of his blood, and his breathing labored and through his mouth. And when the final horn came, he turned and looked through the cage at one of the judges, held his hands to his face and said, "It's only blood."
Kennedy (14-3) didn't need to do any politicking. He'd done enough fighting to earn the unanimous decision he was awarded over Robbie Lawler (18-8-1), who looked unscathed afterward but clearly beaten. The fight in a nutshell: Kennedy was shooting for a first-round takedown when Lawler caught him flush on the nose with an uppercut, starting the blood flow. Kennedy wasn't halted for a second.
After repeatedly taking Lawler down and controlling him for much of the bout, Kennedy deflected the accolades. While being interviewed in the cage, the veteran of the U.S. Army Special Forces, also known as the Green Berets, called over a fellow soldier, who'd lost his limbs in combat. "Who cares about me?" said Kennedy, who won for the sixth time in his last seven fights. "These are the guys that need all the recognition. These are the guys that really sacrifice everything." Indicating his battered face, he said, "This is just stupid blood. These guys risk their lives, their limbs and everything." He got a standing O.
Stand and deliver: For the first round, certainly, and even for much of the rest of the fight, Paul Daley had the right stuff. As in stuffing takedowns. The British puncher clearly has been wearing out his gym's wrestling mat, because Tyron Woodley, who had used his collegiate wrestling pedigree to build an 8-0 start to his MMA career, had a heck of a time getting Daley off his feet (2 for 10 on takedown attempts).
So instead Woodley got the job done by outstriking the striker. On his way to winning by unanimous decision, he landed more than twice as many punches and kicks as Daley (27-11-2), who was so preoccupied with keeping the fight standing that he didn't do much while he had Woodley in his wheelhouse. CompuStrike stats credited Daley with just eight punches landed. He usually reaches that total during introductions.
Still waiting: You never think Scott Smith is out of a fight. He can be dominated, as he was by Tarec Saffiedine in Saturday night's first televised fight, and you sit there watching him eat punches and kicks and you wait. You don't wait for him to be finished. You wait for him to pull off the improbable, as he did against Cung Le a couple of years ago and as he did against Pete Sell back during his UFC days.
But the rabbit never came out of the hat this time, as Saffiedine (11-3) kicked the will out of the 32-year-old's legs and peppered his face bloody with punches and elbows along the way to a unanimous-decision win. Smith (17-9-1) simply couldn't touch the Belgian, who outstruck him by 137 to 24. The heavy-handed Smith threw only 61 punches (to Saffiedine's 203). What was he waiting for?