Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow! Wow!
That's five exclamations, in case you're counting, one for each round that Dan Henderson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua battled it out in the heart-thumping main event of UFC 139 Saturday night in San Jose, Calif.
What more was there to say? Well, actually, there's a lot that could be said about a fight that in its immediate aftermath had even the most jaded pundits tossing out "greatest fight ever" and "fight of the year." But none of those observations made their way into my notes. During the introductions, I'd written "Rd 1" on the paper in front of me. After the first five minutes ended, I looked down at the page and saw only "Wow." Not much more than that showed up in the notes during the four rounds that followed.
What, did you think I was about to take my eyes away from the octagon for even a moment to jot down some thoughts? The action was that exhilarating.
In the end, Henderson's fast start was the difference. He bloodied Rua in the fight's first minute and controlled the round, landed a succession of big shots in the second, and dropped the Brazilian and nearly finished him in a dominant third. "Hendo" needed every last point. He was staggered by punches and taken down in the fourth round after running out of gas, then spent pretty much all of Round 5 on his back -- surrendering the dominant full mount position five times. But Shogun couldn't finish him, and Henderson was awarded a unanimous decision victory in the first UFC nontitle fight to go five rounds. All three judges scored the bout 48-47.
It was only after the fight was over that the toll it took on the fighters became fully evident. As Henderson (29-8) was interviewed in the cage by Joe Rogan, he leaned heavily on the pay-per-view color analyst's shoulder and could barely get his words out between deep breaths. "That guy can take an effing punch," said Henderson, who was fighting in the UFC for the first time in more than two years. He left the company following a July 2009 KO of Michael Bisping, getting a bigger contract from Strikeforce, where in March he became light heavyweight champion. Now that that promotion is under the same ownership as the UFC, Hendo is back.
Or at least what's left of him is. Rua (20-6), the former UFC light heavyweight belt holder, took the 41-year-old to deeper waters than he'd experienced in years, if ever. "I hit him hard and clean a few times," Henderson said. "I should have finished there, I just, uh, you know, the gas tank was running a little low at that point."
Why didn't Rua take advantage? The answer to that became clear when it was his turn at the microphone. As Rogan posed a question, Shogun stood there looking grotesque, his face bloody and bruised and swollen. His words were slurred and barely recognizable. He said something about training hard. He mentioned his jiu-jitsu. He made a reference to maybe succeeding next time. One bit of graciousness did come through loud and clear, though, when despite the close decision, Rua said, "Congratulations for Dan Henderson."
Congratulations to both fighters.
It wasn't a back-and-forth fight in the sense of a continual give and take. Henderson clearly controlled the first three rounds, and even when Shogun wasn't in danger of being finished, he was beaten to the punch and unable to halt Hendo's momentum. But the tide turned in the fourth, and when it did, the crowd sensed that it was now Henderson who was in survival mode. And when Shogun put a slow-motion Hendo on his back less than 30 seconds into the final round, and moved to mount less than 30 seconds after that, it looked like the judges' scorecards might be unnecessary. Henderson never escaped during the dramatic four minutes that remained, and Rua threw everything he had left. But it wasn't enough.
"He stayed in there with great heart, like a champion should," said Henderson. "And he finished strong."
Indeed he did. After being outstruck, 106-66, over the first three rounds, Rua turned the CompuStrike stats his way, landing 84 strikes over the last two rounds, to Henderson's 19. Shogun just couldn't land the one he needed.
Fight of the year? Fight of the century? Who knows? It's so hard to make a clearheaded assessment when the hot blood is still coursing through your veins like wildfire. Suffice to say that on the fourth straight Saturday night of UFC events, two champions whose MMA careers had run on closely parallel paths for nearly decade fought a fight that was well worth waiting for.