Greatest fight ever? Either way, Henderson-Rua worth the wait

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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.

The Wax Murderer: Yes, he took everything that Cung Le dished out in the first round, turned things around before the horn, then finished the former Strikeforce champion with a TKO at 4:49 of the second. If for nothing other than his "sticktoitiveness," Wanderlei Silva deserves praise. But until the part-time fighter Le tired, Silva was a Madame Tussauds version of the old "Axe Murderer" who swarmed opponents, slow to the point of calcification. So if this win emboldens the battle-worn 35-year-old Brazilian to forge ahead with his career and step in next time with a seasoned UFC fighter, it will have been a hollow victory. That's not to take away what Wanderlei did to Le on this night, but simply to acknowledge that sometimes success in the moment can cloud judgment for the long-term.

Running his mouth: Urijah Faber must have a short memory or attention span. The former WEC featherweight champion kept his mind on the task at hand long enough to finish off Brian Bowles, the ex-bantamweight champ, with a guillotine choke at 1:48 of the second round. But then his focus quickly veered to the current bantam belt holder. "Dominick," he said, "you can run but you can't hide, homeboy." Run? Hide? Cruz fought Urijah just four months ago and won a unanimous decision. And before that bout, by the way, Faber went with the same "hide" motif in his trash talk, saying, "Hide your kids, hide your wife, hide the UFC belt." But Cruz put the belt on the line against Faber in July and walked away with it at the end of the night, and he'll have a good chance of doing the same the next time, too. Urijah had the goods to take advantage of Bowles' lack of movement and looping punches, but Dominick Cruz -- as Faber knows -- is an entirely different animal

Wrong direction: Rick Story came surging forward at the start of his fight with Martin Kampmann, as he always seems to do. And that high-pressure attack used to be enough. But just as Charlie Benneman showed back in June in halting Story's six-fight win streak, poise pays off against this guy. Once Kampmann found his range, it was target practice for his punches and kicks. And even, surprisingly, takedowns. It wasn't total domination -- one judge even scored the bout for Story -- but Kampmann got back on the winning track (after two loses via dubious decisions) while Story was left to pick up the pieces of a career that not long ago was on a fast-track upward trajectory.

Sorry performance: "I'm sorry," Stephan Bonnar was saying, his arms held wide, palms up, in sad-eyed supplication. "I'm sorry." He'd just gotten up off the mat after dominating Kyle Kingsbury for 15 minutes, and the crowd was booing. Booing? That was the sorry performance -- not Bonnar's but the fans'. Hadn't they just witnessed him showing off skills rumored to exist but heretofore overshadowed by his tendency to stand and bang? And most nobly of all, when Stephan took the fight to the mat and gained top position in all three rounds, he didn't just lie there but instead went for it, as he always does. He didn't get a submission, and Kingsbury avoided the worst of his steady stream of punches and elbows. (Bonnar did land 61 shots on the ground, according to CompuStrike stats, to Kingsbury's big, fat zero.) So the fight went to the judges, who gave "The American Psycho" way more love than he got from the stands. Deservedly, Bonnar took all three rounds on every card. One judge even gave him two 10-8 rounds. Hmm. That guy might have something to apologize for, too.

Occupy undercard: Smooth, subversive move by the Bellator Fighting Championship, which scheduled its main event to begin on MTV2 just a few minutes before the UFC PPV kicked off. And any curious eyes that switched over from Spike once the UFC's live prelims ended were rewarded -- big time -- as Eddie Alvarez defended his lightweight championship against undefeated Michael Chandler. The challenger landed some big shots early on, and a badly hurt Alvarez barely got out of the first round. The champ took the second, however, and nearly put a spent Chandler away in the third. Then, Chandler came out for the fourth round with energy he must have had hidden somewhere, because he took over the fight again, staggering the champ with an overhand right, bullying him to the mat along the fence, then seizing full mount and, as Alvarez turned to escape, ending it with a rear-naked choke. It was so exhilarating a fight that, at the UFC's post-fight news conference, Dana White awarded it a Fight of the Night bonus. Just kidding. But White's counterpart, Bellator CEO Bjorn Rebney, did step up with some Dana-like hyperbole, saying, "That's the best fight I've ever seen. Mike Chandler, you just beat the best lightweight in the world." A great fight indeed, but c'mon.

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