"Ten years have passed," you'll say to yourself some day in 2021, "and we're still talking about Hendo vs. Shogun?"
That's a future I can see playing out, at least based on the lingering vibe -- albeit just three days, not a decade, later -- surrounding Saturday night's epic main event at UFC 139 in San Jose, Calif. It was a fight for the ages.
All of the ingredients were there. Two fighters who'd become revered as mixed martial arts legends even while remaining very much active as competitors. Two fighters with the shared reputation of pushing forward and taking fights to their opponents. Two fighters who had lingered on the periphery of each other's orbit for the better part of a decade, never having crossed paths but drawing tantalizingly close on occasion. Dan Henderson vs. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua was a fight that was supposed to happen. That had to happen.
But none of that would have amounted to a hill of beans in this crazy world if Henderson and Rua hadn't brought the goods Saturday night. And bring them they did. In abundance.
Even the aftermath is playing out precisely as it needs to for the stirring tussle to bask in its brilliance. UFC 139 was the fourth event for the fight promotion in four weeks, with nothing scheduled until two weeks later. So Hendo-Rua has the luxury of marinating in our memory, undisturbed by anything more pressing than Thanksgiving gluttony, for what seems an eternity. The main event from a little over a week ago, Junior dos Santos vs. Cain Velasquez, isn't exactly forgotten, because it was the UFC's network TV debut on Fox and it involved the heavyweight championship -- and it ended up involving a change at the top of the heavyweight heap. But the buzz has been muted. And don't even bring up the fights from the two Saturdays previous, because they're gone, gone, gone.
It's good to have time to reflect on what we experienced Saturday night. That's the way it should be with a gourmet meal, a virtuosic concert, an adventurous trip or a thrill-a-minute sporting event. These are things that deserve an enduring place in our consciousness.
I found myself venturing beyond memory. A full day after I'd written a fight-night story, and after spending part of Sunday relaxing in front of the TV watching the more genteel NFL, I fired up the DVR and watched the UFC 139 main event again. I was amazed by what I saw -- or perhaps what amazed me was the realization that there was much I hadn't seen the night before. Free of the distracted mind of one trying to craft an instant account, I noticed things that only amplified the ovation Henderson and Rua earned.
A few lingering thoughts, one for each round we witnessed:
I've yet to encounter anyone who believes Rua won the bout, but there are many who think Henderson didn't. I'm here to say the judges did a good job. I know, this was one of those fights where you're inclined to pull out that "there are no losers" line, and it's true. Shogun should be proud of himself. But the right man had his hand raised.
No one is disputing that Henderson won the first three rounds, Rua the last two. The issue is with the scoring of the final round. Having watched Shogun take down an exhausted Hendo 30 seconds into the round, go from top position to full mount within another half minute, then never relinquishing the dominant spot until the final horn, some have called for a 10-8 round. Not just some, to be honest, but many. And if the judges had gone that way, which would have made the bout a draw, I wouldn't be crying "Robbery!" But I'm with the ringside scorekeepers in seeing the decisive fifth as a 10-9 round.
Rua was in a dominant position, true, but despite all the leather he rained down, he never connected with anything that had referee Josh Rosenthal moving closer in order to be in position to stop the fight. Henderson didn't have the strength or energy left to get out from underneath Shogun, but he was able to block much of the assault that came his way. He was never in the kind of trouble that Rua was in the third, when Rosenthal did appear to be positioning himself to jump in. So a 10-9 fifth for Rua seemed an appropriate score. A lopsided 10-9, to be sure, and one that scuttled the justice that a draw would have brought to a fight in which no one should have been called a loser.
We have a tendency, in our past-is-past culture, to elevate the latest thing we've seen or heard to legendary status. The band making the rounds of echo-chamber arenas is the greatest ever, even if its two hit songs draw their sound in a direct lineage from Buddy Holly or Muddy Waters. The rookie quarterback is a Hall of Famer after one multi-TD performance. The new hit TV show is celebrated for breaking all the rules -- that's what the focus groups all said, at least.
Seeing this mindset all around me, and being a dogged contrarian, I have been hesitant to join the chorus that's been singing the praises of Henderson vs. Rua as fight of the year, fight of the century, greatest event in the history of humankind. In the wee hours of Saturday night/Sunday morning, as I raced to meet deadline with a story about the fight I'd just witnessed, I took note of my pounding heartbeat and stepped back, emotionally speaking, and opted not to make a definitive judgment. I knew I'd just witnessed something exhilarating, but was it possible to truly put it in perspective in the moment? I didn't think so.
Well, time has passed, and now I am prepared to ride the wave of popular opinion. Watching the fight on tape revealed so many nuances. Such as, in the very first round, Henderson tossed an already bloodied Rua to the mat and, instead of following him there like a two-time Olympic wrestler would be expected to do, simply walked away. He'd made his point that he could throw Shogun around and dictate where the fight would be fought, and his dictate was that they were going to do battle on their feet. Quite a bold statement when in with a striker with Rua's explosiveness. But that set the tempo, helping make this the bout it became.
The five rounds were sprinkled with those types of physical/psychological proclamations, such as in the third when Shogun withstood a Henderson beatdown -- not dissimilar to the one that had made quick work of Fedor Emelianenko four months earlier -- and ended up turning the tide before the five minutes were over. But what separated this bout from rugged brawls of the past was the diversity of skills involved, in striking and on the ground, offensively and defensively. The two fighters brought a lot to the table, and the fans feasted on it. Greatest fight ever? I don't know. But at this point in MMA's history, with the UFC one week removed from its Fox debut, it was the perfect fight at the perfect time.
Having just read what I wrote right above, you might think I agree with those who are lamenting that Henderson vs. Rua wasn't the Fox main event instead of the don't-blink dos Santos vs. Velasquez. I've heard that sentiment expressed, mostly in response to UFC president Dana White's insistence, after Saturday's card, that he still believes the heavyweight title bout from a week earlier was the right fight for his promotion's network TV debut.
Well, Dana might faint if he reads this, because his opinions and mine often run into each other head-on, but I agree with him here. There was too much going on in Henderson vs. Rua -- the extended beatdowns, the bloodshed -- for a newbie Fox viewer to take in. Dos Santos vs. Velasquez, on the other hand, was a nice, bite-size chunk: a 64-second KO, with no blood spilled on the newly cleaned octagon canvas. OK, it would have been ideal if the fight went just a little longer and had a hint of back-and-forth -- if, for example, one guy had landed a knockdown punch, leapt in for the kill, then got caught in a submission. But Dana White isn't Vince McMahon, who can script his "fights" in whatever way will sell. The UFC and Fox had to play the cards they were dealt, and the heavyweights represented a pretty solid hand.
Henderson vs. Rua wasn't the first UFC nontitle bout to be scheduled for five rounds. That distinction went to the main event of UFC 138, Mark Muñoz vs. Chris Leben. But their fight from two weeks prior in Birmingham, England, went only two rounds, at which point Leben was too beat up to continue. So Hendo and Shogun do have the honor of being the first to take a nontitle bout the full five.
Had the fight been a three-rounder, the result would have been the same -- a unanimous decision victory for Henderson. But all of the drama would have been sucked out of it. OK, maybe we would have been on the edges of our seats in the third, wondering whether Hendo was going to get the finish. But so much of the magic of that night never would have unfolded.
Imagine all of the other three-round fights throughout UFC history that, given 10 extras minutes, might have produced their own magical moments.
The answer everyone wants to hear is that, yes, by surviving the fifth round Henderson earned a shot at light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. Of course, that's a presumptuous desire, since "Bones" has to get past Lyoto Machida in a couple of weeks at UFC 140 in Toronto before he can entertain the possibility of facing Henderson.
However, with apologies to Machida karate, let's assume Jones wins that Dec. 10 fight and signs on to face Henderson, hopefully before Dan turns 42 next August. If that bout comes to be, Jones would be facing the most dangerous striker he's seen. And what would Hendo be facing? The possibility of his chin's perfect record -- 37 fights, no KOs -- being tested like never before. Not so much his chin, because Dan probably could take Jones's punch, but the accumulated damage of a Jon Jones attack so far has proven to be more than anyone in his weight class can withstand.
And what, really, can we expect Dan Henderson to withstand after the draining experience of spending 25 minutes in a cage with Shogun Rua?
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