Dan Henderson is one of the very best light heavyweight fighters of all time. From his first appearance Brazil, when he told me the entirety of his MMA training was hitting a heavy bag a few times, to his career making win over Wanderlei Silva in PRIDE, Henderson has fought nothing but a who's who of the sport. Now he's taking aim at the most dangerous prey of all - a great and proud champion looking to prove he still has what it takes to compete.
Fedor Emelianenko is, without dispute, the best heavyweight in MMA history. The question critics are asking in 2011, however, is a classic of fickle fandom - what have you done for me lately? Emelianenko is coming of off two consecutive losses, in truth the first two legitimate losses of his career. When we talked with his team earlier in the week, they painted the picture of a fighter still hungry for success. But we've heard that before, then seen the Russian great come into a fight with Antonio Silva looking like he was the Emelianenko eating for two.
Some are dismissing this fight. Dana White has proclaimed it a "lose-lose" fight for Fedor, calling Dan Henderson a 185 pounder. Henderson, though, is at his best as a light heavyweight. He's spent the majority of his career there and found his greatest success in the division. He and Fedor are actually similarly sized. Both are tiny at heavyweight, merely small as light heavyweights. This won't be a case of a Goliath trampling a little David. This fight will be determined by skill, not bulk. Let's break it down.
Henderson has an Olympic wrestling pedigree, representing America in Greco Roman wrestling in both 1992 and 1996. You'd never guess by watching his MMA career. Takedowns rarely seem to enter his mind, unless it's Henderson himself hitting the mat on his back. The truth is, Henderson struggled at the collegiate level as an amateur in the more wide open folkstyle. His wrestling acumen is very specific and narrow. In a fight where almost everything goes, those Olympic berths mean little.
Emelianenko is himself a master grappler. He's been put on his back by true greats like Mark Coleman and Kevin Randleman, but he generally handles himself well in a battle of takedowns. He's a good enough judo player that he was considered to train full-time for a shot at the Russian Olympic team, so he comes with a significant amateur background of his own. Advantage: Even.
Dan Henderson won his second fight back in 1997 in just 30 seconds with a guillotine choke. It may have been the last significant submission of his career. Henderson has shown no ability to win a bout on the mat with a lock or hold - though Fedor tells me he is going into the fight assuming Henderson is a capable grappler. Against top submission masters, Henderson has struggled, tapping out to both Nogueira brothers and getting choked out by Anderson Silva.
I don't think Emelianenko is as good on the ground as any of those esteemed Brazilians. But with 16 submission wins in his career, from a variety of positions against all levels of competitions, Fedor is very dangerous without doubt . He's also, far and away, the most aggressive and succesful master of ground and pound in MMA history. If this fight is on the ground, Henderson is in trouble. Advantage: Fedor.
Henderson is well known for his powerful right hand. For a time, it seemed to be the only tool in his arsenal. If he hits you square with it, you're going down. Period. Emelianenko is also a capable striker. He's cat quick and punches very hard. He's typically won the standing exchanges in all his fights, leaping in from unorthodox angles and surprising opponent's with his dexterity.
Henderson's right hand is more dangerous than any specific Fedor technique. But when fighters approach him intelligently, it's often hard for him to find a target. Unfortunately for Fedor fans, a disciplined attack is not one of his hallmarks. He may leap right into a Henderson right. Don't blink. Advantage: Even.
Clinch: Henderson is best wrestling from the clinch. So is Fedor. If they do lock up, it's going to be fascinating to watch, much like Fedor's battle with Olympian Matt Lindland in BoDog. What's interesting about Henderson's career is watching how often he eschews this position. As a Greco Roman Olympian, you'd think this would be his bread and butter. Instead, he's often looking to push away and continued dogged pursuit of a right hand. When Fedor clinches with Henderson, he's going to look to put him on his back. We may see a stalemate here. It's going to be the key to the fight - if Fedor can get Henderson down from here, Hendo is in dire straits. If Henderson can maintain his footing and continue making it a standup fight, he has a fighting chance. Advantage: Even.
Intangibles: Both guys have been in huge fights, both are used to the spotlight, both have battled adversity and come out the other side standing strong. But in a fight this close, the smallest details matter. Emelianenko is coming off two losses. No matter how confident you are in interviews, that has to drain you mentally. He likely has all the same questions we do - can I still compete? Is my heart still in this?
Henderson is the papa bear at his version of Team Quest in Temeculah, California. He's calling this the greatest challenge of his career and seems in prime condition to upset a fellow legend. Advantage: Henderson.
I'm going with Fedor. But after thinking about it and pondering all these factors, it's an amazingly close fight. I can't wait to see it.