It was a battle of legends, arguably the best heavyweight and best American fighter ever to lace up four ounce gloves, meeting head to head in the center of the cage. Fans expected fireworks - and the fighters delivered as only the greats can.
Fedor Emelianenko reigned for years over the heavyweight division, beating every opponent set before him, whether they be Korean giants or the great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He wore the same expression on his face no matter who was staring him in the eye - none, his face an expressionless mask.
In the light heavyweight division Henderson fell just short of the very best, but always gave it a heck of a try. Small for the division, he tried his luck at 185 pounds as well, winning Pride gold but never looking comfortable at the weight. Henderson is at his best when he doesn't think about diet, weight, or anything but mauling whoever is unfortunate enough to be his opponent on a given night.
We'll break down the fight in excruciating detail, looking at the bout minute by minute, to find out exactly what happened when Fedor met Hendo.
5:00-4:00: After the two men touch gloves, Emelianenko charges immediately, no pretense of caution or defense to be seen. Henderson meets him with a low kick, a technique that he's not really known for using and that seems to have no impact. In the first five seconds both men have thrown, and missed, ludicrously hard right hands. Henderson's lunging punch is so hard it actually propels him face first to the ground and has to catch himself with both hands. This fight is going to be awesome.
Fedor tries to take advantage of Henderson's stumble, charging in like a mad bull, but Hendo is on his feet like a cat, landing a left - right combination that staggered the Russian. It was the worst case scenario for Emelianenko, as outlined in my prefight preview -getting caught on a mad leap to punish his opponent. "Left hook by Henderson backs up Fedor," announcer Gus Johnson screamed. Johnson, best known for turning up the volume and excitement at the end of close contests in college basketball, can be forgiven for getting riled up. He sensed the end coming and wanted to finally succeed with an iconic call in MMA, something that has, as yet, eluded his grasp.
Unfortunately for Gus, Fedor recovers almost immediately and the two men clinch up against the cage. Henderson backs away, looking more muscular than ever, perhaps the product of his Testosterone Replacement Therapy, and nails Fedor with a hard leg kick and a diving right hand.
Both men miss more haymakers, but Henderson has Fedor reeling backwards. "What a start to this fight," Johnson roars. And he's right. All of this has happened in the first 18 seconds! It's a fight being contested at an amazing pace, especially for two big men. Henderson scores a right uppercut, pushing Fedor into the cage, keeping his eyes open for another uppercut attempt.
Henderson is controlling Fedor's head easily in the clinch. Despite his Greco Roman pedigree, I thought Henderson might struggle with Fedor's judo in the clinch, but Hendo looks strong as an ox and firmly in control. He lands a knee to the body and a subtle little shoulder strike. It's worth noting what a fantastic fighter Henderson is, better today than he was even during his Pride prime.
Emelianenko's paper thin skin was cut in all the madness as Mauro Ranallo tells the viewers. "Blood already," Mauro says. "Coming from Fedor," Johnson explains, if there was any doubt. "It looks like that right eye that was so badly damaged against Antonio Silva." It was.
4:00-3:00: Henderson lands a series of knees to the inside of Fedor's left leg. The two are still clinched against the cage, likely pretty happy to have a momentary respite from the savage and frenetic fighting. Henderson has actually secured double underhooks, but it doesn't look like a takedown is on his mind. His control of this fight is much clearer with this detailed breakdown. He's doing exactly what he wants and needs to do to win.
After two more knees, Henderson finally looks for the takedown. Fedor grabs the fence to defend, grabbing and letting go quickly. The masterful Herb Dean, however, sees all and gives Fedor a warning. Fedor suddenly, and wisely, gets serious about getting an underhook of his own. Henderson isn't going to give it up without a struggle and keeps his control, landing some more knees and a short right hand as Emelianenko tries to squirm off the cage.
Frank Shamrock chimes in with his expert analysis. Unfortunately, it's as if his soundtrack is thirty seconds behind the action. "Henderson with a big left hook backs up Fedor," the former UFC champion said. "He's bleeding out of his right eye." In case, I guess, you had forgotten what had happened a minute before. I know attention spans are short, but that's ridiculous.
3:00-2:00: The men are now exchanging knees in the clinch, with Henderson bringing one up to the breadbasket instead of the leg. Fedor lands a quick right hand, Henderson answers with another knee. Henderson is dominating the clinch, with Emelianenko seemingly not sure how to proceed. "This is what Henderson is all about," Ranallo said. "And this is what Fedor is all about. In many ways they mirror each other." I thought the same, but right now, Henderson is the better version.
With Henderson controlling his body with double underhooks, Fedor has the opportunity to punch, and he takes it, striking with both hands. Of course, it's a dangerous game. If he's not careful, Henderson will use that shift in balance as an opening for a takedown. At 2:16, Dean tells the men they need to work. It's a warning that seems fair - the men seem at a stalemate. Henderson is controlling the position, but not able to do much with it.
After a few shoulder shrugs, Henderson suddenly shakes free, missing a huge right, and grazing Fedor with a left hook that might have sent his head flying all the way back to Stary Oskul, Russia. You've heard of bad intentions? This was one step worse.
2:00-1:00: Henderson backs up and claims the center of the cage. Fedor thinks about coming towards him, backs up, takes a deep breath, then pushes forward. I don't think that's a good side. Since when does the Russian cyborg show weakness? Finally Fedor begins the chase perfectly timed with a Ranallo witticism. "In many ways it's the H-Bomb versus the F- Bomb Gus," the Canadian announcer exclaims. That sound you heard, faintly over the sound of your television, was the world's MMA fans shaking their heads in collective dismay.
Henderson is moving backwards to avoid the mad Russian, and Fedor stops to adjust his shorts. I've heard plenty of horror stories about fighter shorts that made it hard to move, stiff as a board with last minute logos and other nonsense. I'm not sure that's the case here, but the shorts seem to be bugging the former heavyweight kingpin.
Fedor is lunging in with all his punches and Henderson seems a step quicker. He ducks a Fedor right hand, managing to counter with a leg kick at the same time, a nifty bit of fighting and a stellar display of balance. It does allow Fedor to assume control and he nails Henderson with a right, his first really solid punch of the fight. "That backs up Dan Henderson," Johnson says. "The right hand landing."
Henderson lands another leg kick, Fedor one of his unique "casting" right hands, his own brand of looping punch that comes from odd angles. Suddenly Fedor swarms, throwing a succession of rights and lefts. Henderson ducks and dodges, but some are connecting. At 1:01, Fedor lands a left hook, followed by a short right hand, sending Henderson crashing to the mat. It was the left that did the damage.
1:00-0:00: It may sound like hyperbole, but Emelianenko pounces on Henderson like a wild beast that smells blood. Not worrying for a second about little things like securing position or control, he lands a brutal right hand and a flurry of ground and pound. "Fedor jumping on him," Johnson screams, just as Henderson manages to scramble, controlling Fedor's right leg and sneaking out the back door.
Controlling Emelianenko's hip with his left hand, Henderson lands a fight ending right uppercut underneath Fedor's armpit. Fedor crashes to the mat face first, partially propelled by his own momentum, partially by the hard punch. Slow motion replays, broken down frame by frame, show a fighter who looks momentarily out. In real time, it's impossible to tell.
Henderson leaps on the wounded fighter so quickly with a hard punch to the back of the head before Fedor can move. Another punch lands to the back of the head before Dean can get in to stop the action. The face plant and both punches happen so fast that 53 seconds show on the clock during the whole sequence. As Dean arrives to stop the fight, Emelianenko is turning, looking, it seems, to assume a defensive position. The entire fight ending exchange, from the right hand to the stoppage, happened in just three seconds.
It was an incredibly tough judgement call by Herb Dean. When slowed to a crawl, you can make a case that Fedor was out of his senses. But, in reality, he went from hitting the mat to scrambling for a defensive position in literally one second. One second!
It's my opinion that the stoppage was probably early - especially when factoring in the champion's ability to recover quickly from punishment. A good referee knows the fighters in the cage and accounts for their abilities. Fedor Emelianenko recovers quickly and seemed to do so here, going from stunned to scrambling between 53 and 52 seconds remaining in the first round.
"Unbelievable!" Ranallo yells. Johnson, an MMA outsider and perhaps more in tune to the perception of regular fans is more to the point. "They stop it. They stop it," he roars. My immediate thought was that the fight was ended too soon. Watching it in real time again and again leaves me with the same conclusion. The animated GIF's being shown on message boards and in the comments are misleading, given the mistaken impression that Fedor was "out." He actually hit the mat, got hit twice in the back of the head, and seemingly scrambled for position all in a two second window. I understand Herb Dean's decision and his desire to protect the fighters - but I don't agree with it.
All that aside, this was a masterful fight by Dan Henderson. He controlled the action, recovered nicely when rocked, refused to panic when he was underneath the great Fedor, and attacked with a fury when he saw his opening. Henderson is better than he's ever been, fearless in a way he never was when fans used to call him "Decision Dan." I hope we see him in the UFC and soon, ideally as a challenger for light heavyweight gold. He lost his first and only UFC light heavyweight title shot to Quinton Jackson, then was pigeonholed into the 185 pound division, a place he told me he didn't want to be and a weight he doesn't feel comfortable with. Henderson is a light heavyweight and a great one - as this fight cemented, one of the best of all time.