Dan Henderson doesn’t go for easy storylines.
He downplayed dangerous submission specialist Rousimar Palhares ahead of UFC 88 to the point that you’d have thought the UFC plucked a random name out of the hat for him on a drunken dare. When it was brought up that he hadn't won a fight in the UFC in a decade at that point (mostly because he wasn't there), he laughed off the audacity of the media. And prior to fighting Rafael Cavalcante for the 205-pound belt in Ohio, the first thing he did was eschew parallels between fighting a Black House guy in Columbus for a belt, a circumstance he’d been through once before with Anderson Silva at UFC 82.
“Yeah, he is from the same team, and it’s the same town,” he said at the time. “But he’s a different fighter and I’m a better fighter than I was then.”
In other words, he wasn’t about to play up a bunch of coincidences. Maybe it was because he didn’t want there to be a parallel outcome.
Now he’s about to fight Fedor Emelianenko whom he shares a long, storied legacy with in Pride. That’s three Pride titles (and one Strikeforce belt) being piled into the cage, only with the stakes tangibly lowered by the passage of time. No accessories will change hands since its being fought at heavyweight, but surely there’s a decade’s worth of stored-up intrigue in play from when they were overlapping champions, right? The old East versus West rivalry? Sambo versus Greco? Champion versus champion?
Not so much.
“It wasn’t me who really wanted the fight,” Henderson told ESPN.com. “It’s something that the media and the fans have been asking about since I signed with Strikeforce. It wasn’t me that was asking for this fight.
“I think there was a little bit of a rumble about it back when I beat Wanderlei [Silva] and took his belt in Pride. I made a comment, ‘I guess heavyweight is next,’ but it was more of a joke. But then when I signed with Strikeforce, that would be the key to why this came about. All the fans and the media were wanting this fight.”
That’s Henderson for you -- forthright, even-keel, ever-ready to fight whoever, whenever, in whatever weight class, so long as it makes for an interesting viewing experience for fans.
And yet, even if he hasn’t pined for the super-fight, he did have a vicarious experience with Fedor back in 2007 when his training partner at the time, Matt Lindland, fought Fedor in St. Petersburg, Russia. Though he didn’t help Lindland train for Fedor, he was in his corner that night and watched his then-Team Quest teammate get tapped unceremoniously fast (via armbar). It didn’t turn out like Rocky IV, but Henderson got to witness how the “Last Emperor” is received in his native land.
“I’ve seen it before in Russia with different athletes, especially with Aleksandr Karelin in wrestling,” he says. “They treated him like a god. Fedor … not quite as much, but obviously he’s highly regarded over there and well-loved by the fans. It was kind of a different thing than how they treated Karelin, though.”
Did it cross his mind how he would have fared against Emelianenko that night?
“I guess a little bit,” he says. “I would have done a much better job.”
You can change the tenses to “I will do a much better job,” because now he’ll have the chance this weekend. If you want a parallel to the old Pride days when both men where king, Henderson does offer this: Expect each of them to appear in their vintage forms.
“Obviously Fedor is real dangerous whether he’s in shape or out of shape -- I’ve seen him where he’s really out of shape and he still knocks guys out or pulls through and win the fights,” he says. “But as far as his two losses, it might diminish it a little bit, but it probably re-motivated him to where he’s going to come in in shape and that’s the Fedor I want to fight.
“He’s going to be a little more mobile bouncing around and a little more offensive that first round. I just need to implement my game plan and wear him out at the same time, especially in that first round … that first round is going to be crucial.”
That pretty much says it all.