MMA: UFC 139

PPVs won't always deliver bang for buck

July, 23, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Where did UFC 149 go wrong? What was the single, biggest offender?

Oh, where to start. What went on in Calgary was one of those perfect storms.

There was the eccentric that didn’t go eccentric (Brian Ebersole). There was hype that fizzled before our eyes (Hector Lombard). There was a passive observer masquerading as the third man in the cage (Yves Lavigne). There were heavy hands that were never deployed (Shawn Jordan/Cheick Kongo). There were gavels that ruled all wrong (Nick Ring over Court McGee). There was a clear body kick that was mistaken for a groin shot (Josh Rosenthal imagining things with Matt Riddle/Chris Clements).

And there was a perfectly decent main event that suffered the residual wrath.

Urijah Faber and Renan Barao needed to turn the main event into Dan Henderson versus Mauricio Rua to balance this ledger. As it were, it played out like Urijah Faber versus Renan Barao. The bout was doomed by its predecessors.

But the real problem, of course, was this: UFC 149 was a stretch to believe in to begin with, and it required some faith. Or that should say -- UFC 149 became a stretch to believe in by its fifth and sixth iteration.

The injury bug sapped this thing good and plenty before it got off the ground. Jose Aldo, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Michael Bisping, on down the line. Bibiano Fernandes wasn’t so much hurt as he was never signed.

Aside from the prelims, the people that the UFC were able to book simply didn’t (or couldn’t) deliver the goods. Shawn Jordan, the former LSU fullback who had a nice glow to his name coming in, was in a battle of leaning pillars with Cheick Kongo. He’s still green and didn’t know what to do in the big spot. Lombard was tentative. Ebersole was intending to move to lightweight when he got the call on a few weeks’ notice to step in. He did. And he looked like a man who wished he didn’t.

Of all the patchwork matches, only Riddle from the main card came correct. His arm-triangle on Chris Clements was cleanly executed viciousness that set a false premise for things to come. The thing that followed was disappointment. Disappointment that Lombard didn’t live up to billing. Disappointment that Kongo played clinch. Disappointment that the UFC played fast and loose with people’s disposable income.
[+] EnlargeCheick Kongo
Ric Fogel for ESPN.comHug of war: Cheick Kongo, left, and Shawn Jordan spent more time holding and posing than they did actually fighting.

Even the postfight news conference, where Dana White promised to update us on the bearings of the 185-pound weight class didn’t deliver. As for Lombard, who hadn’t lost since that Gegard Mousasi upkick back in 2006? Nowhere to be found. He wouldn’t be made available to scowl at trouble-making media types.

This happens sometimes. Not all cards deliver on the pay portion of the programming. White said it reminded him of UFC 33. Cynics might point to UFC 147. Only difference is, that card was so suspect that most people stayed away from shelling out the $50 to watch it. This time, there was an undercurrent of hope that UFC 149 -- for as cobbled and rearranged as it appeared on paper -- could turn into one of those rare gems. You know, one of those cards where White laughs at the people who criticized it beforehand while holding court with the media afterward.

White himself was certain that this card was going to deliver, appearing in Alberta on Thursday as a man who could barely contain his glee. But it couldn’t, wouldn’t and didn’t, which takes turns being nobody’s fault with being everybody’s fault. When a stinker happens, the people who bought the pay-per-view take it personally, and the crowd on-hand chants “RE-FUND” throughout the main event. The faith of a good product in spite of all the rejiggering came out to $50 and change (more if you ordered in HD). It wasn’t what the UFC wanted, nor what the fans wanted.

Everybody is complaining about the same thing from different perspectives.

But we order these fights knowing there’s a chance things won’t pan out. Look at the response to Clay Guida versus Gray Maynard on a free card. Had that fight been the main event on the UFC 149 PPV, Calgary might have turned into Vancouver after the 2010 Stanley Cup Finals.

It’s tricky stuff, this PPV business. The public demands its money’s worth. The UFC demands more of its fighters. The commissions demand competence of its referees and judges (or at least should). Everybody demands entertainment. It’s a demanding public, and it’s a demanding sport, and the UFC is a demanding business.

Yet as we learned on Saturday, demands can be what they want, but there are no guarantees.

The old guard, the new guard .. and Teixeira

June, 13, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
TeixeiraChris Dela Cruz/Sherdog.comWant a piece of Glover Teixeira? Mauricio Rua sure didn't.
Glover Teixeira’s greatest enemy to date has been access.

For the last few years, visa problems have kept him out of the UFC. Before he defeated Kyle Kingsbury at UFC 146 to point a sudden “I’m coming” finger at Jon Jones, the last time he’d fought in the States was back in 2008 when he punched out Buckley Acosta.

None of that matters now. What matters is Teixeira’s arrived, and we saw it in his dismantling of Kingsbury in just under two minutes. Those in the know knew. Those who didn’t were quickly alerted to what the cult was saying, which was this: Teixeira is a power player who arrives on the UFC 205-pound landscape like a man ready to build condominiums all over it.

And that’s good, because the 32-year old Teixeira brings life to a division where prospects are down. He’s won 16 fights in a row. His last loss was in 2005 to Ed Herman. It’s not that he’s nickel and diming guys, either. Fifteen of his victories during that stretch have come via finishes. He’s not top 10 right now in part because Ricco Rodriguez and Marvin Eastman (the guys he’s beaten) are not Ryan Bader and Phil Davis (the guys he’s hurdling).

More importantly, Glover just isn’t that known to UFC-centric Americans.
[+] EnlargeGlover Teixeira
Colin Foster/Sherdog.comGlover Teixeira's arrival should help breathe some life into the light heavyweight division.

As for the Brazilians? Well, they know him. They know him plenty.

And to listen to Dana White, knowing him means to steer clear of him. That’s what happened this past week when fellow Brazilian Mauricio Rua turned down a headlining fight with Teixeira when Thiago Silva was forced out of their scheduled bout with a back injury. When offered Teixeira as a replacement, Rua politely said, “no thanks.”

That sounded like “you must be out of your mind to think I’d fight that guy” to the UFC.

When the UFC threatened to cut Rua if he didn’t conform to the idea, he said he’d rather get canned than mingle with the “Baker.” This was not the expected response. Of course, all of this was how White relayed it to the media. Translations may differ on how things went down.

Since then, muttering has gone on with both sides since, but the bottom line is this: Rua didn’t want to fight Teixeira and he had his reasons. Those reasons, if we’re to be bludgeoned by strong hints, are that Rua wants no part of Teixeira. Either way, turning down fights is not what the UFC wants out of big name former champions who have drawers full of big digit deposit slips.

The compromise was Brandon Vera, a name of utter bewilderment to MMA fans. How does Rua, coming off the fight of the year against Dan Henderson at UFC 139 (a fight that some thought he won), get paired with Vera, who was coming off a lackluster victory over Eliot Marshall? Why, if Rua was only interested in fighting top-10 fighters, did he turn down Teixeira but accept Vera? Was he ducking Teixeira, as was insinuated? Or is this a tactical move, a simple case of Vera is the easier opponent? Why did the UFC accommodate Rua with Vera when the ultimatum wasn’t met? Are UFC matchmakers so hog-tied right now that when fighters dare the promotion to cut them that they are the first to blink?

This last question gets complicated when you look at the case of Quinton Jackson.

But the answer to some of this might be simple. Rua, like Jackson, is the old guard who likes sticking to the old guard. Jackson wanted to fight Rua, Rua wanted to fight Jackson. Vera is old guard. Tito Ortiz, Forrest Griffin, Dan Henderson -- they are old guard, too. They have established names. The UFC’s light heavyweight division -- perhaps more than any other -- is by and large a cast of past glories. Jon Jones has obviously helped render the situation. He effectively eased people into the past tense. He could do the same to Henderson on Sept. 1.

The thing is that Rua wants marquee fights in the twilight of his career. The UFC wants to introduce Teixeira into that space of marquee names. Teixeira is actually older than Rua. But it’s hard to crash a party that’s been raging on without him for so long. Rua, a little over a year ago, was the life of that party. Teixeira, around the same time, was beating somebody named Simao Melo in Shooto. It’s easy to see both sides.

So was it an issue of fear, lack of merit, motivation, desperation, name recognition or simply a matter of shrewd logistics that prompted Rua to say no to Teixeira?

The short answer is: Probably.

Unlikely contenders emerging in the UFC

June, 5, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Six months ago at UFC 139, Martin Kampmann was getting by Rick Story to stay relevant in the UFC. In fact, after having lost two bouts in a row to Jake Shields and Diego Sanchez, Kampmann might have needed that victory over Story just to stay employed by the UFC.

That was six months ago, which is an eternity in MMA.

Today, Kampmann is in the penultimate spot to a title fight in the UFC’s welterweight division. There were so many top-name fighters in this weight class that Kampmann barely registered in the fall of last year: champion Georges St. Pierre, Carlos Condit, Nick Diaz, B.J. Penn, Johny Hendricks, Josh Koscheck, Jon Fitch, Rory MacDonald, Shields, Sanchez and Jake Ellenberger. While this cluster of contenders turned on each other, Kampmann -- with his back against the wall -- silently erased Story from the list, then did the same to Thiago Alves in March.

Now Kampmann has done so to Ellenberger, and just like that, Kampmann is a player once again in a division that had long since disregarded him. Ellenberger, with his six-fight winning streak, was the tide-turner for Kampmann, and it looks like he’ll fight Hendricks in a title eliminator next.

To reiterate, the “Hitman” -- left for scraps back when he lost a pair of close fights -- is a bout away from St. Pierre’s belt a little over a year later. That’s how fast the landscape changes in a game of ultimate attrition. That’s how fast careers can reshape and come roaring back to life in the UFC.
[+] EnlargeMartin Kampmann
Rod Mar for ESPN.comNot too long ago, we were ready to write off Martin Kampmann.

While Kampmann is being talked about as a picture of perseverance, he also serves as a reminder that losses don’t necessarily spell the end. This isn’t the BCS.

And if any of this sounds familiar, it’s because we just saw Nate Diaz do basically the same thing at 155 pounds. When Diaz came back to lightweight after losing two in a row at 170 pounds, he was buried behind a full bank of elite names in the UFC’s most stacked division. He too was on the cusp of losing all relevancy. Yet he breezed through Takanori Gomi, then landed 260 strikes on Donald Cerrone en route to a decision, and finally submitted Jim Miller earlier this year, becoming the first ever to do so.

In Diaz’s case, Cerrone was the tide-turner; Miller, the exclamation mark. In Kampmann’s case, the only thing left to do is to punctuate Hendricks.
[+] EnlargeNate Diaz
Ed Mulholland for ESPN.comNate Diaz, left, has been on a tear since returning to the lightweight ranks.

Now Diaz finds himself in position to fight the winner of Frankie Edgar/Benson Henderson, if he chooses to wait. Essentially, momentum is his to do with as he pleases -- and momentum is a funny thing. It’s hard to pinpoint its origins, but somewhere Diaz found momentum when nobody was paying him any attention. Eight months ago, if you said Nate Diaz would be fighting for a UFC belt before his older brother Nick, people would have suspected you were smoking something.

Kampmann is no different.

And all of this underscores the thing everybody knows -- crazy things happen in MMA. Guys get hurt. Guys get suspended. Guys get derailed by guys nobody sees coming while divisions are hijacked with unforeseen circumstances. People appear, people disappear and -- in the cases of Kampmann and Diaz -- people reappear.

In that way, it’s a good thing hype is interchangeable. There are new fighters rushing the flagpole each time we attempt to make sense of a division’s hierarchy. That’s why trying to figure out what’s going to happen six months from now is next to impossible.

And yet looking back the other way, it doesn’t make what Kampmann and Diaz have been able to do any less improbable.

Company man Franklin answers call again

June, 1, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Rich Franklin is 37 years old. He is the former UFC middleweight champion who, when he signed on to fight Cung Le at UFC 148, expressed road-weary relief to be headed back home to 185 pounds. It had been too long, and Franklin never felt comfortable at 205 pounds.

But his return route to middleweight has become a scenic detour that now involves fighting Wanderlei Silva at UFC 147 in Belo Horizonte, Brazil. These things are always as complicated as they are poetic. As he slowly adapted into becoming a light heavyweight, Franklin fought Silva at a catchweight of 195 pounds at UFC 99 --- a fight he won the fight via unanimous decision. He lost two of the next three, including his last against Forrest Griffin at UFC 126.

On the way back down, he’s transitioning with -- surprise! – a fight against Silva at a catchweight of 190 pounds. Just to be clear, when Franklin went up before, it was because he was on his way down. Now that he’s going back down, he’s doing it with designs of heading back up. Silva has stood in his way both directions.


So is Franklin. But even in all the confusion, if there’s been one constant to his post-champion career, it’s this -- dude has a hard time saying "no." When the UFC calls needing a favor, Franklin is on speed dial. He has gotten the UFC out of more jams than he’ll ever be able to recount in his rocking chair days. And he did it again when Vitor Belfort broke his hand ahead of UFC 147 and left the card without a main event.

The UFC knew just who to call. There’s always an “Ace” up matchmaker Joe Silva’s sleeve.
[+] EnlargeRich Franklin
Martin McNeil for ESPN.comFor better or for worse, Rich Franklin has stepped up to face Wanderlei Silva.

And if Franklin’s serious about making one last go at the title, this fight makes more sense for a variety of reasons. For one, Franklin isn’t buried in the stacked UFC 148 deck. He’ll be fighting in his first main event since UFC 115, when he stood in against Chuck Liddell when Tito Ortiz went down. The math is simple: Being the spotlight of an otherwise weak card is better than being dwarfed by Chael Sonnen/Anderson Silva II.

And besides, Silva is higher up in the middleweight pecking order than Le. As a matter of fact, Silva just defeated Le at UFC 139. If Franklin were to beat Le it would have been a decent notch, but it wouldn’t have helped get a man in his late thirties with three fights left on his UFC contract any closer to gold.

Silva at least does. This is the shrewder mindset that Franklin’s camp had to come to grips with in a 24-hour period of contemplation and Skyping while he was in Singapore preparing for Le. It wasn’t an easy decision.

What are the cons? Well, he was in Singapore preparing for Le, and Le is a kickboxer that played to Franklin’s strengths. Now he’ll have to shift focus, come back to America and process a rematch with a three-alarm, stand-up brawler. Franklin’s also fighting two weeks earlier than he was expecting to on June 23, so his training camp just got accelerated. This is why he negotiated a catchweight of 190 pounds.

The other thing is he fights Silva, who has everything to gain by beating Franklin in his native Brazil. Go back over the last couple of cards in Rio and see how many Americans actually emerged victorious. (The answer is one -- Mike Pyle at UFC 142. The overall record for Americans fighting Brazilians in Brazil is 1-8).

Having spoke to Franklin’s camp, I can tell you one thing -- it wasn’t the most enticing scenario to stomach. Not when you’ve been on the other side of the globe for a month training Thai boxing for a guy you’re being asked to forget about.

But Franklin is the company man, and has dutifully accepted the switch. “No” is a word he hates using. And in this case, his accepting the challenge wasn’t just to avoid leaving the UFC in the lurch. Franklin is a competitor who wants to get one more crack at the belt.

And for as crazy as it sounds, if that’s Franklin’s ultimate destination, then Brazil becomes the better route.

Hendo, White need to get on same page

February, 17, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Dan HendersonJody Gomez for ESPN.comMake yourself comfortable: Dan Henderson won't be going anywhere any time soon.
For all the marvels, one thing that UFC President Dana White has never been particularly good at is speaking for Dan Henderson. This was the case before Henderson bolted for Strikeforce, and it’s still the case right now.

And for as telegraphic as Henderson has been in his latest title quest -- in any division he can physically make from middleweight on up -- he apparently turns into a sphinx when it comes to everything besides. White says Hendo’s waiting for Jon Jones/Rashad Evans; Henderson says that isn't true, that he wants to stay busy. White says Hendo turned down a fight with Lyoto Machida; Henderson says that’s the buffet talking -- that fight was never on the table.

One of these guys needs to get a landline, because the phone calls keep breaking up.

So what’s the truth? Probably that neither party has any good ideas on what to do. Henderson is hovering as contender No. 1B in two divisions, with willingness to explore a third (heavyweight). Yet out of all those divisions, the UFC can’t find him an opponent. It’s problematic for a 41-year-old to hit these kind of wait-and-see impasses.

The sticking point is that Henderson wants a guy of similar projection, somebody with a couple of wins in a row and title momentum. Those are scarce right now in the divisions Henderson dabbles in. If Henderson could make welterweight, he’d find the kind of guys he’s talking about. People like Carlos Condit, who has an interim belt he doesn’t know what to do with. Or Jake Ellenberger, who fits that bill, too. To fight those types, Henderson would have to fast like a yogi for as long as it would take to wait out Jones/Evans in April. In other words, fat chance.

At light heavyweight (his obvious preference), there’s Machida, who’s lost three of his last four bouts. But Machida’s in his own purgatory -- and even then he’s become a pretty attractive “why not” proposition for people in better positions to consider. Henderson apparently is. And there’s also the winner of Ryan Bader/Quinton Jackson, which happens on Feb. 26 in Japan at UFC 144. If the UFC could book a quick turnaround fight with the winner there and jibe up the schedules to the Jones/Evans bout, Henderson would do it.

Again, though, that’s all a dice throw.

Yet aside from a Mauricio Rua rematch, that’s about all there is -- and a Rua rematch would feel too much like déjà vu. How haunting would it be to sign on for that fight just in time for Evans to go down with an injury, just like last time? Never mind the memorable fight they put on, had Henderson waited a week before signing on for Rua at UFC 139, he’d already have fought Jon Jones at UFC 140 in Toronto. That stays in Henderson’s mind as much as the experience with Rua.
[+] EnlargeMauricio 'Shogun' Rua, Dan Henderson
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesMauricio Rua, right, left his mark on Dan Henderson in more ways than one.

So who else is there? Henderson has made it clear he doesn’t want to go back down to middleweight unless it’s for a rematch with Anderson Silva -- which leaves heavyweight, a division that Henderson would never balk at fighting in so long as it could be perceived as fan friendly. Unfortunately, not a lot of fights make sense there, either (read: virtually none).

Pat Barry has Lavar Johnson in his sights, and Cheick Kongo is fighting Mark Hunt in Japan. Stefan Struve? Doesn’t seem a big enough name for Henderson. All the elite names (Junior dos Santos, Alistair Overeem, Frank Mir, Cain Velasquez) have fights already. And besides, as Henderson said, “none of those guys wants to fight me, anyway.” Daniel Cormier stares at his phone most days saying, “why won’t you ring, why won’t you ring?” Shane Carwin is still a mile down the calendar from coming back. The only name that could be intriguing at all would be Fabricio Werdum, a smaller heavyweight who shares a distinction with Henderson of having defeated Fedor Emelianenko.

It would be a cameo, but in a world of very few alternatives, it might be enough to pique Henderson’s interest.

Otherwise, the options for a marquee fight are very limited for Henderson right now, and matchmaker Joe Silva and Dana White are throwing up their hands with what to do. So is Henderson. Will he wait? Will he fight? Seems like a good time to meet up, put some headshots on the wall, and throw some darts.

Or, at very least, for the UFC and Dan Henderson to have a talk.

Strikeforce imports doing just fine in UFC

February, 3, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Cung Le attempted to beat Wanderlei Silva at UFC 139 with an unlikely game plan -- that of fighting like Cung Le.

It nearly worked. Le tried to kick Silva’s liver through his spine, but in the end he was downed with a barrage of strikes that left his nose in crescent form. The scrap was good enough to be a candidate for "fight of the year" but was unfortunate enough to be only the third-most exciting bout of the night. That was the same evening Michael Chandler won a back-and-forth battle with lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez in Bellator, and Dan Henderson outlasted Mauricio Rua in a five-round grind.

But the immediate reports back seem to be that Strikeforce fighters like Le are faring pretty well in the UFC. These were supposed to be the B models, slogging it out in a nice regional show. They weren’t supposed to be able to compete with the elite of the world. At least that’s what we heard from carnival barkers whenever somebody had the audacity to compare a Strikeforce fighter with a UFC fighter.

Yet, since the Zuffa purchase of Strikeforce and the great integration, it looks like Strikeforce had its share of equals and betters. This weekend Nick Diaz will fight for the interim welterweight belt against Carlos Condit after belting B.J. Penn at UFC 137. Win it, and he gets his long-awaited shot at Georges St. Pierre. Meanwhile, Fabricio Werdum takes on Roy Nelson in a fight with very loose title connections in the heavyweight division. Should Diaz and Werdum win -- and Vegas thinks they should -- it will continue a trend that makes Scott Coker look vindicated for something deep inside that could use some vindication. It also diversifies things for matchmaker Joe Silva.

Last weekend, Lavar Johnson scored a knockout of the night against Joey Beltran in Johnson's UFC debut. Former Strikeforce light heavyweight champion Henderson came back and beat Rua and is now patiently waiting in line for the Jon Jones-Rashad Evans winner. Strikeforce titlist and linear champion Alistair Overeem kicked Brock Lesnar into retirement, and next faces Junior dos Santos for the UFC heavyweight strap. Other Strikeforce fighters (not named Gilbert Melendez) are making their way from the hexagon to the Octagon, too. In fact, just about anybody who’s anybody in the clearance of Strikeforce heavyweights will soon be in the UFC: Antonio Silva, Chad Griggs, Daniel Cormier, Josh Barnett, et al.

The floodgates are open.
[+] EnlargeBrock Lesnar, Alistair Overeem
Donald Miralle/Zuffa LLC/Getty ImagesAlistair Overeem came roaring out of the gates in his UFC debut.

Granted, some of the Strikeforce fighters coming over are UFC retreads. But in the early returns the worst you can say is that Jake Shields, who jumped ship to the UFC before the acquisition, hasn’t lived up to billing. Most Strikeforce fighters are having a happier time of it than when the UFC/Pride partition came down, and the Pride fighters faltered. Same with the WEC, given the potential of Condit and Ben Henderson. Yet most of the WEC’s talent competed in the bantamweight and featherweight divisions, which didn’t exist in the UFC until the beginning of 2011, so it’s hard to make a full spectrum comparison.

But think about it -- in mid-to-late 2012, as many as three reigning Strikeforce champions could be wearing UFC gold (Diaz, Henderson and Overeem). If Melendez was ever released from exile, he could challenge for the lightweight belt, too.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Or maybe it’s something that we’ve always suspected and debated about. While the best fighters in the world are generally thought to be in the UFC at all times, there are fighters dying for the chance to be brought in for no other reason than to prove them wrong.

And knowing just how short the fight society’s attention span can be, the UFC is only too happy to be wrong when they do.

Hendo right to turn down bout with Lil Nog

January, 12, 2012
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall
Dan HendersonJody Gomez for ESPN.comDoes this look like a man with an appetite for stay-busy bouts?
Dan Henderson turned down a fight with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira to establish a No. 1 contender in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. This shouldn’t have been surprising. And it’s definitely not arrogant, nor anything personal. It’s just that at 41 years old, Henderson isn’t looking to be a stay-busy fighter, and he’s much too wise to be duped by dangling carrots that are being restrung by the hour.

If you’ve listened to him in interviews ranging from recent to fairly old, you know that Henderson wants a title shot, either at light heavyweight or at middleweight. The good news for him is that his wants parlay into the better fact that he has earned a title shot. Nogueira doesn’t have the title. In fact, you’d have had a tough time selling Nogueira as even a barely lateral move for Henderson right now.

Think about it. Henderson has won seven of eight fights, and four in a row in the UFC. He just beat former champion Mauricio Rua at UFC 139 in what many consider the fight of the year. Nogueira has won a single fight in his last three, and that bout was his latest against Tito Ortiz at UFC 140. Ortiz has one victory in last five years, making him arguably the worst fighter on the UFC’s roster. If the judges weren’t squinting at UFC 114, Nogueira could have easily lost the split decision to Jason Brilz, too.

In other words, Nogueira isn’t exactly riding a wave of momentum right now. And beating Ortiz doesn’t nudge him into contention, so how does that put him in the spot of challenging Henderson in a title eliminator?
[+] EnlargeAntonio Rogerio Nogueira
Susumu Nagao for ESPN.comAntonio Rogerio Nogueira, bottom, owns a win over Dan Henderson from back in their Pride days.

It doesn’t, really. Henderson was presented with a penultimate fight that suggested equal footing against a guy who really isn’t on equal footing. The idea was to play off the history of the two, with Henderson having lost to Lil Nog in Pride back in 2005. Backstories are fun, but they shouldn’t mess with present fortune. And backstories have nothing to do with a 41-year-old man with no sense of nostalgia.

And besides, Henderson doesn’t like putting on fights that fans aren’t into, and this rematch would be one of them. He also didn’t like the fact that it was proposed as a five-round fight, as he recently said on Clinch Gear Radio.

But it is a funny coincidence that news of Henderson turning down Nogueira came out on the same night that it was announced the UFC was headed back to Atlanta. It was the last time through Atlanta, at UFC 88 in 2008, that Henderson began his quest back into title contention. That’s how long it’s taken him to be in this position. That night, he beat Rousimar Palhares to get the thing back in motion at the improbable age of 38. Having just lost to Quinton Jackson and Anderson Silva in consecutive title clashes, Henderson’s odds of returning to title consideration were long. He was supposed to be entering his twilight.

Yet he went to Ireland and beat Rich Franklin (narrowly) and followed that up by defeating Michael Bisping at UFC 100 in what he thought was a case-making knockout for a second title shot against Anderson Silva. Turns out the UFC didn’t see it that way and, long story short, Henderson felt undervalued enough to defect to Strikeforce (where he became the 205-pound champ).
[+] EnlargeDan Henderson and Rousimar Palhares
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesDan Henderson began the rebuilding process against Rousimar Palhares in Atlanta in 2008.

Here we are at the beginning of 2012, and he’s in the same situation he was in 2009, only slightly enhanced because his position forks into two separate weight classes as opportunity dictates. Much like when he came over to the UFC from Pride in 2007, actually. But while he’s been in this situation before, it’s (very likely) the last time he’ll ever be in such a position again.

Why squander it? Why let Nogueira play with house money while gambling with the idea of losing a title shot forever? And what would be the point of beating up Minotoro, aside from avenging a 2005 loss in Pride?

Henderson was right to refuse the bout and, abiding by Dana White’s famous refrain, to “wait and see what happens” with the Rashad Evans/Phil Davis fight. He’s simply too far along and in too prime a position to play the “why not?” game at this stage of his career. In fact, he already played it once by fighting Rua in his return to the UFC.

For as willing as he usually is to accept challenges that fans would be interested in, his willingness to be patient here is the right play.

There’s no upside in staying busy, but there is in standing still. At least while things sort out.

Up next for Hendo? Whatever time allows

November, 23, 2011
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Dan HendersonAP Photo/Jeff ChiuRight of passage: Dan Henderson's right hand has helped launch him into a pair of title frames.
It’s taken him nearly 15 years and 40 fights, but Dan Henderson has finally reached a perfect place in mixed martial arts -- one where he can do almost anything he wants.

After watching him edge Mauricio Rua in their five-round masterpiece on Saturday at UFC 139, company president Dana White sounded ready to sign Henderson up for title fights in two different weight divisions. With apologies to guys like Rashad Evans and Mark Munoz, Hendo seems a shoe-in to cut the line for a shot at Jon Jones’ light heavyweight gold and a rematch against middleweight kingpin Anderson Silva is equally within his grasp.

As with all things in the UFC, the schedule will rule, but from here out the 41-year-old Henderson can pretty much write his own ticket.

“I’m just saying that the guy’s so talented that he could do both, he can fight in both weight classes,” White said. “I’m sure it would be a matter of timing. I’m sure with him, it would be whichever [fight] he could get first.”

What happens next is all conjecture, of course. Any number of factors -- injury, contract disputes, hordes of locusts -- could hasten or delay either matchup in ways we can’t yet imagine. If sheer timing is the key, however, the immediate 205-pound calendar appears to set up best for Henderson.
[+] EnlargeHenderson/Silva
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesA rematch between Dan Henderson and Anderson Silva whets the appetite no matter when it happens.

With Jones defending his title against Lyoto Machida at UFC 140 on Dec. 10, the former Strikeforce light heavyweight champ could find himself taking on the winner in the spring. Henderson’s wrestling prowess and one-punch knockout power makes him an interesting opponent for either guy, though he’d certainly have to come to the cage with a little more gas in the tank than he had against Shogun. Especially if it turns out he is to fight Jones.

Meanwhile, Silva’s datebook remains a bit more uncertain, as the 185-pound champ continues to recuperate from shoulder surgery. Despite a few recent reports to the contrary, we think he’s still headed toward a rematch with Chael Sonnen, possibly in June at that 100,000-seat mega-stadium in Sao Paolo, Brazil we keep hearing about. If that holds true, the soonest Hendo could fight for the middleweight crown might be late 2012.

The great thing about a Hendo-Silva fight though is that it remains marketable no matter what happens in the interim. Even if Hendo should lose to the Jones-Machida winner or Silva drops the strap to Sonnen, their bout would still be just as compelling. It might even be better if the UFC could think of a way to promote it without putting the middleweight title on the line, since Henderson has already said he won’t stick around at 185-pounds afterward.

Long story short: Henderson has options. At this late stage in his career he’s managed to build himself into one the sport’s hottest and most versatile commodities. The only limiting factor is his age, but until the clock runs out on him it seems he’s earned the right to decide his own fate.

White urges Wanderlei Silva to retire

November, 23, 2011
By Ben Blackmore
Dana White has called on Wanderlei Silva to retire despite his win over Cung Le at UFC 139. More »

Shogun suffered possible skull fracture

November, 22, 2011
By Ben Blackmore
Mauricio Rua will need to be cleared for a possible facial or skull fracture before he is free to return to action in the UFC. More »

Le's future uncertain after loss to Silva

November, 21, 2011
Dundas By Chad Dundas

As is almost always the case, Cung Le seemed to be in good spirits, as he took to his Twitter account on Sunday to show fans the aftereffects of Wanderlei Silva’s fists and knees.

“Here’s a picture of my face you wanted to see,” Le wrote, attaching a photo of himself with a blackened right eye, swollen lower lip and a gash across the bridge of his nose.

The morning after, his gaze had taken on that "what happened last night?" air we so often see on defeated fighters. But, at least, Le's sense of humor appeared intact. And at least his nose was back where it should be.

A suddenly resurgent Silva had pounded said nose almost comically flat on Saturday night while scoring a career-saving second-round TKO win at UFC 139. It was a victory that temporarily put off questions surrounding “The Axe Murderer’s” future, while simultaneously raising them about where Le goes from here.

At 39 years old, isn't it impossible to imagine he finishes out the six-fight deal he signed with the UFC earlier this year? With two new movies coming out during the first quarter of 2012, will he lapse back into the fits and starts that have typified his five-year MMA career? Does working two jobs leave him the kind of time and focus necessary to be successful at the highest level of this sport?

And, anyway, will he even want to soldier on if people keep busting up his nose with such alarming regularity? I mean, first Scott Smith in Strikeforce in 2009, and now Silva. That can't be good for your movie star good looks.
[+] EnlargeWanderlei Silva and Cung Le
Rod Mar for ESPN.comDown and out: It's hard to imagine Cung Le choosing this line of work going forward.

“I felt great -- 'til I got caught,” Le wrote at the end of his Twitter message and, yes, in all honesty there were a few positives to take away from his performance against Silva.

The former Strikeforce middleweight champion’s promotional debut was good enough to earn "Fight of the night" honors and he looked pretty capable through his first 9 minutes, 49 seconds as a bonafide UFC fighter. In the early going, he twice stunned Silva with spinning back fists; and, for much of the first round, he was able to keep his opponent at the proper range for his unorthodox arsenal of strikes.

Had Le been able to land flush with any of his powerful spinning kicks -- like the partially-blocked wheel kick he clocked Silva with two minutes in -- we’d be having a much different conversation today. Instead, by the second, he was visibly slowing down and Wanderlei was able to start working his way inside for the eventual endgame.

It seems unfair, but as reasonably good as Le's performance was in this fight, our final impression was of him losing to a guy unilaterally assumed to be on his last legs. What’s worse, Silva's win provided a fairly comprehensive game plan for how to beat Le: Close the distance to smother his attacks, wait for him to tire himself out, and then finish.

Le's style and his personality will continue to make him a fairly marketable fighter. And it seems likely we'll probably see him in the cage at least one more time before it's all said and done. At this stage, though, his age, inactivity and other career options all raise doubts about how much he’ll actually be able to accomplish in MMA moving forward.

Five round mains look smart post-UFC 139

November, 21, 2011
Mindenhall By Chuck Mindenhall

If it had occurred all the way back in summer of 2011, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua would have fought three not entirely memorable rounds. If things played out just as they did at UFC 139 without circumstantial revisions, Henderson would have won an easy 30-27 decision on all judges’ scorecards. This would have been the end of the story, and we’d be talking in terms of Henderson’s pan-divisional title prospects today, and pitting Rua with Quinton Jackson in Japan.

Or, at least we’d be discussing those things with a different emphasis than we are.

But since the fight happened in the era of five round main events, it quickly transformed from one-sided rout to “greatest UFC bout of all time.” Epic can be defined as the tables being turned. And isn’t this the magic that the UFC envisioned when it stretched main events by two rounds -- wars that take improbable twists and turns? By the time the “championship rounds” got going, Henderson and Rua had been swapping dominant positions like grappling swingers. There’s something about the redirection of momentum that plays with our sense of wow. It’s fun when you think -- no, when you’re sure -- that what you’re looking at is the epitome of heart, especially when you've had to crash through so many walls to find it. Or feel that you have. Sports are meant to be vicarious.
[+] EnlargeDan Henderson
Rod Mar for ESPN.comAfter five rounds of give-and-take action, everyone (except Mauricio Rua) went home a winner Saturday.

Rua withstood the third round onslaught that left Henderson a shell of himself. Against suspicion of having a peanut-sized gas tank, it was Rua with the reserves. It was Rua who began to mount an offense from previously unimagined depths. In the fifth, it was Rua who put Henderson in survival mode for about nine-tenths of the round. Henderson hung on while the molasses poured over him, and the clock moved as slow. In fact, the fifth round could be presented as Exhibit A in what a 10-8 round should look like -- a round in which one fighter has the other on the ropes from bell to bell. By strict definition, the fifth round couldn’t be anything other than a 10-8 for Rua.

Yet the California judges saw it 10-9 for “Shogun,” and Henderson escaped on the strength of his early work. It was a tale of two fights that intersected at the hinging point of the added rounds that everybody was curious about. That’s drama.

If there was a flaw in any of it, it’s that it didn’t end up in a draw as it probably should have. Since Dana White despises draws -- just like anybody who likes their events served up with definitive resolutions -- this was a mere footnote. There was finality. And finality went along perfect with the near knockouts, sweeps, reversals, blood and seismic momentum shifts, the guts, drive and hard-swallowing Adam’s apples that went into the plot.

Just where it took on a “one for the ages” feel was in the additional rounds, exactly to the hopes of the UFC who created them for this purpose. Big-event fights should be made to mature before our eyes. Though this was our first real look, it might mean two things going forward. One, that five-round main events have the potential of converting pretty good fights into great ones, like Rua and Henderson -- and two, that we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment to expect everybody in those circumstances to dig as deep.

For now, Silva staves off retirement

November, 20, 2011
Dundas By Chad Dundas

SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Wanderlei Silva earned a reprieve at UFC 139.

Facing the possible end of his legendary career after six losses in his last eight fights, Silva bought himself some time on Saturday night when he stopped Cung Le via second-round TKO after an exciting, back-and-forth battle in the evening’s co-main event.

Especially on the heels of his disastrous 27-second loss to Chris Leben at UFC 132, this was one “The Axe Murderer” absolutely had to win. He did, weathering nearly 10 minutes of Le’s unorthodox striking before turning the tide with a knee and a straight right, then following with hammerfists to force a stoppage just 11 seconds before the end of the round.

“It’s wonderful. ... I know in this job you have to kill one lion each day,” Silva said at the postfight news conference. "Thank you so much [to the UFC] for this opportunity.”
[+] EnlargeWanderlei Silva
Rod Mar for ESPN.comWanderlei "The Axe Murderer" Silva is off the chopping block -- at least for now.

In the days leading up to this show, Dana White had let it be known that he and Silva would “have to have a talk” if he didn’t look at least passable against Le. Now that talk -- the one no fighter wants to have -- is delayed, and Silva’s career will live to fight another day.

“He looked awesome tonight,” White said. “I’m happy for him, believe me, I’m happy to have him here. He’s a guy who we respect and who we really care about and it was good to see him win.”

The UFC president was impressed enough to double up on the evening’s "Fight of the Night" bonuses, awarding $70,000 to Silva and Le in addition to the cash he gave Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua for their epic main event.

At the start, things did not look like they would end so well for Silva. Le caught him at range a few times during the first round, brutalizing Silva with kicks to the body and head, even dropping him to the canvas at one point with a spinning backfist.

Silva took it all and continued to wade in with his trademark headhunting punches. The end began with a flurry that hurt Le enough to force him into an ineffective takedown attempt against the cage. Silva defended the takedown, then landed a series of knees and an elbow before the strikes that put Le down for the final time.

“I studied his game a lot," Silva said. "My coaches and I had a good game plan for this fight and, thanks to God, we won it the right way.”

There are no doubt valid questions that could still be asked about Silva pressing on with his legendary career. For better or for worse, those questions will now wait for another day.

Instead, the retirement questions may now shift to Le. The American Kickboxing Academy fighter has competed only sparingly in MMA during the past few years, balancing a fighting career with accepting movie roles at home and abroad. At 39 years old, the former Strikeforce middleweight champion was making his UFC debut in front of a hometown crowd that chanted alternately for him and for Silva during the fight.

When it was over, Le was led from the cage with an obviously broken nose while Silva left with renewed life. At least for now.

“I know the responsibility of fighting here,” Silva said. “There is space just for the best guys in the world here.”
Dana White has likened Mauricio Shogun Rua versus Dan Henderson to the Thrilla in Manila between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier, although the UFC president says Saturday's clash should have ended in a draw. More »

Bowles just fine not being the 'cool kid'

November, 18, 2011
Dundas By Chad Dundas
Brian Bowles & Miguel TorresJosh Hedges/Getty ImagesTo most, Brian Bowles' title-winning effort over Miguel Torres is all but a distant memory.
SAN JOSE, Calif. -- Brian Bowles freely admits that whatever “it” is, he doesn’t have it.

Charisma, charm, mass appeal. Whatever you want to call it, it doesn’t come naturally to Bowles.

His reserved personality has been forced to the forefront this week, the situation only exacerbated because he’s fighting Urijah Faber on Saturday at UFC 139. While Faber is pound-for-pound one of the most outgoing characters in MMA -- his entire persona exuding a kind of laid-back California cool -- Bowles is the exact opposite.

Where Faber is gregarious, Bowles is quiet. Where Faber is over the top, Bowles is understated. Where Faber is one of the most popular figures in the sport, Bowles is perhaps one of the most under the radar.

And you know what? He’s OK with that.

“Some people are going to be popular and some people aren’t,” Bowles said in San Jose this week. “Some people are just gifted with that. He’s like the cool kid in school. You don’t know why he’s cool, but he is. I happen to not have it. Some people have it. Faber has it.”

One thing Bowles has had that Faber has not, of course, is the bantamweight championship. Yet somehow, despite the fact Bowles dealt Miguel Torres his first loss in six years at WEC 42, snapping his 17-fight win streak with a first-round KO and thrusting Torres’ career into a period of uncertainty he’s still trying to work out of, nobody seems to remember that.
[+] EnlargeBrian Bowles
Josh Hedges/Getty ImagesBrian Bowles prefers to let his fists do the talking at UFC 139.

Part of that is because Bowles refuses to run around shouting about it. Another part is that his reign on top was short, lasting just seven months before he was forced to concede the title to Dominick Cruz, bowing out of their fight at WEC 47 with a broken hand. It doesn’t help either that he had to spend a year on shelf nursing that injury and that while we was out, the WEC was absorbed into the much larger landscape of the UFC.

Bowles has won two straight fights so far in the Octagon, but seems at peace with the idea the few people yet know his name. He knows that will change so long as he can keep winning.

“I do feel overlooked ...,” Bowles said. "But I’m just now building up my momentum."

He gets his best chance yet to kick start that momentum this weekend, along with the chance earn another shot at Cruz and the UFC 135-pound title.

Bowles enters this bout as a bit more than a 2-1 underdog and Faber’s wrestling prowess arguably makes it a tough matchup for him. Despite the long odds however, he hopes to emerge from UFC 139 as the No. 1 contender and, he said, maybe even a little bit more popular.

“I look at this fight like it’s a chance for me to shine,” Bowles said. “He’s a popular guy. Fighting him is going to bring me fans either way, as long as I go out there and put on a [good] performance.”