Hendo highlights weekend of battles
I've had the privilege of watching many great mixed martial arts fights over the years, both as a fan and a reporter. But never before was I compelled to thank a fighter for his effort. I didn't know if it was appropriate and in the moment I guess I didn't care. Inside a large conference room that was decked out for the post-Pride 19 party, Ken Shamrock stood at a table and I walked up to him. I offered my gratitude for the effort he exuded, for the fight he and Don Frye brought to bear. He didn't beat Frye, according to the judges, but he gave everything he had to the cause. So, of course, did Frye, whom I didn't see him until the next day. He hobbled into the lobby of the Tokyo Hilton with knees the size of large grapefruits. He needed help stepping onto the bus transporting fighters, their entourages and the media from Tokyo to Narita airport.
It was during these bus rides that I first recognized the true, unvarnished toll of MMA. The day-after effect.
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The first Pride card I attended was the organization's 12th event, Dec. 9, 2000. Dan Henderson fought Wanderlei Silva that night in a bout I'll never forget. I imagine there will be many people who feel the same about Henderson's clash with Mauricio Rua this weekend in San Jose. More than a decade after Henderson went 20 minutes with a prime Silva, he played part to an instant classic, one that in this hyperbole-driven sport is worthy of the accolades. Amazing, really. I don't know what Henderson looked like on Sunday. Hopefully he didn't resemble the shell of a man he was in Japan following the Silva fight. He couldn't sit up straight most of the two-hour bus trip. His face was a puffy maze of dark purple. His eyes were glassy. He was definitely concussed and probably should not have boarded a flight, especially for the daylong trip back to Los Angeles.
In the end I regard those moments as evidence to what I've since confirmed: fighters aren't normal people. No better or worse, just not normal. Once in a while they deserve, through their considerable efforts, recognition for displaying what human beings are capable of when they're strong in mind and spirit. I was certainly reminded of that this weekend. Henderson-Rua served as an incredible main event for UFC 139. Wanderlei Silva and Cung Le put on a display of violence that made me and my desensitized mind cringe. Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez offered up as much courage as anyone ever has in a venue where their life wasn't in a very real sense at stake.
These men are all worthy of our praise, and for whatever it's worth, they have mine.
Even at a time when the UFC is reaching unprecedented heights, I still maintain that I don't care where fighters fight, or that their contributions are no less important or relevant if bouts take place in the Octagon or not. Henderson offered miraculous performances in Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC. Why should one be more valuable than another because of the brand it's attached to? I'll never be convinced that it is.
Please understand, I'm not attempting to dismiss the vital roles played by the UFC or any other promoter. They have their mandate and are responsible for the health and stability of MMA. But it's my everlasting belief that fighters matter most. Henderson is a beast of a man no matter where he competes.
With that, it's time to look back on a weekend that will be remembered fondly.
UFC 139/M-1/Bellator 58 grades
At the age of 41, Dan Henderson finds himself in the midst of the best stretch of his career. And that's saying a lot. What a 2011 for Henderson, who, by my estimation, ranks among the three best mixed martial artists in the sport's modern history. He deserves a few months off and a No. 1 contender spot at light heavyweight after his five-round campaign against Mauricio Rua. Again, it was the right hand for Henderson that paid off. He's infinitely better at 205 pounds than he is at middleweight. Why? Henderson has more than enough power, both striking and grappling, to compete with the larger-bodied light heavyweights. But what he has that they don't is speed. He'd have problems against Rashad Evans, who can exceed Henderson's pace and is equipped to wrestle with him. But at this point, it's ludicrous to suggest that Henderson (29-8) is outmatched by anyone in the division, even current champion Jon Jones. No one has been tested more times and answered the call than Dan Henderson. You better enjoy watching him for as long as he decides to stick around.
I scored Rua's fight with Henderson a draw, and with that in mind they each earn high marks here. The 29-year-old Brazilian, like Henderson a UFC and Pride champion, was hit too much in the first three rounds. I thought he'd avoid Henderson's vaunted right hand, but that didn't happen. As the fight continued into the fourth and fifth rounds -- and let me just say, this bout is evidence of why so many of us for so long advocated for five-round non-title clashes -- Rua's size and spirit allowed him back into the contest. He took as good as Henderson could give, then dished out enough to hurt the American wrestler. "Shogun" (20-6) dominated the fifth round as he took down, beat down and maintained dominant positions for five minutes, That was the only 10-8 round of the fight on my card. In the periods Rua was hurt, he recovered and mustered some offense to close the gap, preventing 10-8s for Henderson. Regardless, it was a tremendous fight, right up there with Rua's best effort against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in 2005.
This was the "California Kid" at his best. Urijah Faber mixed up his attack, thusly confounding Brian Bowles before applying a second-round choke for the win. Faber, 32, was simply too explosive for Bowles, and therein lies his dilemma moving forward. His typical speed and power advantages were cast aside against the likes of Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz. As he prepares to meet Cruz for a third time in 2012, Faber (26-5) will have to find ways to win that don't rely on physically overwhelming the opposition. I was reminded of Faber's rise through the ranks on Saturday because the manner in which he fought at UFC 139 is how he did it on local shows on the California circuit. Bowles is not someone to trifle with, and Faber handled him in the best way possible.
If you haven't seen Michael Chandler's Bellator lightweight title-winning effort against Eddie Alvarez, do yourself a favor and find the thing on YouTube. It's right there with Henderson-Rua and joining Frankie Edgar versus Gray Maynard 2 for fight of the year. Seriously, it was that good. Chandler, a two-year captain for the University of Missouri wrestling team, came out punching against Alvarez. In most cases, this is as good as suicide. But Chandler was up to the task and twice he dropped the exciting Philadelphian on his seat. Chandler didn't win in a rout. Not even close. He was tested to his core in Round 3. Alvarez dropped bombs on the undefeated Xtreme Couture-trained lightweight, yet Chandler not only survived, he persevered. The finish came after Chandler (9-0) dropped Alvarez with punches. It's a performance that will be remembered as 25-year-old Chandler's coming-out party.
The old man has something left, forcing those of us mute -- me included -- who seriously doubted whether or not fighting was Wanderlei Silva's best option in life. Of course it's his best option. This is what he was born to do. Silva, 35, encountered trouble early against Cung Le, which is understandable considering the distinct range with which Le fights. But as the fight moved to Round 2 and Silva's power paid dividends, the bout devolved into a violent reminder of The Axe Murderer's strong reputation as one of MMA's most vicious operators. Silva took it to Le, dismantling the features of the actor's face until it was called following a series of knees from the Thai clinch. I'm not sure there's ever been a more dangerous fighter in the clinch than Silva (34-11-1), and he proved that yet again on Saturday.
Straight up excitement. That's what Eddie Alvarez brings. And when he fights an opponent willing to adopt the same type of energy, well, you get what he and Chandler produced in the main event of Bellator 58 in Hollywood, Fla. Alvarez has always been a reckless fighter, which is part of the reason his bouts tend to be dramatic. It's also a tricky proposition in this sport to compete and win like that on a regular basis. Alvarez (22-3) had his challenge answered by Chandler, who stood in front of him and traded in a manner few knew he could. Alvarez was hurt, responded, and delivered his own salvos. He had Chandler hurt in the third round, yet couldn't finish and paid the price the following round. There are fans and analysts out there who attempted to paint Alvarez as the best lightweight in the world. He never was and shouldn't have been billed that way. He is, however, an amazingly enthralling and talented mixed martial artist. I had him ranked No. 6 at 155 coming into the fight, and he'll remain in my top 10 after the loss. Let's not forget Alvarez is just 27 years old. He'll be back.
You had to wonder if Stephan Bonnar would ever realize getting his face smashed in for no reason save giving the crowd the violence they covet was not a smart long-term career track -- at least if he had any desire to fight his way up the contender list. He's in his mid-30s now and maybe that message has hit home. Rather than standing and trading with Kyle Kingsbury, Bonnar (14-7) embraced his Brazilian jiu-jitsu roots to cull out a smart and wholly unspectacular win. I still don't see Bonnar as a serious threat at the top of the light heavyweight division, but if he fights the way he did on Saturday he's more than equipped to provide a test for 205-pounders on the UFC roster. Also, it's worth noting that he came off like a class act, apologizing to Josh Koscheck the way he did in his postfight interview with Joe Rogan. It was a verbal scuffle much ado about nothing, but nonetheless kudos to Bonnar for manning up and admitting he was wrong on the biggest stage possible.
Remember this guy? The best heavyweight in MMA history earned his first win in two years with a sweeping decision against Jeff Monson in Moscow. Unlike his last three fights, all losses, Fedor Emelianenko came out with a measured approach. He worked over Monson's lead leg with kicks, and busted up the American's face with lead rights and other assorted punches. He probably could have gone after Monson in an attempt to finish, but instead he remained cautious. That's fine. For once it seemed as if he actually walked into a bout with a plan. That's the good. The bad? Emelianenko (33-4) hovered near 240 pounds. That's far too heavy if he's going to find the form that put him atop the heavyweight division for nearly a decade. Also, let's not read too much into this. Monson is slow and offered no counterattack over the 15-minute fight. Emelianenko, 35, may have appeared revitalized by comparison, but there are many heavyweights against whom he would come off a lot worse. Up next, Emelianenko's handlers are talking about a New Year's Eve bout in Japan against Satoshi Ishii. Yawn.
Under the radar as usual, Martin Kampmann (18-5) put on a professional performance to dispatch Rick Story for a decision win. Kampmann is a better grappler than most people give him credit for, and he showed that against Story. He also offered quality footwork and competent striking. In essence, this was typical Kampmann. I'd like to think he still has a run to the top of the welterweight division in him. He can beat fighters of any style; the issue is whether he can assert himself enough at the highest level. Kampmann, 29, may be too much of a technician for his own good.
Two losses in a row for the 27-year-old Rick Story (13-5) puts a total halt to the idea that he'll emerge as a UFC welterweight contender within the next year. He remains extremely dangerous and powerful, but he'll have his problems competing against refined fighters. Kampmann exposed weaknesses that exist in Story's game -- he relies too much on bullying opponents and he doesn't string combinations together -- yet if he pays attention to the lessons that will emerge as a result, he can come out the other side a better fighter. Don't dismiss this guy yet.
For five minutes, Cung Le looked headed to the biggest MMA win of his career. It's not a major fight night in San Jose, Calif., if he's missing from the card, and the UFC knew that. So Le was positioned as the co-main event despite the fact that he's 39 years old and hasn't much of an MMA record to speak of. Unfortunately, Le entered the sport too late to showcase his brand of fighting, which is among the most interesting to watch. He took a respect-cementing beating against Silva. With his acting duties taking precedence, Le can't have his nose smeared across his face like it was at the HP Pavilion. I wouldn't be surprised if he steps in the cage just one more time, a swan song, and then focuses on supporting his family an easier way.
Brian Bowles failed to answer the call against a faster, more experienced and well-rounded Urijah Faber. Stakes were high in this No. 1 contender contest, and Bowles, a notably heavy puncher, appeared as if he was stuck in earth as Faber darted in and out, landing punches and takedowns. Bowles (10-2) also had no answer for Faber on the canvas, which is where the fight reached its conclusion. This is a back-to-the-drawing-board result for the 31-year-old fighter from Georgia.
At least Monson earned a trip to Russia and a meeting with Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Because other than that, Monson didn't accomplish much while fighting Fedor Emelianenko in Moscow. A 40-year-old heavyweight, Monson is probably best-known for spray-painting a U.S. government building while a photographer for ESPN tagged along. He failed to challenge Emelianenko in a meaningful way. Instead, Monson was repeatedly battered with punches around his face, resulting in a torrent of blood coming from cuts near his mouth. Monson didn't fight back. He wanted to engage with Emelianenko on the canvas, yet had no means of doing so. It was a wasteful effort considering Monson (43-13) spoke about how much it meant for him to fight the Russian.
Simply put, Kyle Kingsbury had no answer against an opponent who sought to take him down. Stephan Bonnar isn't an especially gifted wrestler. In fact, he's not a wrestler at all. But that didn't seem to matter as he went after and completed single-leg takedowns, which led to prolonged sessions working jiu-jitsu positions as Kingsbury suffered underneath, almost helpless. The 29-year-old Kingsbury (11-3) has to improve his takedown defense and his guard game, or he'll never amount to anything in this sport.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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