In the shadows of a historic main event between Ronda Rousey and Liz Carmouche this Saturday night at UFC 157, sits an important fight in the UFC light-heavyweight division.
Former champion Lyoto Machida squares-off with MMA legend Dan Henderson in a bout that will not only determine the next title opportunity at 205-pounds, but also has the potential to ultimately eliminate the loser from the championship picture for the foreseeable future.
Granted, in recent weeks UFC President Dana White has switched his stance on the next title shot going to the winner of this weekend's co-main event in Anaheim, Calif. Two weeks back, White had deemed the winner of the upcoming bout between Alexander Gustafsson and Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel TV 9 to be the next in line. Nevertheless, even without thinking about the immediate title shot as the primary focus for Machida and Henderson, their upcoming tilt carries multiple implications that will affect their respective futures.
The former Olympian is north of 40 years old and, regardless of his ability thus far to smash out Father Time, the clock is undoubtedly ticking on "Hendo's" career. With a hall of fame resume to his credit, there isn't much left that Henderson hasn't accomplished — save for getting his hands on UFC gold. The Temecula, Calif. native has come up short in his previous efforts, and one has to think, the urgency to make one last title run is something Henderson fully realizes.
While age isn't necessarily an issue for Machida, the timing of this fight could serve to make all the difference. Three years ago when "The Dragon" laid claim to the light heavyweight title by making Rashad Evans' knockout reel fodder, he appeared to be invincible. Unfortunately for the karate-based fighter, the mystery surrounding his skill set has somewhat faded and the 34 year old has been caught in a win-one-lose-one pattern ever since.
It is a crucial point in the careers of both men and that makes their bout at UFC 157 all the more important.
The Machida Era Has to Start Now
Following Machida's victory over Evans at UFC 98 in 2009, Joe Rogan famously rang in the beginning of "The Machida Era." To that point in his career, no one had been able to figure out the riddle of Machida's awkward striking style and his uncanny ability to close distance with power and accuracy.
Things have since changed in that regard. With losses to Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Quinton Jackson and champion Jon Jones, holes in the Brazilian's game have been exposed. While the bout against Rampage may have ended in a split-decision, both Rua and Jones were able to finish him in brutal fashion.
The loss to Jones at UFC 140 threatened to push Machida out of the title picture, but that backslide was halted at UFC on FOX for this past August. The Team Black House fighter scored an impressive first round knockout over former TUF winner Ryan Bader. In the process of knocking out Bader, he put his name back into the conversation. Unfortunately for Machida, the call to rematch Jones came much faster than expected.
After Henderson was injured and dropped out of his title fight at UFC 151, the UFC tapped Machida to take his place, but the lack of preparation time caused the former No. 1 contender to pass on the opportunity.
The decision and eventual cancellation of the event, most likely did not earn Machida any favor in the eyes of the UFC. And this makes his performance against Henderson all the more important. With a handful of contenders like Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, Gegard Mousasi, and Phil Davis on the rise — it very well could be now or never for Machida.
In the past, and again during this week's media blitz for UFC 157, Machida has talked about a possible drop down to the middleweight division. But with training partner and close friend Anderson Silva still holding the 185-pound crown, the thought of Machida cutting down to the next weight class seems too far off. Yet, should he come out on the business end this weekend against Henderson, his place of relevance in the 205-pound division could very well vanish, making a middleweight run his best option.
Then again, if Machida is successful this Saturday night against the former Strikeforce champion and looks impressive doing it, a chance to reclaim the light-heavyweight title could be his for the taking.
A Legend's Final Run
When you look at how physically demanding the sport of mixed martial arts can be on the human body, Henderson's achievements become all the more impressive. Not only is the 42 year old still competing on the sport's biggest stage, but defeating top-level talent in the process. The former PRIDE-middleweight and light-heavyweight champion has won seven of his last eight showings.
Over this stretch, which has spanned two divisions, Henderson has collected noteworthy victories over Michael Bisping, Fedor Emeliananko and Shogun Rua. His bout with the former Chute Boxe standout was deemed by many to not only be 2012's "Fight of the Year" but also one of the best scraps to ever take place in the sport's history.
After defeating Rua at UFC 139, the door to a showdown with light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones opened. But after suffering a knee injury a week out from their fight at UFC 151, Henderson was forced to the sidelines as his position opposite Jones was given to fellow legend Vitor Belfort.
In the aftermath of the UFC 151 debacle, Henderson's place in the hierarchy of the 205-pound weight class has been difficult to determine. While Henderson is undoubtedly one of the best light-heavyweights on the UFC roster, the organization has been slow to officially grant him a guaranteed title shot with a win over Machida. Despite White publicly stating the winner of this weekend's match-up ultimately get the next opportunity, title talk in MMA changes with the wind, and whether or not a title shot will come remains to be seen.
Should Henderson defeat Machida and earn a crack at the winner of Jones vs. Chael Sonnen later this year, it would be a fitting chapter to Henderson's career. After being passed over in the glare of Sonnen's star power, a chance to compete for the light heavyweight crown is something Henderson deserves. A victory over Machida will solidify that notion, and if Henderson is successful in Anaheim, it would be difficult to deny him being next in line.