When former UFC light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans meets multi-promotional former title-holder Dan Henderson at UFC 161, the two fighters won't be competing for a belt or even a No. 1 contender's spot.
They will be battling for relevancy in a growing division.
Both Evans and Henderson have got to look at their fight as the last man standing survives—the loser may never get back to a title shot again.
Since losing the UFC light heavyweight title to Lyoto Machida at UFC 98, Rashad Evans has been in a position to battle for the belt again on a couple of notable occasions, but only one actually came to fruition. Injuries kept Evans from fighting Maurcio "Shogun" Rua when he still had the belt.
Eventually he earned a shot at former teammate Jon Jones at UFC 145.
Evans lost the fight by unanimous decision, but he was in a prime position to jump right back into the title conversation until his loss to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 156 in a vastly underwhelming performance. He could have also been in a spot where with a win he could have dropped to 185 pounds and challenged middleweight king Anderson Silva for the belt, but that also went up in smoke after his loss in early February.
Dan Henderson finds himself walking into UFC 161 in almost the exact same spot, although under different circumstances.
Six months ago, Henderson was supposed to be fighting Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight title at UFC 151. But a knee injury forced him out of the fight and back to the sidelines, where he watched Vitor Belfort get a crack at the belt, and where he now has to watch his former training partner Chael Sonnen take on Jones in April.
Henderson had a chance to solidify his place back atop the rankings but lost a close decision to Lyoto Machida at UFC 157 just weeks ago in Anaheim. Henderson was none too happy about the judges' call in the fight, but his record still reads loss and he's not getting a title shot right now.
It also can't be forgotten that Henderson is 42 years old. While he's had some of his best performances since turning 40, it doesn't mean he can do this forever, especially considering the new blood slowly climbing the ranks at 205 pounds.
Alexander Gustafsson will likely earn the next crack at the UFC light heavyweight title with a win over Gegard Mousasi at UFC on Fuel TV 9 in Sweden in early April, and then there's the possibility that Daniel Cormier could win his UFC debut at UFC on Fox 7 and then drop down to 205 pounds to challenge for the belt.
Of course, there is also Lyoto Machida, who has been declared the UFC's No. 1 contender at 205 pounds. He happens to hold wins now over both Evans and Henderson.
The list seems to be growing longer by the day. Both Evans' and Henderson's prospects of reaching title contention almost evaporate with a loss at UFC 161.
For Evans, a loss would mean three defeats in a row. Granted, one of those came in a title fight against Jon Jones, but rarely do fighters lose three fights in a row in the UFC and somehow work their way back to a title shot.
Patrick Cote lost his first four fights in the UFC, left the promotion and won four in a row before earning his crack at the belt at UFC 90 against Anderson Silva. Nick Diaz lost three in a row in the UFC as well, but he left the promotion following the last fight against Sean Sherk in 2006 and fought in several organizations before coming back to get his title shot at next weekend's UFC 158 show.
A third loss in a row for Evans would be devastating and almost eliminates him from title contention in the foreseeable future, especially if Jones continues to hold the belt because they've already faced each other in the past.
As for Dan Henderson, his path back to at title doesn't appear as treacherous as Evans, but a loss would almost certainly put him out of the picture for good.
Adding to this pressure-cooker situation is UFC president Dana White, who was unimpressed by both Evans and Henderson in their recent performances. White joked after Henderson and Machida fought at UFC 157 that he wished he could have turned their bout into a two-round affair.
White also commented about Evans, saying "he has lost that hunger" when speaking about his drive to be the best in the sport. Ominous comments coming from the boss, and Evans had to be listening when his name was mentioned.
The stakes are higher than ever for both Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson. For the winner, it's back into title contention and a race towards the 205-pound gold continues. For the loser, it could mean being relegated to obscurity in the division and a battle for relevancy.
Damon Martin is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report and all quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.
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