It's no secret that UFC 161, in its final form, isn't the card Winnipeg thought it was getting when the promotion announced its debut in the city.
The MMA injury epidemic first forced the cancellation of the bantamweight title main event between Renan Barao and Eddie Wineland, and then knocked the important light heavyweight rematch between Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira off the card for good measure.
But even now, with those two fights missing, UFC 161 still offers plenty of intrigue, and nowhere is this more evident than the main event between perennial contenders and champions Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson.
It may not seem like it on the surface, but Evans vs. Henderson is an important fight. It may not have the immediate impact we expect from our pay-per-view main events, but it's a closely matched fight between two fighters who have remained near the top of their weight class for many years.
What's at stake for both fighters? Let's take a look.
What's at stake for Rashad Evans?
Put simply, this fight represents Evans' last chance to remain relevant in the UFC's light heavyweight title picture.
Evans will always be one of the UFC's biggest stars. Whether you love or hate him, Evans has a magnetic presence that draws attention each and every time he fights.
It's been that way nearly from the first moment he entered the UFC proper after winning The Ultimate Fighter as a heavyweight; the fans may (wrongly, in my opinion) boo him vociferously, but he garners a reaction each and every time he steps on a stage to weigh in or when he walks through the curtain and heads to the Octagon.
Evans' name brand will carry him to the end of his career, no matter what happens against Henderson on Saturday night. A loss won't suddenly turn Evans into just another guy on the UFC roster, and I can't ever imagine a day when Evans appears in anything other than featured bouts on pay-per-view or television fight cards.
But a loss to Henderson would be his third in a row, and it would almost certainly mean the end of his hopes for another climb up the divisional ladder and a rematch with Jon Jones. Dana White said as much during a media scrum this week in Winnipeg, according to Matt Erickson of USA Today:
I mean, anything's possible. You could lose this fight and then go on an eight-fight win streak. But I would say, statistically, it'd be tough to come back from this loss (and fight for a title someday).
Evans is a fierce competitor, and I believe that, despite his one-sided loss to Jones last April, he still represents one of the toughest challengers Jones can currently face in that division. And I believe he truly does want another shot at Jones. But a loss to Henderson would make it incredibly difficult for him to achieve that goal.
What's at stake for Dan Henderson?
When Dan Henderson came back to the UFC from Strikeforce, many believed that he'd earn an immediate shot at Jon Jones.
He was the reigning Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, and he'd just defeated Fedor Emelianenko in a one-off heavyweight bout. Despite his advancing years, Henderson's stock was higher than ever, and an immediate bout with Jones seemed like a sure thing.
“I think the biggest fight they could promote is probably a title unification with whoever is the champ in the UFC,” Henderson told MMAWeekly.com at the time.
But the timing didn't work out. Jones had a fight scheduled with Lyoto Machida, and so Henderson instead faced Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 139 in one of the greatest bouts in UFC history. He defeated Rua, seemingly cementing his case for a shot at Jones.
This time, he was given the title fight, but you know that story ended: Henderson was injured just weeks prior to UFC 151 and was forced to withdraw, leaving Jones to turn down Chael Sonnen as a replacement opponent.
For the first time ever, a UFC event was canceled, and both Jones and Henderson were vilified.
Henderson rehabbed his knee but wasn't placed back into a bout with Jones upon his return. Instead, Henderson faced Lyoto Machida and lost by split decision in a lackluster co-main event at UFC 157. Henderson blamed Machida for not wanting to actually fight him, but the damage was done: Henderson was no longer a contender.
For Henderson, the fight with Evans represents a last-ditch effort to get back in the title picture. A loss would give him two a row. And yes, the losses would come against some of the best competition the UFC's light heavyweight division has to offer.
But in Henderson's case, losses are losses.
He's never been on the greatest of terms with White or the UFC brass, and much like fellow UFC 161 competitor Roy Nelson, Henderson finds himself needing to overachieve in order to secure the kind of opportunities that are freely given to other fighters.
There may or may not be some lingering bad blood over Henderson not notifying the UFC of his pre-UFC 151 knee injury until it was too late for the promotion to secure a replacement opponent. Because of that, Henderson will need to beat Evans convincingly in order to get the title shot we all assumed he'd get when he returned to the UFC.
It also goes without saying that Henderson isn't a spring chicken. Thanks to the wonders of TRT, he's still able to compete with much younger men, but a Randy Couture-level run into his late 50s probably isn't in the cards for Henderson.
If Henderson wants to stick around the top of the division, and to convince people he's still deserving of a fight with the champion, he needs a convincing win.
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