Dan Henderson and Mauricio 'Shogun' Rua Looking Back but Always Moving Forward

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor IMarch 21, 2014

AP Images

There are many things fighters seek to accomplish throughout their careers.

With all the hard work invested, a consistent amount of success while competing at the highest level of the sport would be enough for most, where only a select few ever get to enjoy the fruits of earning championship gold. While laying claim to a world title is not a reality for every competitor who enters the cage, the potential to put on the caliber of fight that fans will remember is always one bout away.

A world title would be a crowning moment, but those who emblazon their mark on the history of the sport are put in their own unique category.

Where making one memorable achievement is more than most fighters ever see, Dan Henderson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua have elevated to a place of legend, which is a level few ever reach. The former Olympic wrestler and Brazilian wrecking machine have claimed championship gold on multiple platforms across the globe, all the while building epic highlight reels of brutal finishes and poetic violence at a consistent rate for more than a decade.

Few have left more opposition crumpled, melted or looking up at the arena lights with soulless eyes than Henderson and Rua. It's almost as if the killer instinct is their lifeblood and the ability to separate another man from their senses is ingrained in their DNA.

Their abilities hearkened back to a different time, when things were settled in conclusive fashion. While such talents made them exceptional, both have different opinions when it comes to identifying this particular intangible element on a personal level. 

For Henderson, those particular fires were stoked at an early age on the wrestling mats, then carried over into another form of passion inside the cage. While the 43-year-old former Strikeforce champion can't quite put his finger on precisely what is in him that fuels the fight, he believes the drive to compete and love for the dust up come from a similar place.

"I'm not exactly sure what it is but I've always come out and got after it no matter what I'm doing," Henderson told Bleacher Report. "Wrestling was a very challenging and tough sport and that is what drove me to improve and dedicate my life to being the top guy. I didn’t quite achieve that in wrestling but I fell in love with MMA during that time. You have to have the right attitude and mental toughness in both sports and it is the challenges that drive me forward.

Photo courtesy of MMA Weekly

"There was a time in my career where everyone seemed to fight to finish, but things have changed for whatever reason and guys fight to win on points now. There have been some guys who have fought me that way recently but Shogun isn’t one of those guys. He comes out to fight. Everybody has their own style and fans like different guys for the different styles they bring. I can’t change how I am and who I am. I just keep training and trying to improve my skills every year and every fight."

Where his opponent attributed the source of the push to come from an internal place, Rua fully embraces the motivation he receives as something that comes from outside forces. The former Chute Boxe standout has one of the most passionate fanbases to ever come along in the sport, and it is the reason he enters the cage with such a unique brand of instinct.

"I've always felt a lot of respect and cherish from the fans around the world for the fact that I fight in a very aggressive way," Rua added. "I'm always trying to finish the fight. I'm always going for the knockout. Having people appreciate the way I fight is really my biggest source of motivation and what drives me forward as a fighter. I've always respected and cherished the support I get from my fans and have always said they are the biggest reason I fight.

"I also get from my fellow fighters and this really means a lot. I really respect all the fighters and everyone who steps inside the cage or ring to fight because I know how hard and tough it is. By stepping in there and giving their best, everyone who does this is already a winner." 

Both Henderson and Rua rose to prominence in the early 2000s under the now-defunct Pride banner just as the sport began to take on a global level. The California native accomplished the rare feat of holding two titles simultaneously in two different weight classes, while Rua smashed his way to stardom through the promotion's Grand Prix tournaments.

While the days of high-profile MMA and the Pride era in Japan have long since passed, fans still hold on to the memories of those daysand the fighters who competed on that stagewith the utmost fondness and endearment.

Photo courtesy of Fight Day/James Law

"Back then, Pride was the biggest show and the most important MMA show in the world," Rua explained. "All the spotlights and attention would turn to Japan because of that and all the best fighters in the world competed there. That really made it special and that's the biggest reason people love it so much. Back in that era, Pride was the place to be and the most important MMA show in the world."

"I’m not sure to be honest with you," Henderson added. "Maybe it was the type of shows and fights that Pride put on. The rules were a little different and a 10-minute first round definitely changes things in fights. It makes it a lot tougher. I think there could be a lot of reasons people remember it so fondly, but that was also where all the top talent was back then."

Yet despite competing for years under the Pride banner, their paths never crossed. This all changed on Nov. 19, 2011, as the former UFC champion and former title challenger stepped into the Octagon to do battle in San Jose. Where the bout was a highly anticipated affair, no one could have predicted the way the action would play out.

It was no secret that Henderson and Rua would be looking for the kill as soon as the opening bell sounded, but few figured 25 minutes later one of the best fights in MMA history would be coming to an end. The showdown between "Hendo" and Rua was an instant classic with both men toeing the line to oblivion as they traded brutal power punches.

The Temecula-based fighter had the advantage early, but it was the Rio de Janeiro native who swung the momentum in the later rounds. When the final second of the fight finally expired, Henderson took the unanimous decision on the judge's scorecards, but Rua's legend elevated to greater heights.

The two men will step back into the fray to trade punches thrown with the worst of intentions this Sunday at Fight Night 38 in Natal, Brazil. While their second clash has generated some buzz and anticipation, their first clash at UFC 139 has yet to fade as MMA fans are endeared to the war both men shared that November night.

"Shogun definitely proved he could take some big punches," Henderson described of their first tilt. "I hit him with some heavy shots and he showed a lot of heart in that fight. He definitely showed up to fight and I thought it was exciting to be a part of.  

Photo courtesy of Dan Henderson's Twitter

"I remember the first fight had a lot of tough exchanges in the striking and was a very hard fight," Rua answered in turn. "A lot of very hard shots connected from both guys. I remember us trading a lot of strikes and then I remember us meeting in the hospital afterward and chatting a little bit about the fight. But what stands out the most about the first fight was it being a striking battle. It was a very hard fight with a lot of powerful strikes being exchanged." 

Nevertheless, both are eager to get back into the Octagon to pick up where they left off and have their blood running hot for the rematch.

"I'm excited to do it again," Henderson said curtly. "I know it's going to be another tough fight."

"I'm happy to have this rematch," Rua answered in trade. "Dan Henderson is a very tough fighter. I know that very well, but I'm just happy to have another chance to fight him again. I'm going to do my best to find a way to walk away with a win and will do my very best to win this fight."


Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise. It's also worth noting each fighter was interviewed separately for this article.