There is a moment at UFC Fight Night 38 when all Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s dreams are about to come true.
It’s late in the first round, and he’s defending a frenzied attack from Dan Henderson. A few seconds earlier, Henderson buckled his knees with a counter left hook and now has him backed against the fence, unloading with a right hand, an uppercut, a knee.
For a few beats, things look bleak, but this is Shogun’s world as much as Hendo’s.
When his opponent whiffs on a wild haymaker, Rua strikes with a winging right-left combo that sends Henderson down like an old man grasping for the handrail. Rua swarms him, landing two more lefts before Henderson’s body goes stiff, his hands fall to his sides and his chin floats up in the air for the taking.
Herb Dean darts in, assuming that classic referee pose: Yeah, I’m about to stop this.
This is it. The moment. Rua is about to score his second straight win in the Octagon and maybe a couple lucrative Performance of the Night bonuses as well. He’s about to take the next step in his late career resurgence, inching his way back up the light heavyweight ladder and re-establishing himself as a force at 205 pounds.
Except the moment never comes. Dean takes the longest of looks from a step away, but ultimately elects not to stop the fight. Henderson recovers, scrambles to his feet and then stalls out the rest of the round from his guard when Rua drags him back down.
So they fight on, and a bit less than seven minutes later, Rua is knocked out.
After dominating nearly every inch of their two-plus rounds together, he gets caught by a blistering right hand early in the third. He crumples and rolls, his nose spreading awkwardly to one side, and this time, Dean steps in to wave things off.
Suddenly, Rua is a loser. In a snap—the time it takes to tie a shoe—his world shifts 180 degrees. Without warning, the dominant question about his future is changed, from what’s next to: What’s left?
Like we needed another reminder that fortunes can turn on a dime in this cruel sport. As if we’d forgotten how you can spend an entire fight winning, winning, winning, until suddenly you’ve lost.
That’s just the way it goes sometimes. It’s nobody’s fault, really, but try telling that to Shogun Rua this week as he recuperates from a broken nose, knowing he let one slip away after pretty thoroughly handling Henderson for 10 minutes of an 11-and-a-half-minute fight.
Where once Rua was poised for a restorative victory, he’s now a man on the verge of nothing besides facial surgery and a potential six-month medical suspension. Maybe retirement.
And things were going so well for him early on.
He lashed Hendo with leg kicks, stuffed his feeble takedown attempts and mostly made his striking attack look ineffective and one-dimensional.
After pushing the fight to the brink of a stoppage in the opening stanza, Rua again floored Henderson in the second. This time it was an uppercut that put Hendo on the canvas with 2:50 left in the round. Again, though, Rua got tangled in Henderson’s guard and was unable to deal any significant damage before the horn.
Still, he was certainly up two rounds to none headed into the third, where Henderson fell back on the ace he always has tucked up his sleeve. The explosive power of the former Olympic wrestler finally found its mark a minute in, reducing all of Rua’s momentum to rubble and dashing the sunny future we were all planning for him in the process.
If he had pulled it off, Rua would’ve been duly showered with praise. With two straight wins, he would’ve put some much-needed distance between himself and the back-to-back losses he suffered to Alexander Gustafsson and Chael Sonnen in 2012 and 2013, respectively. He would’ve been slated for a future fight against someone in the light heavyweight top 10—maybe a returning Rashad Evans or even the winner of Anthony Johnson vs. Phil Davis.
Instead, we now see him as potentially done at 32 years old. He’s 1-3 during the previous 18 months and—while Henderson enjoys some time off—Rua is left making his thank-yous in the saddest possible tweet.
I guess that's what makes MMA exciting, but losing hurts a lot. Now I want to enjoy my wife and daughters for a while. Tks for all the msgs!— Shogun Rua (@ShogunRua) March 24, 2014
Shogun remains a relatively young man, but after a 12-year, 31-fight career and multiple knee surgeries, we’ve unanimously concluded that his best days are behind him. For a short while, he was UFC champion, and during his 12-1 stint in the Pride organization, he was one of the most terrifying figures in the MMA landscape.
He wouldn’t have recaptured those glory days with a win over Henderson, but at the very least, he would’ve bought himself some more time. He would’ve ensured himself some bigger paydays or, if he chose, the luxury of ending his career on a high note and on his own terms.
Instead, he’s looking at an awful long climb back to anything resembling relevance. While he makes it, he may well be haunted by the missed opportunities of this fight.
Maybe if he could’ve kept Hendo down when he had him hurt in the first.
Maybe if he could’ve avoided getting snared in the guard when he stunned him in the second.
Maybe if he could’ve grabbed those dreams when the moments presented themselves, before—in a flash—they were gone for good.