The Chicagoland area hosts Strikeforce on Showtime July 30 as Fedor Emelianenko attempts to put the first back-to-back losses of his career behind him with a win over Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion Dan Henderson in a heavyweight main event attraction. No gold will be up for grabs, but few, if any, mixed martial arts bouts have ever occurred with such legacy on the line. Here are five reasons this summer showdown stands to be fight of the year.
1) All-Time Greats
Fedor Emelianenko and Dan Henderson are Sports Illustrated No. 1 and No. 4 pound-for-pound fighters of the last decade respectively.
Henderson is currently wearing a belt. Emelianenko, who achieved his status in the sport by going virtually undefeated for the decade, has dropped back-to-back fights for the first time in his career. The defeats have diminished the invincible aura surrounding the stoic Russian yet the 34-year-old has room to bounce back—a courtesy typically extended to fighters that Emelianenko hasn’t received because his controversial career reached such mythic proportions running its course entirely outside the Octagon. “The Last Emperor” is still capable of doing what kept him strictly the win column for a decade and Henderson is a perfect opponent to demonstrate that—win or lose.
Only a handful of fighters can rival the names, accolades and abilities possessed by Emelianenko and Henderson. Outside of UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva meeting Emelianenko, this is the greatest pound-for-pound contest available in MMA today.
2) Open-Weight Nostalgia
Fedor Emelianenko reigned over PRIDE as the heavyweight champion until its end, while Dan Henderson held the 183-pound title before closing out his PRIDE career by dethroning 205-pound titleholder Wanderlei Silva in the Japanese organization’s penultimate event. Open-weight grand prix tournaments were a staple of PRIDE, and had the organization continued business as usual, it’s not out of the question the Russian and American champions would have stood across from one another in the ring.
The sport’s changing landscape has placed limitations on the ways to subvert weight classes. A fighter like Henderson though will always find a way to implement his anytime, anywhere mindset. In accepting a bout with the most decorated heavyweight in MMA history, the Team Quest founder can as a natural middleweight, pull off a colossal feat. The fact that “Dangerous” Dan Henderson has been successful at heavyweight before or that his power is enough to stop a massive Rafael Cavalcante cold won’t be considered for Emelianenko if he drops his third consecutive contest.
Open-weight means high stakes.
3) Strikeforce’s Best Fight of All-Time
Strikeforce has featured excellent fights of over the years, but none as significant or compelling as Fedor Emelianenko versus Dan Henderson.
Emelianenko’s defeats to Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva were anti-climatic considering the depth of his accomplishments. That was largely due to undersold opponents, something Dan Henderson can never be. Both combatants came to Strikeforce as high-profile free agent signings, only to be met with an immediate issue of worthy competition. Against each other, they have a stern test and a paramount fight in their revered careers.
4) Excellent Style Match Up
Dan Henderson’s Olympic-level wrestling can be stifling, but it’s usually employed to set up the “H-Bomb” right hand. The in-and-out, looping punches of a heavyweight opponent six-years younger may cause trouble for the former Arizona State Sun Devil’s straight-forward, one-punch style, but Henderson’s ring generalship and resilience will push him to be the first man to knock out Emelianenko.
A sambo master, Emelianenko has a strong base that applies his explosive hip movement into all facets of MMA: striking, clinching and grappling. Seeking out stand-up coaching in Holland, he appears refocused on training and winning after back-to-back losses diminished the negotiating powers his team loves to exercise. Being an undersized heavyweight—what plagued his last performance—won’t be an issue as Henderson moves up for the challenge.
5) Free Agency
This is the last fight on Dan Henderson’s current contract. With potential big money fights against UFC Light Heavyweight Champion Jon Jones and a rematch with UFC Middleweight Champion Anderson Silva in the back of his mind, the 40-year-old knows when to step it up (see his knockout of Michael Bisping for his last contract fight). Defeating Emelianenko would raise Henderson’s stock to the heights it reached as a two-division belt holder in 2007 after blasting Wanderlei Silva, if not surpass it.
Emelianenko needs to be impressive and competitive for his longevity, for his negotiating leverage and for his legacy. Like he said after submitting to Werdum, it’s how a champion stands back up after falling. This is his (second) chance.
There are no Strikeforce-like alternative organizations for Henderson or Emelianeko in MMA anymore, so undeniable performances are integral if they want to arrive in the UFC in style and/or ride out of Strikeforce on a high note.
Danny Acosta is the lead writer at FIGHT! Magazine. Follow him on twitter.com/acostaislegend