The main event of Saturday’s Strikeforce event on Showtime will be nothing less than a dream fight, the kind of fight rarely seen in the sport of mixed martial arts: a battle of two true legends of the sport. This, from somebody who thinks that the word “legend” gets thrown around entirely too often in MMA. But the word applies to both Fedor Emelianenko, the former longtime PRIDE heavyweight champion, and the greatest heavyweight of all time, and Dan Henderson, the only fighter ever to hold two major championships simultaneously, as he was the PRIDE middleweight (93 kg) and welterweight (83 kg) champion.
It seems like the days in which Emelianenko was seen as an unbeatable force in the sport are long gone. It’s one thing for people to acknowledge that “The Last Emperor” is actually human; it’s quite another for a lot of people to be picking Dan Henderson to beat him. As accomplished as Henderson is, he weighs 200 pounds, compared to Emelianenko’s 230. That’s not just Henderson’s fighting weight, it’s his weight, period. So how in the world did Emelianenko, in the course of a year, go from unbeatable MMA deity to washed-up has been who can’t beat a natural middleweight?
The reason is that MMA fans are very, very fickle. Realistically, sports fans in general are fickle: a team like the New York Knicks can make the NBA playoffs, and suddenly people pick them to do something crazy like beat the Boston Celtics in the first round. However, the fickle nature of fans is amplified in the sport of MMA, because of the infrequency with which fighters compete. A basketball team can lose 25 times in a year, and be considered a leading candidate to win the NBA championship. In contrast, Fedor Emelianenko goes 0-2 in a 12-month period… and suddenly, he’s faded, he’s done, he has nothing left.
A better analogy is the NFL. How often is it that an NFL team starts 0-2 and gets left for dead? Of course, that’s a silly thing to do since such a team can win its next three games and suddenly be a legitimate playoff contender. Yet, it happens every year (seemingly more in the sports media than anywhere else): prognosticators hype a team like the Cowboys up to oblivion, only to endlessly ask what’s wrong when the team subsequently drops its first two games.
I see the current phenomenon with Emelianenko as being very similar, except that instead of talking heads on television droning on for a week until the Cowboys’ next game, Emelianenko’s recent losses remain the most recent memories of those who watch him for over a year. Quite literally, since the last time Emelianenko won a fight, the Cowboys lost to the Vikings in the 2009 playoffs, were hyped up as Super Bowl contenders in 2010, were torn down when the season became a disaster, and now, with the 2011 NFL season looming… hope springs eternal again.
Just as Emelianenko was hyped beyond reality as this mythic, godlike figure, unbeatable in the sport of MMA, now that he’s lost two fights, he’s being torn down. He never was that good. Dana White was right when he constantly said Fedor was overrated. Fedor looks “shot,” he looks “out of shape,” he “needs a new camp.” And he won’t beat Dan Henderson.
Let’s take a step back and breathe for a few seconds.
While Emelianenko may have been overrated by so many irrational people (and quite underrated by other irrational people), he is still the greatest heavyweight fighter of all time. Before his losses to Fabricio Werdum and Antonio Silva, Emelianenko’s record against opponents classified as “UFC-quality” opponents by Victory Score was a perfect 11-0. Yes, I fully acknowledge that that represents less than half of Emelianenko’s fights. However, it’s a much better resume than any other heavyweight can boast. Here’s the list of “UFC-quality” opponents Emelianenko has defeated:
- Renato “Babalu” Sobral: 76.45
- Heath Herring: 65.95
- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (first): 80.81
- Mark Coleman (first): 65.94
- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (second): 81.48
- Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic: 75.33
- Mark Coleman (second): 65.14
- Matt Lindland: 74.63
- Tim Sylvia: 74.78
- Andrei Arlovski: 69.79
- Brett Rogers: 75.88
Here’s the thing: until he fought Arlovski and Rogers, Emelianenko absolutely obliterated everybody. He fought world-class opponents – and dominated them. Emelianenko has a very long history of success behind him. That doesn’t get erased by two losses.
The thing about those who feel Emelianenko is “done” based on his fight against Antonio Silva… “Bigfoot” is no slouch! Silva is a legitimate world-class heavyweight, and an enormous man who has to cut weight to make the 265 pound limit. A prime Fedor Emelianenko probably beats Silva, but losing to a fighter as good as Silva is doesn’t suddenly make you “washed up.”
In fact, I remember people calling Dan Henderson “washed up” not too long ago, after he lost to Jake Shields. It looked like Henderson was at least nearing the end of the road, and may have reached the point at which he could no longer compete. Then Henderson beat Renato “Babalu” Sobral and Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante. Suddenly, Henderson is the Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion. So let’s be careful throwing around the term “washed up.”
OK, David, I get it, Fedor’s not washed up yet. For crying out loud, just tell me who’s going to win the fight!
All right, no more ranting. How exactly do these guys match up?
The striking edge has to go to Emelianenko. Much is made of Henderson’s big right hand, and deservedly so, but Henderson is known to become too reliant on that particular weapon. While neither guy throws many strikes besides punches, Emelianenko has the more technical style, and packs no shortage of power himself.
The grappling edge has to go to Emelianenko as well. Again, it’s not like Henderson is bad at the ground game or anything, but history indicates that if he loses, it’s most likely due to losing the battle of the ground game. Now, don’t get me wrong, Henderson’s losses are to guys like Ricardo Arona, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, and Jake Shields – guys who know a thing or two about the ground game. Still, Henderson has three losses by submission and two decision losses that can be attributed to the ground game as well. Meanwhile, Henderson has only finished by submission himself twice: by guillotine choke against Eric Smith in 1997, and by “knee to the ribs” against Bakouri Gogitidze in Rings in 1999. Emelianenko, on the other hand, is legendary for his ground and pound, and has very good submission skills as well.
In the clinch… I’ll be honest, I don’t know if I’ve ever looked forward to what would happen in the clinch like with this fight. Henderson is known as a former Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling, a fighter with unusual strength there. Emelianenko has a world-class background in both Combat Sambo and Judo, and when he takes down his opponents, it’s usually with an upper-body throw as well. While some may give the edge here to Henderson, this is where Emelianenko’s weight advantage might really come into play. I’ll call this one a toss-up, and indeed, who wins may be determined by who is able to get the best of the clinch battle.
I haven’t yet discussed Dan Henderson’s lengthy career. I already mentioned a fight of his from 1997: that’s when Henderson began his professional MMA career. He’s now entered the 15th year of his career. Henderson was my primary example of a fighter who defied the 9-Year Rule, which stated that MMA fighters in general tend to decline after having fought for nine years. However, whether or not Henderson can continue to defy this rule is an open question. There are three fighters in the UFC who have competed this year who have fought for approximately as long as Henderson. All three – Vitor Belfort, Yves Edwards, and Wanderlei Silva – were knocked out in the first round. Granted, Anderson Silva and Chris Leben (the opponents of Belfort and Wanderlei Silva, respectively) are known KO artists, and Sam Stout, Edwards’s opponent, is a good striker as well, but it’s not a good record. If Henderson is successful against Emelianenko, he’ll be perhaps the first fighter to have any significant success in his 15th year of fighting.
SILVA PREDICTION: FEDOR EMELIANENKO (49.39) OVER DAN HENDERSON (34.77)
Too long; didn’t read? That’s too bad, because I really think I wrote a great preview there. Let me summarize: just as fanboys built up Fedor Emelianenko into a mythical, godlike figure, an impossible image for “The Last Emperor” to live up to, those who dismiss him as “washed up” are reacting too harshly as well. Emelianenko is the greatest heavyweight of all time, and losing twice doesn’t erase his past accomplishments. Dan Henderson is a very tough opponent, a man with dangerous KO power and an excellent clinch game. But this is still Fedor Emelianenko we’re talking about, and that’s a very well-rounded, dangerous fighter who should have the advantage in this fight, in almost every area. Emelianenko is my pick to win this fight.