Some people complain that MMA audiences are fickle--that they start booing the minute fighters clinch, that they only root for their countrymen, that they just want to see knockouts, know nothing about the ground game, and abhor decisions, especially five rounders. If all that's true, somehow none of these fans were in attendance at UFC 139 in San Jose, California, on November 19, 2011--the night Pride Fighting Championship veterans Dan Henderson and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua fought one of the great fights in MMA history and tested the limits of human endurance.
Shogun had bounced back from his March title loss to Jon Jones by brutally knocking out Forrest Griffin in under two minutes that August. Meanwhile, Henderson, at 41, was in the midst of a career renaissance, having just returned to the UFC from Strikeforce on a three-(T)KO streak that included a brutal knockout of Fedor Emelianenko in a heavyweight fight. The two men had been legends in Pride and their meeting was long in the making.
In what would be the first non-title five-round fight to go the distance in UFC history, the first two rounds saw Henderson and Shogun landing punches but Henderson decisively getting the better of the striking exchanges, repeatedly rocking the Brazilian and coming close to finishing him. In true Chute Box fashion, Shogun responded by continually moving forward, provoking exchanges, and clinching with the former Olympian.
As the third round started, referee Josh Rosenthal called out, "Last round!" and Henderson jokingly reminded him that there were actually three rounds left. It was a moment of levity in an otherwise sobering, existential battle.
Early in the third round, Dan Henderson, relying on an old favorite, grabbed Shogun's head with his lead hand and threw his skipping leg kick to set up the H-bomb—his legendary overhand right. It landed flush and Shogun crumpled to the ground. In a scene reminiscent of his knockout of Michael Bisping, Henderson dove onto his fallen foe and unloaded with vicious ground and pound.
Henderson vs. Bisping (l) and Rua (r)
Shogun's head bounced off of the canvas, but unlike Bisping he remained conscious. Somehow, Shogun had the presence of mind to grab a single, wrap himself around Dan's lower body, and, miraculously, attempt a leglock.
Henderson escaped the heel hook and Shogun grabbed onto him in a clinch. Shogun was bleeding and attempting to recover. Henderson heaved for breath and seemed to stare in disbelief that they were still fighting. While Shogun attempted a takedown Dan unloaded a series of elbows to the already battered left side of Shogun's face. Unlike some fights where one man is attempting to finish and the other to survive, both of these men seemed to have only one goal: inflict damage. Even after nearly being finished in this round, Shogun managed one more takedown and threw punches before Henderson could post up.
Going into the fourth, Henderson had arguably won all three rounds. Shogun was a fighter with notoriously questionable cardio and they were entering the championship rounds, so it seemed Shogun was done for. Instead he mounted one of the most dramatic comebacks in UFC history.
With Henderson visibly gassing out, Shogun landed an uppercut that sent the wrestler staggering across the Octagon with his hands down. Henderson has since commented that he has probably been knocked out on his feet twice in his career. Once was against Carlos Newton back in 1998; the other time was after that uppercut from Shogun.
The fifth round found Shogun continually in the mount position. Henderson was only trying to survive; his corner had implored him to not exchange and only clinch. Shogun fought for the finish but had ultimately taken too much damage. He punches didn't have enough strength and Henderson's durability was too great. The Olympian could not be put away. The crowd, which had started the fight with chants of “USA! USA!,” was now cheering the Brazilian's unlikely, but ultimately unsuccessful, comeback.
The fight would go to the judges and Henderson would win by unanimous decision, but the outcome hardly matters at this point. Single digits in a win or loss column can’t do justice to the impact this fight had on the fighters’ legacies and on the sport as a whole. MMA often provides us with pinpoint moments of grandeur, and everyone in the HP Pavilion that night knew they were witnessing something great. Even commentators Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg wondered if they had just seen the greatest MMA fight ever.
In the end, there were too many exchanges in the fight, too many reversals and dramatic moments, for me to do justice to in a single article. Deciding on images for this article was both a joy and an impossible task. I like to think that I’ll revisit this fight each November, celebrating it annually, like Thanksgiving.
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