So let's get one thing straight from the get-go. If the great Fedor Emelianenko loses to Dan Henderson this Saturday (July 30), he is officially done, finished, spent, kaput and discarded as a legitimate force in the 2011 heavyweight division. Agreed? Okay. That's not a slight on Henderson, of course, a fine and capable fighter in his own right, but merely a realisation that Fedor would have lost three fights on the trot, the last of which would have hypothetically been served up by a former middleweight.
Should Fedor still be as great a heavyweight as many claim him to be, the Russian will have little difficulty getting back to winning ways against a 204-pound Henderson. Lest we forget, Fedor was not long ago the fighter shrouded in an almost Thor-like mystique, the man mixed martial arts aficionados have freely and often hailed as the greatest to ever do it, the Muhammad Ali of his sport.
Before Fabricio Werdum and Big Foot Silva served up a dose of reality in back-to-back losses, Fedor carried the same invincible air that all the combat greats bathe in at some point. Indeed, many believers backed Fedor to clean out the entire UFC heavyweight division with one wild swing of his right fist. He could do no wrong.
Although proclamations of his greatness have been whispered rather than yelled through a megaphone, Henderson is every bit as cherished by fans as Fedor. He is a former PRIDE and UFC star, and a man who ruled the roost in Japan as a middleweight (or 185-pound 'welterweight,' to use the PRIDE parlance) and light-heavyweight champion. Moreover, he is also the reigning Strikeforce light-heavyweight king, a tag applied following stoppage wins over Rafael 'Feijão' Cavalcante and Renato 'Babalu' Sobral.
Henderson is a gruff, grunting and durable slugger with TNT in his right fist and a slab of steel engulfing his jawline. He's happy to wade through a fog in order to deliver his own storm, and is adept at both swinging for the fences and launching takedowns. He is also a light-heavyweight.
"Oh, I don't even have a problem making light-heavyweight," Henderson told me last week. "I find it real easy making 205-pounds. I only ever have to cut weight when I'm competing as a middleweight."
On Saturday night, Henderson won't be a middleweight or a light-heavyweight. Or, perhaps more accurately, he won't be competing against a middleweight or light-heavyweight. After all, it would appear likely that Henderson, currently on course to hit 204-pounds by the weekend, may well scale comfortably inside the light-heavyweight limit come Friday afternoon.
"I'm expecting Fedor to weigh 230-pounds on the night and I'm looking to come in at around 204-pounds," said Dan. "That will give him a weight advantage of perhaps 25-pounds, but it's nothing I'm concerned about. I've fought a lot of light-heavyweights over the years that have probably weighed 220 or 225-pounds on the night of the fight. The weight has never been an issue for me. If I know I have the beating of somebody, weight doesn't even come into it."
"I'm not backing down to anybody that weighs 230-pounds. I know my right hand can land on his chin and, so long as I know that, I'm all good and ready to go."
Two years ago you'd have been hard pressed to find a heavyweight eager to face Fedor, let alone a former middleweight. However, a combination of Henderson's hard-nosed determination and Fedor's own fall from grace have helped deliver one of the more intriguing heavyweight match-ups of 2011.
All that is left for us to discover is whether Fedor was simply unlucky or unwrapped in recent fights. If he was unlucky, and defeats to Werdum and Silva were merely circumstantial blips, then one figures he still has enough about him to throw a 204-pound wrestler around for three rounds. However, if recent setbacks have highlighted bigger issues at hand, and signalled a regression in skills at 34, then Henderson, a man seemingly impervious to age, could be in the money come Saturday night.
A win for Henderson does little for the world's heavyweight division, of course, but does plenty for the smaller man's legacy. Irrespective of recent form, Fedor remains one of the more fearsome and talented heavyweights in the world, and victory over the Russian, even in 2011, represents a high water mark in the career of Henderson. He would nonchalantly climb back down towards his more natural light-heavyweight division and, depending on contractual obligations, either continue as Strikeforce kingpin or make a run at the UFC's equivalent. More importantly, though, a win over Fedor again places Henderson in an elite band of fighters, and will provide the American with ample leverage at the negotiating table, regardless of what he chooses to do next.
Fedor, on the other hand, requires victory if to only prove Santa exists. An entire legion of hardcore mixed martial arts fans remain emotionally invested in his rise, and yet defeat to light-heavyweight will unquestionably cause all four walls to collapse. Those who once believed will begin to doubt, and those who remained sceptical will feel vindicated. Fans will group-hug, shed a tear and remember memorable nights in Japan and wins over a Croatian kick-boxer and a Brazilian grappler, while critics may cynically point to Fedor's UFC allergy as part of the reason he was rash-free for so long.
Despite the fact that Saturday's match-up features zero titles and has little bearing on the heavyweight division -- hell, it doesn't even feature two heavyweights -- we could learn all there is to know about Fedor, the spiritual symbol of underground MMA. Emelianenko was once dominant and great, of that there is no doubt, and on Saturday night little Dan Henderson will again ask the question on our behalf. He awaits the answer with a clenched right fist, while we simply hold our collective breath.
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