Twelve months ago Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson were unquestionably two of the top five light heavyweights in the world. Now, a year later, both fighters are fighting this weekend to remain relevant in that division.
Evans was coming off a solid thumping from Jon Jones but there was a sense he’d be back in the mix sooner than later. He remains the only man to force the young champion to go 25 minutes and the only fighter who hasn’t been finished during Jones’s title reign. He was the #2 light heavyweight in the world, far enough from #1 to make it matter but not far enough to be incredibly distant.
Henderson had earned the right to face Jones after perhaps the greatest modern fight in MMA history against Shogun Rua and in July of 2012 was preparing for his chance against the champ. The thought was that Henderson’s ability to wrestle, and his devastating power, could cause fits for the champion.
A training injury would derail that fight, and UFC 151, in the process, and Henderson would be forced to take a fight against Lyoto Machida in the meantime with Jones tied up with Chael Sonnen on a season of “The Ultimate Fighter.” Rashad Evans wanted to get back into the title hunt, as well, and took a fight against Pride veteran Antônio Rogério Nogueira.
Both fighters would wind up losing in pedestrian decisions, neither fighter looking good in the process, and thus come into UFC 161 with similar stories. Both are long time veterans at the end of their careers, looking for one last title shot before shifting into retirement. Their main event fight at UFC 161 means a lot of things right now, of course, but the biggest is that it represents the last shot at relevance in the division.
Evans would pocket his third straight loss in the division, of course, and would have to mount a substantial winning streak to get anywhere near a title shot again. He’d also have to look like the fighter that was hungry, the one that had that “Eye of the Tiger” earlier in his career, to sniff the title picture again. The TUF season two heavyweight winner may have held the title once but with a new generation of challengers eyeing the throne Evans will be in their rear view for a long time.
Time isn’t on his side, either, nor is it on Henderson’s.
Henderson is in his 40s and is admittedly looking at retiring sooner than later. Eyeing one last title shot before he rides off into the sunset, Henderson has held gold in every company he’s been but the UFC. He and Vitor Belfort represent the last remnants of the “outlaw” days of MMA, and Henderson wants to be a proper UFC champion like he was in Strikeforce and Pride. This is the final part of his legacy, the last piece on the resume of the man many feel is North America’s greatest MMA fighter of all time. A loss here, his second in a row, most likely takes him out of the title picture permanently.
The loser of this fight will be in a bad spot, career wise, but there’s a way out of it: dropping down to middleweight. Evans has flirted with the idea for years, of course, and Henderson is no stranger to the division either. Henderson fought for titles at that weight class in the UFC, Pride and Strikeforce and flirted with going down to that division after the Rua fight. Fresh fights await both fighters at that weight and a chance to be in the title picture sooner than later based on name value alone. Fresh matchups usually trump rematches, of course, and a win or two for either fighter at 185 puts them in the mix sooner than later.
A loss for either man this weekend is going to be a signal for change, as relevance is going to thrown out in discussing either fighter for the division. Reinvention as a middleweight, though, is what should happen.
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