When Mauricio Rua made his Pride Fighting Championships (Pride FC) debut in 2003, he was a fresh-faced prospect from Wanderlei Silva's camp. Barely past the drinking age, but already with five fights to his name, "Shogun" sparkled in his first fight across the Pacific, knocking out Akira Shoji in less than four minutes.
Then, just two years later, the Brazilian made an impact on the 205-pound division that will never be forgotten. Punching, kicking and stomping his way through a minefield of 16 world class light heavyweights, "Shogun" emerged at the end of the promotion's grand prix tournament, the last man standing.
By the time Rua stepped inside the Pride FC ring, Dan Henderson was six years and 16 fights into his career. Already amassing an impressive collection of accolades -- winning a UFC tournament stateside and Rings' King of Kings tournament in Japan -- "Hendo" had spent the better part of three years in Pride FC.
But somehow, despite spending more than half a decade in the same promotion -- four years in Pride FC, a couple more in the UFC -- the two never got the opportunity to tangle. Tonight (Nov. 19, 2011) remedies that minor tragedy as the two future Hall of Famers lock horns in the UFC 139 main event.
Before they do, let's take a look back at their histories, which never quite intertwined as much as fans would have hoped, in the extended entry:
At first glance, the two men might not seem all that alike. One is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) black belt with Muay Thai chops few could match, and the other is the American wrestling prototype with the added weapon of a sledgehammer for a right hand.
But, the similarities are there, rest assured.
Both have spent most of their career fighting only the best of the best. "Shogun" has squared off with Lyoto Machida, Jon Jones and Quinton Jackson. "Hendo" has gone toe-to-toe against legends like Fedor Emelianenko, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and "The Axe Murderer." At the time of Rua's Pride FC debut, the two even shared a similar opponent in Renato Sobral -- who the Brazilian lost to, but Henderson managed to beat.
Despite both men's proficiencies in their respective grappling arts, they've each gained a reputation as knockout artists, being able to rob their opponents of their consciousness in fashions that are as quick as they are brutal. "Dangerous" Dan earned a spot on the shortlist for "Best Knockout Ever" when he took out Briton Michael Bisping, while all but three of Rua's victories have ended in a post-fight concussion test for his opponent.
With all this in mind, it's shocking that they haven't ended up as opponents at some point in the past eight years. Tonight's main event has all the makings of an instant classic and makes the hearts of fans who crave devastating knockouts skip a beat. With all that potential, why didn't Pride or the UFC make this fight happen earlier?
I suppose you can place most of the blame on Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
"Little Nog" was booked against Henderson in the opening round of the 203-pound grand prix back in 2005 and eliminated the American with a perfectly executed armbar. Across the bracket, Rua battered "Rampage" en route to a dominant first round technical knockout (TKO). The two Brazilians would face off in the quarterfinals, while the loss not only bounced "Hendo" from the tournament, but also from the weight class.
Starting with his next fight, Henderson began making the cut down to 183-pounds. And it wasn't until Pride FC offered him a fight against Vitor Belfort at its inaugural show in the United States that Henderson returned to light heavyweight. He won that bout and it earned him a show at Wanderlei Silva and the belt many thought would have to be pried from "The Axe Murderer's" cold, dead hands.
"Hendo" came as close to that without actually killing the poor Brazilian.
Henderson would then spend his next few fights bouncing between weight classes with mixed results. Facing the risk of drifting between 185- and 205-pounds until the end of his career, "Hendo" decided to make a statement at UFC 100. Everyone knows how that shook out. Well, everyone except Bisping, who likely doesn't remember a thing from that night.
Failure to upend Jake Shields as Strikeforce's middleweight champ caused yet another shift in weight for Henderson. This move has proved more fruitful than any other. Three fights, three knockouts and one championship.
On the flip side, "Shogun" has spent his entire career at light heavyweight. The enormous success he achieved in 2005 was dulled somewhat by a fluke injury loss to Mark Coleman and then completely smudged out when he was choked out by Forrest Griffin in his highly anticipated Octagon debut. He would eventually claw his way back to the top of the 205-pound mountain when he barreled his first in Machida's jaw and captured the most prestigious title in the sport.
A knee injury kept him sidelined for nearly a year after claiming the belt. And when "Shogun" returned to the cage, he would end up losing the belt to Jon Jones at UFC 128 before exacting a measure of revenge on Griffin when the company returned to Brazil this past August.
So what does the future hold for each man? "Hendo" seems to have hit his stride at light heavyweight while the shellacking Jones gave "Shogun" doesn't instill a desire in fans to see a rematch. It's also no secret that the Brazilian doesn't cut much to make weight, a practice that could be a death sentence in the sport.
Both men step inside the cage tonight in a light heavyweight bout, but do both have futures at 185-pounds
Henderson has a history at that weight and hasn't been shy about wanting a rematch with Anderson Silva. Middleweight is uncharted territory for Rua, but could be the change that gives his career a strong second wind if he's unsuccessful this evening.
But that discussion can wait for Sunday. For now, let's just enjoy a fight we've wanted for years and are finally getting to see. Let's enjoy two living legends do what they do best.