History in the making: PRIDE 32 defines career trajectories for Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson

Esther Lin

There are no pleasures in a fight, but some of my fights have been a pleasure to win. --Muhammad Ali

Sometimes, all it takes is one fight to make or break a career.

When Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson first went to war on the main card of PRIDE 32 (details), which took place on Oct. 21, 2006 at the Thomas & Mack Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, both combatants had already been competing in mixed martial arts (MMA) for over nine years.

Yet somehow, had never crossed paths until that fateful night in "Sin City."

On paper, their 205-pound slugfest would read as a battle between two experienced veterans with nothing to gain but division bragging rights. In reality, the outcome would define the career trajectories for both Henderson and Belfort. With his unanimous decision win over the Brazilian, "Hendo" found that the sky was the limit.

"The Phenom," however, would hit rock bottom.

Dream Stage Entertainment (DSE) was attempting to make an impact on the stateside market and quickly followed up its Las Vegas debut with PRIDE 33, a sophomore effort showcasing the promotion's middleweight champion and international superstar Wanderlei Silva.

And they needed a credible opponent coming off a big win.

Henderson was openly marketed as "the only American brave enough to face Wanderlei Silva," an inside jab at Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Light Heavyweight Champion Chuck Liddell, who attempted to invade Japan back in 2003 to disastrous results.

Speaking of disasters...

What was designed to be a swift and violent win for "The Axe Murderer" -- the odds-on favorite at -275 -- was instead a championship title win for "Hendo," who jaw-jacked his Brazilian foe and hit the open market with his stock going through the roof.

PRIDE was bought and sold later that year.

Because Henderson had established himself as a champion, defeating two former UFC stars (Belfort and Silva) in the process, ZUFFA offered him an immediate light heavyweight title shot against fellow PRIDE import, Quinton Jackson. He would come up short on the judges' scorecards, but still had enough star power to command another championship contest by dropping to 185 pounds.

A losing effort to Anderson Silva in the UFC 82 main event.

Keep in mind, the former Olympian was coming off a loss to Kazuo Misaki at PRIDE: "Bushido 12," and essentially earned himself three consecutive title shots in three straight pay-per-view (PPV) main events on the strength of a unanimous decision win over Belfort.

Not too shabby.

Naturally, things were not going as smoothly for the Brazilian. Not only did he lose to Henderson, he also tested positive for steroids, a mistake that haunts him to this day. With PRIDE selling out to UFC -- a place Belfort already competed with mixed results -- the options were few and far between.

While "Hendo" was competing for world titles, "The Phenom" was fighting journeymen on overseas cards headlined by David "Tank" Abbott.

How the mighty had fallen.

Belfort was still in his twenties and used the time away from the spotlight to rack up a pair of wins for Cage Rage across the pond. Though UFC hadn't been paying attention, Tom Atencio was, and grabbed the hard-hitting free agent for a pair of fights in Affliction MMA.

That decision nearly cost Matt Lindland his life.

The "T-shirt guys" would collapse under the weight of their own spending after just two events, but it didn't matter. Belfort had used the stateside exposure to re-introduce himself to a new generation of fight fans turned on to MMA by way of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) franchise.

And at 4-0 since leaving PRIDE -- riding a wave of back-to-back knockout finishes -- UFC was rolling out the red carpet.

Ironically, Belfort would return to the Octagon in September of 2009, just two months after Henderson finished up his last fight in UFC before bolting for Strikeforce. "Hendo" returned after a string of successful performances (and the sale of his San Jose employer) and at long last, these two will meet again.

The outcome could leave Henderson in pursuit of another championship, while once again sending Belfort to the back of the line.

Fortunately, we won't have to wait much longer to find out. UFC Fight Night 32: "Belfort vs. Henderson" gets underway later tonight (Nov. 9, 2013) on FOX Sports 1 from the Goiania Arena in Goias, Brazil. Hardly neutral territory, but something tells me "Hendo" doesn't mind playing spoiler.

Again.

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