For 42-year-old MMA legend Dan Henderson, Saturday’s UFC 161 bout with former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans was supposed to be a gateway to vindication. In his last outing, “Hendo” succumbed to the oft-perplexing Lyoto Machida via split-decision at UFC 157. That fight left the former two-time Olympian frustrated and with a bitter taste in his mouth.
Unfortunately for the aging Henderson, this weekend’s showdown against Evans in front of a sold-out crowd at the MTS Centre in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada, was just more fuel to the proverbial fire of frustration, as “Suga” walked away from the back-and-forth scrap with a split-decision victory.
The opening round saw both fighters treading lightly, as they showed respect for one another’s power. Henderson stalked with his right hand cocked in place for his signature “H-bomb,” as Evans prowled in a crouched stance looking to close the distance.
As the end of the round loomed, Henderson landed the cleanest blow of the match when an overzealous Evans walked straight into an oncoming left hand. Evans dropped to the canvas, but was able to use effective head movement and evasive tactics to survive the pressuring Henderson as the horn sounded, signaling the end of the first five minutes.
Round two was more of the same, as Evans looked to close the distance and Henderson tried to land power punches. Unfortunately for Hendo, Evans was the fighter who landed the most significant strikes of the round. As the final seconds ticked away, Evans tagged Henderson with a flurry of combinations, feigned a takedown, and pressured until time expired.
Round three was make-it-or-break-it for both men. Henderson started the final round looking winded, and Evans took advantage, having his best and most dominant round of the fight. Evans pressured Henderson with combination punching and aggressive cage control.
By the end of the fight, it looked as if Evans was gaining momentum, while Henderson slowed. Evans ended the final stanza with a flurry of punches, putting his stamp on the end of the fight and assuring the final round would be in his favor.
A defeated and brutally honest Dan Henderson admitted that Evans took control as the fight wore on. In hindsight, he wished he had mustered a better performance.
“There’s nobody to blame but myself. I slowed down,” said the 42-year-old UFC 17 tournament winner. “I should have got more active. In the third round I slowed.”
Since turning professional in 1997, Henderson has learned over his lengthy career what it takes to earn a win in the UFC. And on Saturday, he didn’t have what it took to beat the former champion. But for Henderson this win is admittedly much easier to swallow than his previous outing against Machida – a fight that still leaves a bad taste in the former Pride middleweight (205-pound) and welterweight (185-pound) champion’s mouth.
“This one I can swallow a little bit easier than the last one,” stated Henderson after the scorecards were read (29-28, 28-29, 29-28) in Evans’ favor. “You know, Rashad’s a tough guy. He stood there. He fought me. He did a great job tonight. I can’t say that about the last (opponent).”
With the attention turned to Evans, the victorious former champion now gets back in the win column after suffering back-to-back defeats at the hands of Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones, respectively.
And although Evans wants to put on an exciting showcase for the fans, fighting a man as dangerous as Henderson, he wanted to make sure that he walked out of the MTS Centre the victor at whatever cost.
“One thing about Dan Henderson, you know you cant rush in,” Evans proclaimed after being asked why he didn’t pressure Henderson more after having him damaged. “Only fools rush in on Dan Henderson. He’s the kind of guy that when he’s hurt he can still land a good shot, so I had to be careful.”
When asked about Henderson’s legendary punching power – something that has earned Henderson numerous titles and accolades over his 16-year career – Evans gave a surprising answer.
“It was surprising me,” said Evans. “Punches that I thought would have the power didn’t. And the ones I didn’t expect to did.”
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