At UFC 139, Dan Henderson faces Mauricio Rua in the main event. It's a fight being built partly around the idea of the invading Strikeforce champion, with Henderson, the last Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champ, coming back to the UFC against Shogun Rua, the last UFC Light Heavyweight champion. It's a good story, right? Maybe, but it also ignores a key word. A word that holds special meaning to any long time MMA fan. And a word that gives a new level of depth to this fight.
No, not each fighter's pride, I'm talking about the beloved PRIDE organization, the former home to both Henderson and Shogun. Because this fight is truly a Pride dream match. And sadly, it may be the last one. To take a look at the true history behind this fight, we have to roll back to 2005, and the 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix.
Starting in 2000, Pride put a heavy emphasis on the Grand Prix format. It was a great idea - get 16 (or so) of the world's best, and have them square off over a few months to determine the true greatest. The format produced some of the all time great Pride, and indeed MMA, fights - fights like Kazushi Sakuraba vs. Royce Gracie and Wanderlei Silva vs. Rampage Jackson. The greatest of these Grand Prix events was held in the Middleweight division (today's equivalent of Light Heavyweight). And heading into the 2005 GP, there was one man to beat: Wanderlei Silva.
At that time, Silva was the long reigning Pride Middleweight champion. He had held the belt for 4 years, and had not lost at Middleweight in over 20 fights (though he had suffered one loss to the much bigger Mark Hunt in a controversial decision). He was also the defending Grand Prix champion, having won the 2003 tournament with his nasty KO of Rampage. But in the opening round of the GP, a new contender emerged.
Shogun Rua was just 23 years old at the time, and 8-1 in his young career. But as part of the opening round, he made a huge impact, destroying Rampage in less than 5 minutes. Suddenly this aggressive whirlwind of a fighter was another tournament favorite. The only problem? Shogun and Wanderlei were teammates at Brazil's Chute Boxe. They were on opposite sides of the draw, but would they be willing to fight each other in the finals? This was a huge question heading into the final 4, as a Wanderlei vs. Shogun final seemed inevitable.
As it turned out, the question never was answered. In the semi-finals, Silva was defeated in a moderate upset by Ricardo Arona, while Shogun stopped Alistair Overeem to make his own way to the finals. There, it took Shogun only 3 minutes to stop Arona, avenging his teammate's loss and establishing his own role as the new top dog in Pride.
The story continues in the complete entry.
Despite the GP win, Shogun had to settle for being the uncrowned Pride champion, as Silva's belt was not on the line in the tournament, and he remained champion. That all changed on February 24, 2007 in Las Vegas. There, at Pride 33, Dan Henderson knocked Silva out cold to take away the title that had been in The Axe Murderer's grasp for so many years. With the Middleweight title off the waist of his Chute Boxe teammate, Shogun could finally pursue the belt. A Henderson vs. Shogun dream match to determine the true top Middleweight in Pride seemed destined to happen.
But it was not to be. Not long after, the now Zuffa-owned Pride organization folded. Dan Henderson walked away the last ever Pride Middleweight champion, while Shogun never got his chance at the belt.
But here we are. Nearly 5 years later, we are finally getting the fight that should have been. 2005 Pride Middleweight Grand Prix champion Shogun Rua vs. the last ever Pride Middleweight champion Dan Henderson.
What makes this Pride war great is the fact that it is still a relevant fight today. The winner here is planned to move on and face the winner of Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida for the UFC Light Heavyweight title. This is not just a historical oddity or a treat for the hardcore fans - it's also an important bout between two top 10 fighters with a lot on the line.
Sadly, it may also be the last of its kind. Henderson and Shogun are on the extremely short list of Pride fighters who remain truly relevant at the top of their divisions today. And they are perhaps the only fighters that can provide a fresh match-up with this kind of deep history reaching back into the Pride era.
So at UFC 139, enjoy the fight for its impact on MMA today, and enjoy the Strikeforce vs. UFC angle. But don't forget about what brought these two men to this point, and don't forget to savor the moment.
Pride never die.