Photo via DanHenderson.com
Fighting Network Rings was the brainchild of Akira Maeda after the collapse of UWF in the early 90s. The original intention was to create a new wrestling promotion that would blur the lines between pro-wrestling and shoot fighting. Other UWF stars would soon join Maeda such as Kiyoshi Tamura and Hiromitsu Kanehara, both who had adopted a "strong style" of wrestling. The early history of Rings is a mix of legitimate fights and worked matches but the key point is that Rings started in Japan and soon expanded to Holland and the former Soviet block. By doing this and creating a network of events, it was positioning itself as a premier event. Unfortunately, budget cuts at the TV network and a knee injury to Maeda put the future of the promotion in jeopardy in just the second year. An interesting fact is that the budget cuts indirectly led to the creation of K-1 after Rings no long had the bankroll to afford the Dutch kick boxers.
Fast forward some years and Rings struggled against competitors like of Pancrase and Shooto, both of which offered shoot fighting as well as losing out to the bigger worked promotions. Rings was ultimately saved by Maeda's retirement "fight" against Alexander Karalin. Fight is in quotation marks because it was an obvious work but the combined celebrity of Karalin and Maeda made this a "must see" event. Rings needed an idea to follow up on the Maeda/Karalin fight and in 1999 they launched a Heavyweight tournament called "King of Kings" to crown the best fighter in the world. For the King of Kings tournament special rules were put into place to ensure that the fights were entertaining. A "no stalling" rule forced fighters to be aggressive as the moment they stopped attacking, the referee would stand them up, no matter the position. The field of 32 men featured the top fighters at the time and were split between two 16-man brackets. Block A featured Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Jeremy Horn, Renato Sobral, Alistair Overeem, and Dan Henderson. Block B was arguably the easier side in hindsight with Maurice Smith, Renzo Gracie, and Tsuyoshi Kosaka being the most notable names.
After winning the UFC 17 tournament, Dan Henderson would leave the promotion and head to Japan to test himself in the King of Kings tournament. His first fight was against Georgian karate fighter Bakouri Gogitidze who was 2-2 in MMA competition, though there are questions about the legitimacy of his win over the far more talented Mikhail Illoukhine just prior to the start of King of Kings. As the two fighters entered the ring on October 28th, it became very obvious how outsized Henderson was. Bakouri was able to control and throw Dan on two separate occasions but never was able to take advantage of the position. Dan would start to land his strikes and after two knees, Bakouri quit. Dan would advance because of a TKO. It wasn't a pretty finish as Dan didn't fight until the ref stopped him, he just stood above a fallen Gogitidze with a confused look on his face.
Now in the round of 16, Henderson would face the toughest test of his career later that evening in Japanese pro-wrestler Hiromitsu Kanehara. In what would become a theme for Henderson's run through this tournament, he again was the smaller fighter. Kanehara was a pro-wrestler but left puroresu to compete full time in MMA. Hiromitsu outworked a game Jeremy Horn to a majority decision victory earlier on in the event. The fight began and Henderson immediately worked dirty boxing from the clinch. He would get penalized with a yellow for an open handed strike while Kanehara was on the ground but Henderson was the aggressor in the first round. He would continue to bring the fight to Kanehara in the second round as Randy Couture yelled out advice from the corner. Though he was unable to finish the game Japanese fighter, he would advance to the quarter finals with a majority decision win, a ruling that I still don't understand, even with accounting for the yellow card.
The conclusion of the tournament after the jump..
The tournament would see the conclusion on February 26, 2000 when the eight victors of the Block A and B tournaments would have to fight three times in one night to be crowned the King of Kings. Henderson was matched up against Gilbert Yvel, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira would fight Andrei Kopylof in what many consider to be one of the best technical displays in MMA history, Renato Sobral against the aforementioned Illoukhine, and Renzo Gracie versus Kiyoshi Tamura. While many today view Yvel as a bit of a joke, in 1999, he was considered by many to be one of the top Heavyweight strikers in MMA. Winning every fight by a finish, many considered Yvel the favorite in this bout. The fight went as expected. Yvel demonstrated the far superior stand up while Henderson constantly got the fight to the ground but was not very active in damaging Gilbert, though he would attempt various submissions. In the end, Henderson would be the winner by Unanimous Decision, though he had to work for it.
The semi finals were set with Henderson matched against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and on the other side Renato Sobral faced off against Kiyoshi Tamura. Something to note before discussing this match, Nogueira was NOT considered the best heavyweight in the world at this point in time. He was an extremely talented fighter but hadn't yet proved himself to be one of the best. He also had a far easier road to the semi finals having to fight Valentijn Overeem, Yuriy Kochine, and Andrei Kopylof. The fight could best be described as a grappling chess match with some dirty boxing while fighting for the clinch. When the fight did go to the ground, Nogueira constantly worked for submission while Henderson was content with sitting in guard and getting the points for the position. To this day I'm still unsure of how the bout was ruled in Henderson's favor. Sure he was the clear dominant fighter on the feet but with the large portion of the fight taking place on the ground and Nog's constant stream of submission attempts, it's hard to understand how Henderson won the fight by Split Decision.
The win put Dan Henderson in the finals to face Renato Sobral who had an equally daunting road to the finals having to defeat Mikhail Illoukhine and Kiyoshi Tamura. At this point in his career Sobral was undefeated and quickly becoming one of the top fighters out of Brazil blending Ruas Vale Tudo and American Wrestling to create an effective style that matched up well against everyone he faced. It would be Henderson's Greco Roman wrestling against Sobral's Freestyle which was largely responsible for much of this fight happening on the feet. It quickly became apparent that Henderson had the advantage in punching power and he used the clinch to keep the fight close and utilized his dirty boxing. Sobral would answer with Ruas styled leg kicks to chop Henderson down and take away his wrestling advantage. It was too little too late and the fight ended with Henderson as the clear champion. He won the by Majority Decision and was crowned the first Rings King of Kings Champion.
Rings would hold one more King of Kings tournament which was won by Nogueira. The King of Kings win established Henderson as one of the top fighters in the world and when you account for the fact that he was essentially a middleweight competing in an Open Weight tournament, this win is all the more impressive. This tournament is a very large reason why many consider Henderson to be pound for pound one of the greatest fighters of all time. Unfortunately, Dan's winning streak would come to a halt when he made his Pride debut 10 months later against Wanderlei Silva. Despite this loss, his King of King's run is still considered one of the most impressive tournaments in MMA history.
Be back tomorrow when I discuss Fedor Emelianenko's run through the Pride Heavyweight Grand Prix in 2004.