God's will took the form of Dan Henderson's right fist tonight.
What started as a wild, violent slugfest ended as such as Henderson forced referee Herb Dean to step in to save Fedor Emelianenko at 4:12 of the first round. Henderson, after an exchange that saw Emelianenko back him up with winging hooks, dropped the former Pride heavyweight champion with the unfortunately-named "H-Bomb." As the Russian braced himself on hands and knees, Henderson swarmed and landed another right hand under the arm pit, reminiscent of the savage finishing instincts he displayed en route to taking Strikeforce's light heavyweight title from Rafael Cavalcante earlier this year.
Showtime displayed a poll throughout the night, asking fans whether Fedor Emelianenko would retire following tonight's fight. Fifty-seven percent of the respondents answered with the affirmative, that this would be the final time we would see the legend fighting under MMA rules. But Fedor says, and he said it all week, that he puts his future in the hand of God. Fedor is a man who believes his destiny is out of his hands.
He might be right. His destiny may rest outside his control, just not in the hands of his metaphysical guide. Fedor Emelianenko has been a meal ticket since the day he's signed with management team M-1 Global. On the back of Fedor, M-1 Global has funded their company, funded a fledgling MMA promotion, not to mention stuffed the pockets of the men in charge. Retirement may not be in Emelianenko's hands because it may be in the hands of those who handle him, and those hands will look to squeeze every last drop of juice that they can.
As for Henderson, he's in a unique spot of his own. He's on a three-fight winning streak. He is Strikeforce's light heavyweight champion. He just finished the man many regard as the greatest heavyweight in the sport's short history. And he just finished the last fight of his contract.
Despite all that, despite all the accolades of a storied career, it is Zuffa who holds all the chips in this game. If Dan Henderson wants to fight on the biggest stage, whether in Strikeforce or the UFC, he has one option: Zuffa. They can offer him the most money. They can give him the biggest fights. But they aren't going to give him the $800,000 Strikeforce paid him tonight. Round one of Dan Henderson vs. Zuffa, LLC. ended with Henderson jumping ship to San Jose, but San Jose is off the MMA Map. Henderson's looking at a significant pay cut if he wants to continue his career at the elite level.
Henderson's made it clear in numerous interviews that he'll continue to fight as long as he feels physically capable, and tonight proved that he's good for at least one more fight. But I wonder, if Zuffa cannot meet his contract demands, if maybe he retires after tonight's performance? While Fedor has to consider leaving the sport following three embarrassing losses, Henderson could leave MMA at the highest point of his career. UFC tournament champ, two-division Pride champ, Strikeforce light heavyweight champ, and the (potential) Grim Reaper of Fedor Emelianenko's career. That's a career you can look back on with a wide, toothless smile.
- Of course, a fight of this magnitude couldn't end without a little controversy. Did Herb Dean step in too quickly? Maybe. Emelianenko was in the midst of turning toward Henderson and looked as if he was putting himself in a position to defend himself. After Henderson was pried away, Emelianenko sat up on his own volition and, while glassy eyed, appeared to have some sense of himself. He wished Dean would have given him more time during the post-fight interviews. You can't fault Dean, though. Fedor flopped to the mat hard, and his body -- whether his brain shut off or not -- had the appearance of going limp in response to one of Henderson's many finishing blows. And while I caution against playing the "What if?" game, I'm not sure how much longer Fedor would have lasted with Henderson raining blows from top.
- There was also some chatter about Henderson landing a handful of strikes to the back of the heading during the final sequence. Outside of Steve Mazzagatti's infamous point deduction from Brock Lesnar in Lesnar's first meeting with Frank Mir, there isn't much of a precedent of punishing a fighter for skull blows in the adrenaline-fueled moments of a finish. I'll need to see tape to confirm whether any of those shots landed in the "mohawk zone," but it may be an aspect of MMA that never goes enforced.
- From memory, I want to say the prop on Miesha Tate finishing Marloes Coenen by submission paid 60-1. It was some four-digit "plus" number in any event. Tate set up an arm triangle from opposite-side side control, locking Coenen's right arm against her neck, before hopping through mount to finish and become the women's bantamweight champion. It's a disastrous moment for Coenen, having never been submitted in her 23-fight career. The look of disgust on her face told me that she knows exactly what she did wrong.
- Robbie Lawler fell asleep twice this week. First, leading up to the pre-fight press conference on Thursday; then during the third round of his fight tonight against Tim Kennedy. Lawler conceded the first round mostly due to his own futility of initiating any offense. Kennedy built on the momentum of the first with takedowns and top control in the second. Likely down 2-0 heading into the third, Lawler showed zero urgency in creating attacks before finally conceding another takedown late in the round that sealed the deal. Kennedy then went on a bizarre post-fight rant, repeating a chorus of "It's just blood!" and chiding the judges for the decision -- that likely none of them had a hand in -- turned in for the "Jacare" fight. In a fit of genius, however, Kennedy figured out how to get a Ranger Up plug (Ranger Up pulled out as an in-cage sponsor due to the new Strikeforce sponsor tax) by dragging in a metallic-armed veteran into the cage clad in company gear.
- Tyron Woodley scraped by a decision against Paul Daley, easily the toughest opponent of his young career. Daley, who has a reputation for his wrestling ignorance, looked brilliant in the early-going in defending Woodley's takedowns. Unfortunately, that defense came at the expense of his striking, which was all but nonexistent. In the second round, Woodley found his groove, putting Daley on his back for most of the round. The physical exertion came back to haunt him in the third, as Daley proved successful again staying off his back, and popping Daley for his trouble. A last-ditch omoplata attempt (a submission that, frankly, is a rare finish for any fighter, let alone one not known for his grappling prowess) failed, and Woodley took home a unanimous 29-28 decision to the sounds of his mother yelling "GLORY TO GOD!"
- In the opening bout Tarec Saffiedine undressed Scott Smith. I talked about Smith being a guy who has taken a lot of punishment throughout his career, even in fights he ended up winning. His last nine fights now have all featured Smith doing no favors to his brain cell count, including some absolute beatings at the hands of Robbie Lawler, Nick Diaz, Cung Le, and Paul Daley. Outside of the first few minutes of the first round and the last forty-five seconds of the fight, Smith looked like a walking heavy bag. There were times when "walking heavy bag" would be a generous appraisal. Saffiedine sliced him with angles, mixing up his kicks and punches and balancing his attack between the head and body. It's trendy to call for the retirement of the stars that hold a place in our nostalgic hearts, but it's the guys like Scott Smith (and, soon enough, Chris Lytle and Chris Leben) who are the ones we really need to look at. Those guys aren't making consistent six- or seven-figures per fight like a Chuck Liddell or a Wanderlei Silva. Those two guys want to continue fighting simply because it defines their very being. Scott Smith, while fighting might define him as well, also has to take financial considerations in mind. But if Scott Smith's career going forward is going to look like the shell of a fighter we saw tonight, he needs to take retirement into serious consideration.