Old-school pioneers with over a decade-and-a-half tenure in MMA are extremely rare nowadays, and those not only still fighting at the top level but headlining a UFC event and maintaining a top-10 world ranking are ... well, other than these two, they don't even exist.
To put things in perspective: Belfort made his UFC debut at age 20 in 1997 and punched people in the face faster and harder than anyone we'd ever seen in the Octagon. He clocked two 1st-round TKO's in exactly two minutes -- both in the same night -- and walked away as the UFC 12 Heavyweight Tournament champion. A year later, Henderson, then going by the ill-fitting "Hollywood" nickname, barreled through the brackets and out-tussled Alan Goes and Carlos Newton -- again, all in one single evening -- to become the UFC 17 Heavyweight Tournament champion.
Concurrently around the world in 1997, O.J. Simpson was found not guilty, Microsoft had just become the world's most valuable company, Princess Diana and Mother Teresa died, and Mike Tyson snacked on Evander Holyfield's ear lobe. The Backstreet Boys and Hanson were topping the charts. Titanic was sweeping the box office. And I was probably just surmising that dressing like Tupac in the movie Juice wasn't getting me anywhere with the ladies. (But dat street cred!).
It was just impossible for me to write this and not pay tribute and respect to two inimitable icons and future Hall of Famers like Vitor Belfort and Dan Henderson.
Both men ventured overseas to Pride Fighting Championships, have had their ups and downs and dabbled in weight classes ranging from middleweight to heavyweight. The road they've taken to evolve in the sport, however, is a divergent tale.
Henderson, an Olympian in Greco Roman wrestling known for his sheer tenacity and stifling application of control, started to develop the cynical moniker "Decision Dan" in certain hardcore circles within the MMA community. By all present-day accounts, the last fight in which Henderson imposed that style was a grinding and altogether uneventful decision win over Belfort at Pride 32 in 2006. Since then, mostly on account of his thunderous right hand, an extensive list of reputable opponents of all shapes and sizes were left lifeless and unconscious on the canvas (Wanderlei Silva, Michael Bisping, Renato Sobral, Rafael Cavalcante, Fedor Emelianenko) and the legendary "H-Bomb" was born.
Perhaps no one in MMA has endured the exhilarating highs and depressing lows as keenly as Belfort. Branded "The Phenom" for his combination of baby-faced youthfulness and plentiful distribution of pure violence, the charismatic Brazilian was both expected to become the greatest MMA fighter of all time and deemed the biggest disappointment in the sport's history within the span of a few years.
While Henderson's paradoxical evolution of grinding wrestler to feared knockout artist has revivified his stock, Belfort has somehow managed to find his identity and maximize the true potential that first put him on the map, which is pulling the plug with vicious strikes that are uncorked with blinding speed and aesthetic grace. While the body count Belfort amassed on his way back to the Octagon and early into his current UFC stint was classic Vitor -- i.e. insta-unconsciousness by way of an indiscernible whir of wheeling leather -- his latest victims were treated to the unwelcome surprise of his kicking prowess.
Bisping was crumpled by a scorching high kick and former Strikeforce champion Luke Rockhold took a spinning hook kick to the pearly whites. In addition to merely employing newly functional weapons, Belfort's kicks were unleashed with just as much speed and ferocity as the heralded "Belfort flurrries" with his hands were. Both devastating kicks were unraveled out of nowhere and with no detectable set up, and skipping the oft-revealing first step of a typical spinning hook kick was subtly innovative and camouflaged the finishing blow perfectly.
I, like many others, was leaning toward Belfort since this scrap was announced, perhaps almost instinctually. After all, Belfort might lead the pack for authoring the most highlight-reel knockouts in MMA and his latest two, arguably the most memorable of the bunch, are fresh on everyone's mind. Meanwhile, Henderson thundered back into the UFC on the heels of his most unforgettable knockout (Emelianenko) but has since fizzled a bit with consecutive split-decision defeats (Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans).
But realizing this was a five-round affair triggered a different line of thinking. Perhaps the most salient aspect of this seemingly striking-centric match up is the fact that Henderson has never been KO'd, TKO'd or lost via strikes in any way, shape or form throughout his lengthy career. Oddly enough, most have refused to play the odds and construed that it's probably about time that unreal streak is broken.
Of course that could happen, and, of course, Vitor is probably the man best suited to do it -- but the chances that Vitor will be the "lucky number 40" to sleep Henderson after a prestigious 39-fight career against the world's best are, simply by the numbers, extremely unlikely. With one road to victory addressed, let's analyze the other two.
Vitor has been a Carlson Gracie black belt since The Temptations had soul, but submissions account for exactly three wins in 33 outings. (Yes ... he almost armbarred Jon Jones -- duly noted.) Conversely, Henderson has been submitted exactly three times in 39 fights, but the culprits there are one apiece courtesy of the Nogueira brothers and Anderson Silva -- one of the greatest champions and MMA fighters ever -- after wobbling Hendo with strikes.
Again -- possible? Yes. Likely? Nah.
Barring something kooky or a bogus post-fight drug test, the only ways to win a fight are by strikes, a submission or a decision. That leaves out-gunning, out-pointing or out-something-ing Dan Henderson for the greater portion of 25 minutes as Belfort's only other recourse. And that's unfortunately where and when Belfort's trend of consistency and fortitude might come into play.
On one hand, Belfort is a vastly superior striker when compared to Henderson. Considering the cumulative factors of technique, speed, diversity, angles, footwork, head movement; the whole shebang ... it's really not even close. Vitor does all that and does it well, whereas Henderson usually bum-rushes and beheads with a telegraphed right hand. Henderson's idea of "angles" and "entries" is tucking his chin behind his left shoulder and attacking in a straight line while measuring his steps like an outfielder before hurling the ball to home-plate. It's painfully primitive but also undeniably effective.
However, when you account for Henderson's kitchen sink of a chin and infallible resilience, then couple that with his unparalleled punching power ... the on-paper justification that Vitor's technique can carry him through 25-minutes without eating the H-Bomb isn't as reassuring.
The element that brought me back around to Henderson is that the overwhelming pressure and control he invoked in the old days is still right at his fingertips. He didn't lose those skills -- he just went away from them. And they've already muffled Vitor's electric striking -- be it comprised of kicks or punches -- with maximum efficiency in his one-sided decision win at Pride 32. Hendo barely incurred a scratch in their first meeting.
Finally, there is a common theme with many of Vitor's past losses: most were dealt by superior wrestlers and clinchers (Randy Couture twice, Tito Ortiz, Kazushi Sakuraba, Henderson) or notable power strikers (Anderson Silva, Chuck Liddell) -- and Henderson fits both molds.
My Prediction: Dan Henderson by late TKO.