If it had occurred all the way back in summer of 2011, Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua would have fought three not entirely memorable rounds. If things played out just as they did at UFC 139 without circumstantial revisions, Henderson would have won an easy 30-27 decision on all judges’ scorecards. This would have been the end of the story, and we’d be talking in terms of Henderson’s pan-divisional title prospects today, and pitting Rua with Quinton Jackson in Japan.
Or, at least we’d be discussing those things with a different emphasis than we are.
But since the fight happened in the era of five round main events, it quickly transformed from one-sided rout to “greatest UFC bout of all time.” Epic can be defined as the tables being turned. And isn’t this the magic that the UFC envisioned when it stretched main events by two rounds -- wars that take improbable twists and turns? By the time the “championship rounds” got going, Henderson and Rua had been swapping dominant positions like grappling swingers. There’s something about the redirection of momentum that plays with our sense of wow. It’s fun when you think -- no, when you’re sure -- that what you’re looking at is the epitome of heart, especially when you've had to crash through so many walls to find it. Or feel that you have. Sports are meant to be vicarious.
Rua withstood the third round onslaught that left Henderson a shell of himself. Against suspicion of having a peanut-sized gas tank, it was Rua with the reserves. It was Rua who began to mount an offense from previously unimagined depths. In the fifth, it was Rua who put Henderson in survival mode for about nine-tenths of the round. Henderson hung on while the molasses poured over him, and the clock moved as slow. In fact, the fifth round could be presented as Exhibit A in what a 10-8 round should look like -- a round in which one fighter has the other on the ropes from bell to bell. By strict definition, the fifth round couldn’t be anything other than a 10-8 for Rua.
Yet the California judges saw it 10-9 for “Shogun,” and Henderson escaped on the strength of his early work. It was a tale of two fights that intersected at the hinging point of the added rounds that everybody was curious about. That’s drama.
If there was a flaw in any of it, it’s that it didn’t end up in a draw as it probably should have. Since Dana White despises draws -- just like anybody who likes their events served up with definitive resolutions -- this was a mere footnote. There was finality. And finality went along perfect with the near knockouts, sweeps, reversals, blood and seismic momentum shifts, the guts, drive and hard-swallowing Adam’s apples that went into the plot.
Just where it took on a “one for the ages” feel was in the additional rounds, exactly to the hopes of the UFC who created them for this purpose. Big-event fights should be made to mature before our eyes. Though this was our first real look, it might mean two things going forward. One, that five-round main events have the potential of converting pretty good fights into great ones, like Rua and Henderson -- and two, that we’d be setting ourselves up for disappointment to expect everybody in those circumstances to dig as deep.