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Hendo highlights weekend of battles

I've had the privilege of watching many great mixed martial arts fights over the years, both as a fan and a reporter. But never before was I compelled to thank a fighter for his effort. I didn't know if it was appropriate and in the moment I guess I didn't care. Inside a large conference room that was decked out for the post-Pride 19 party, Ken Shamrock stood at a table and I walked up to him. I offered my gratitude for the effort he exuded, for the fight he and Don Frye brought to bear. He didn't beat Frye, according to the judges, but he gave everything he had to the cause. So, of course, did Frye, whom I didn't see him until the next day. He hobbled into the lobby of the Tokyo Hilton with knees the size of large grapefruits. He needed help stepping onto the bus transporting fighters, their entourages and the media from Tokyo to Narita airport.

It was during these bus rides that I first recognized the true, unvarnished toll of MMA. The day-after effect.

The first Pride card I attended was the organization's 12th event, Dec. 9, 2000. Dan Henderson fought Wanderlei Silva that night in a bout I'll never forget. I imagine there will be many people who feel the same about Henderson's clash with Mauricio Rua this weekend in San Jose. More than a decade after Henderson went 20 minutes with a prime Silva, he played part to an instant classic, one that in this hyperbole-driven sport is worthy of the accolades. Amazing, really. I don't know what Henderson looked like on Sunday. Hopefully he didn't resemble the shell of a man he was in Japan following the Silva fight.
He couldn't sit up straight most of the two-hour bus trip. His face was a puffy maze of dark purple. His eyes were glassy. He was definitely concussed and probably should not have boarded a flight, especially for the daylong trip back to Los Angeles.

In the end I regard those moments as evidence to what I've since confirmed: fighters aren't normal people. No better or worse, just not normal. Once in a while they deserve, through their considerable efforts, recognition for displaying what human beings are capable of when they're strong in mind and spirit. I was certainly reminded of that this weekend. Henderson-Rua served as an incredible main event for UFC 139. Wanderlei Silva and Cung Le put on a display of violence that made me and my desensitized mind cringe. Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez offered up as much courage as anyone ever has in a venue where their life wasn't in a very real sense at stake.

These men are all worthy of our praise, and for whatever it's worth, they have mine.

Even at a time when the UFC is reaching unprecedented heights, I still maintain that I don't care where fighters fight, or that their contributions are no less important or relevant if bouts take place in the Octagon or not. Henderson offered miraculous performances in Pride, Strikeforce and the UFC. Why should one be more valuable than another because of the brand it's attached to? I'll never be convinced that it is.

Please understand, I'm not attempting to dismiss the vital roles played by the UFC or any other promoter. They have their mandate and are responsible for the health and stability of MMA. But it's my everlasting belief that fighters matter most. Henderson is a beast of a man no matter where he competes.

With that, it's time to look back on a weekend that will be remembered fondly.

Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.