Though the UFC’s debut on Fox earlier this month attracted perhaps the most mainstream attention that the UFC or sport of MMA have ever received, it was Saturday’s UFC 139: Shogun vs. Henderson fight card that will go down as the best of the year, with a main event that may go down as the best fight ever.
Held at Strikeforce’s usual base of operations, the HP Pavilion in San Jose, California, UFC 139 featured a five-round, non-title fight between Pride veterans Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Dan Henderson that turned out to be a battle for the ages. The five-round epic was immediately dubbed the best fight in MMA history and, though we in the MMA world often tend toward the hyperbolic, it’s very hard to think of a better contest. After spending twenty-five minutes doing their best to beat each other into a pulp, Hendo was declared the winner by unanimous decision; though many saw it a draw, there were no losers left over from this fight.
Hendo and Shogun showed what it means to have heart and courage, grit and determination; both men were on the verge of being finished on more than one occasion and they both survived on the sheer strength of their will. Saying “they left it all in the cage” may be cliche, but if it’s ever accurately described any fight, it’s this one. From here, Henderson will presumably go on to challenge for a belt at either middle- or light heavyweight, while Shogun’s immediate future isn’t as clear. Wherever they go from here and whatever success they’re met with, it won’t change how the war they waged on Saturday night will be remembered: appropriately with reverence.
The significance of UFC 139 didn’t stop there though, as the card also witnessed something of a return to form for another Pride legend in Wanderlei Silva. Silva survived a few shaky moments to earn a TKO victory over striking standout Cung Le, spoiling the former Strikeforce middleweight champ’s UFC debut. Though more cautious than usual, showing an awareness of his diminishing ability to take punches, the Axe Murderer showed some vintage stuff, hammering Le with vicious knees from the clinch and clubbing him with hard punches in close. The win will extend Silva’s UFC career, but another knockout loss may very well end it, regardless of his recent victory. Time will tell whether or not Silva’s win will serve him well, as he’s kept the door open to continue facing dangerous competition.
Former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber put on one of the most impressive performances of his career, beating down former bantamweight champ Brian Bowles en route to a second-round submission victory. Faber looked as sharp as ever, showing slick timing with his striking as well as brilliant head movement. He hurt Bowles on the feet with a lunging lead uppercut and jumped on him immediately to finish, eventually locking up a mean guillotine behind a volley of punches. The victory earned Faber a rubber match with bantamweight champ Dominick Cruz, with the two possibly set up to coach the next season of The Ultimate Fighter.
Further down the main card, Martin Kampmann got back in the win column following a string of questionable decisions against him, outclassing Rick Story for what was initially declared a split decision, but was apparently meant by the judges to be a unanimous decision. The Ultimate Fighter 1 alum Stephan Bonnar put on a grappling clinic on the surging Kyle Kingsbury, looking as dominant as ever in running circles around Kingsbu on the ground en route to a unanimous decision victory.
On the SpikeTV-aired preliminary card, 20-year-old Californian Michael McDonald established himself as a prospect to watch at 135lbs. by spoiling Alex Soto’s debut with a first-round knockout and Ryan Bader got back in the win column after two straight defeats by knocking out Jason Brilz in the first round.
Chris Weidman and Seth Baczynski also established themselves as legitimate prospects, picking up their third and second UFC victories, respectively; both men finished their fights via with impressive submissions and have opened themselves up to face the next tier of opponents. Miguel Torres and Danny Castillo rounded out the night’s biggest winners, with the two WEC veterans rebounding from disappointing losses with dominant victories over opponents who both missed weight.
UFC 139 was the rare card that delivered from top to bottom, from the first match of the preliminary card to the main event (with the possible exception of Tibau-dos Anjos). Whether or not it’s card of the year is up to debate; but, can you name a better one?