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The Rear Naked Column 07.29.11: A Battle of Legends
Posted by Samer Kadi on 07.29.2011



How the mighty have fallen. A little over a year ago, Fedor Emelianenko and M-1 would have been slaughtered by fans and pundits alike for accepting a bout with "a natural middleweight." Instead, for the first time since his first fight with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira back in 2003, "The Last Emperor" does not come into a fight as the overwhelming favorite. Coming off two back-to-back defeats, the stoic Russian finds himself in uncharted territory. A third consecutive loss could well spell the end of a glorious career.

Emelianenko's opponent, Dan Henderson, is the jack of all trades. Despite being mostly known for his runs at middleweight and light heavyweight, where he held both titles simultaneously in PRIDE, Henderson has competed at heavyweight before, and he did so against another true all-time great in the aforementioned Nogueira. Hendo split his two meetings with the legendary Brazilian, but beating Emelianenko, even at this stage in his career, is a different proposition altogether.



Ideally, two icons of the sport are better off fighting in their respective primes. Think of how much more significant Liddell-Silva or Couture-Nogueira would have been had all parties not been on the downside of their careers. However, this might be a rare case where a fighter's decline adds to the bout's intrigue. Fedor's recent slump makes this fight – at least on paper – far more competitive than it would have otherwise been. His state of mind is questionable, and he sounds a little too accepting of the fact that his days in the sport are numbered. By contrast, Henderson is coming in with the momentum, having captured the Strikeforce light heavyweight title earlier this year, and he's much more relaxed. The pressure is on Emelianenko, who desperately needs a win, whereas Henderson can afford a loss to a man who outweighs him by some margin and is widely regarded as the greatest heavyweight of all time.

Stylistically, the fight is equally fascinating. While neither fighter possesses much in way of technical striking, one makes up for it with speed, accuracy, and volume, while the other possesses a hammer of a right hand to compensate. Neither fighter excels from distance, but Fedor does a good job at closing in and unleashing his trademark loopy combinations, while Henderson's striking offense revolves around setting up his "H-bomb." Both are more than comfortable in close-quarters, but Emelianenko will possess the edge inside the pocket, where his hooks come from odd angles. Speed was often the difference maker for Fedor against his heavyweight opponents, and this is an advantage he won't be giving up in this bout, as despite looking visibly slower in the "Big Foot" fight, Emelianenko's superior speed should be evident in this one. Henderson on the other hand, hits harder than most heavyweights, but he will want to avoid getting too predictable and trigger-happy with his overhand right; something he's been guilty of in the past.

While Emelianenko's head movement has always been a tad overrated, he remains less hittable than Henderson, who at times relies on his otherworldly chin a little too much for his own good. Fedor's defensive skills aren't quite on par with his offensive prowess, but he mainly struggles against straight punchers; something Henderson isn't known for. Meanwhile, Henderson can get a bit lazy on his feet, and while his chin and recovery are unparalleled, he doesn't want to play with fire against someone with Fedor's killer instinct.

The key for Henderson will be to mix up his striking, use his left hook in addition to his overhand right, set it up with inside leg kicks, but most importantly, put doubt in Fedor's head by utilizing his wrestling. With the exception of the Michael Bisping fight where the Brit foolishly kept circling into Hendo's power hand, Henderson's striking has always been at its most efficient when he combined it with his wrestling. His triumph over Wanderlei Silva in PRIDE as well as his recent win over Rafael Feijao serve as prime examples of Henderson keeping his opponents honest and giving them something else to worry about. Continuous telegraphed overhand rights aren't going to cut it against someone as ring savvy as Fedor, and a little clinching coupled with a few takedowns would go a long way in giving Henderson's offense an added dimension and rendering his striking far more effective.

The clinch is where the fight could be decided, as both fighters have a lot to offer in that position. Henderson isn't really known for his shot from the outside, and instead relies on his Greco-Roman wrestling in the clinch to secure takedowns. In addition, Henderson would be smart to use the clinch to bully Emelianenko against the fence and utilize some dirty boxing. Conversely, Emelianenko also uses the clinch to get trip takedowns and secure to position, although he would be smart to try to capitalize on Hendo's aggression to change levels and get takedowns from the outside (despite that never being Fedor's game). For someone with such a stellar wrestling pedigree, Henderson gets taken down far too often, and that is a direct result of his occasionally overly aggressive style. For his part, Fedor never had the best takedown defense himself, and Hendo's wrestling is more than capable of giving him fits.

The difference between both fighters' ground games is that Emelianenko is more dynamic both from the top and bottom. Henderson is freakishly strong, and he knows how to control a fighter from the top, but Fedor is quite capable off of his back. The "Big Foot" bout did reveal some holes in Fedor's grappling defense from the bottom, as he never seemed quite capable to hip escape and regain guard, but Henderson possesses neither the size nor the BJJ chops and guard-passing ability of Antonio Silva to trouble Fedor in that regard. What he can do however, is give Fedor little room to maneuver, control him on the ground, and use short elbows to cut him open and take advantage Fedor's tendency to mark up and bruise quite easily.



Emelianenko has the hips to transition and threaten from the bottom, and Henderson needs to be wary of his trademark armbars and ability to create scrambling opportunities and take dominant positions. Moreover, Henderson will not want to find himself on his back with Fedor on top. The biggest and most glaring weakness in Hendo's game has always been his inability to offer anything off of his back. He is prone to getting stuck on the bottom and giving up position. If Jake Shields' punches failed to have any impact on Henderson, Fedor's notoriously brutal ground-and-pound most certainly will. The Russian is often content to sit in guard, posture up, and rain down some of the most accurate and violent ground-and-pound the sport has ever seen. Furthermore, Henderson will not want to give up his back, as Fedor will almost certainly capitalize.



What makes the fight so difficult to predict is the multitude of ways in which each fighter can win. Henderson can outwrestle Fedor to a decision or he could end his night with another bullet right hand. However, the more likely outcome is Emelianenko hurting Henderson with a flurry sometime in the second round before getting on top and polishing him off with a rear naked choke.

That will do it for another week of "The Rear Naked Column". As always, feedback is greatly appreciated. You can send in your comments, e-mails, or you can follow me on twitter right here for all things MMA, video games, sports, and other nonsense.





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