It’s not the main event, heck it didn’t even make the countdown special, but to me the most interesting fight this Saturday at UFC 88 is Dan Henderson vs. Rousimar Palhares. Many questions will be answered in this fight. Does Henderson still got what it takes to be an elite level fighter competing AND winning against top guys? Can Palhares channel his much touted potential into a huge win, solidifying himself as a top guy in the division? Will the new guard deliver another blow to the old guard, or can a guy that’s the definition of the old guard put on a convincing stand that shows he ain’t going anywhere anytime soon?
That last question is perhaps the most interesting. Dan Henderson has been in the game for ten years. He’s fought pretty much anyone who’s anyone, in not one but TWO divisions. When you look up “grizzled vet” in the dictionary, you’ll see Dangerous Dan staring back at you with his missing teeth and cauliflower ears. Rousimar Palhares, on the other hand, is a new generation MMA fighter. He started just over two years ago and has just 8 fights under his belt, with only one in a top level promotion. Much like the upcoming Couture/Lesnar battle, this is going to be a great example of new guard vs. old guard and the result will no doubt have a big impact on peoples opinions as to whether the new generation of fighters are where it’s at in 2008.
Henderson comes into this fight on the back of two losses in his first two bouts of this UFC tenure. Some would say he may be fighting for his job in this fight. I think that’s harsh as when you look at his losses (a narrow decision against Quinton Jackson and a defeat at the hands of the unstoppable Anderson Silva), which were not exactly embarrassing. Sure a loss here would put him at 0-3, but even still, he’d be losing to another stud in Palhares, so you really can’t fault Dan too much. He’s not exactly being fed any tomato cans in this run. However with that all said, it is still crucially important for Henderson’s career that he wins this fight, whether or not his job is at stake. A win over Palhares would be hugely impressive and it would show that Dan is by no means washed up and he still poses a big threat to anyone in the division, possibly even including champion Anderson Silva. Do I think he could beat Silva at some point? No not really, but you can bet your ass Henderson does. He’d love another crack at the champ, as you can tell from his interviews after the first fight that he had a lot of regrets about the way he fought first time around. Losing this fight would put a potential Silva rematch way out of sight. A win would make it seem much more possible.
Palhares comes out of the Brazilian Top Team camp and was trained by BJJ great Murilo Bustamante. As early as his first few fights, he was being earmarked as a future star and champion. In the vein of Paulo Filho and Ricardo Arona, Palhares combines slick jiu-jitsu technique with crushing strength and power. Long story short, you don’t wanna be on the ground with this man. In his UFC debut, he dismantled veteran Ivan Salaverry and now he’s looking to build on that with a far bigger win which would no doubt push him towards title contention. However as with any inexperienced fighter in the biggest fight of their career, the question of how they will deal with the pressure surely is an issue. It will be interesting to see how Palhares answers that question on Saturday.
As for a prediction, I’m going with Palhares. Although it’s by no means cut and dry. If Dan can keep it standing then he’s got a great shot of knocking out the Brazilian with his heavy hands. But if it goes to the ground, especially with Palhares on top, then Dan may not have any answers. I think the takedowns will come, as Dan leaves himself open for them whenever he throws those big looping punches that he favours. Palhares may play it safe on the ground and grind out a decision, or he may go for the kill like he did with Salaverry. That will probably depend on the earlier question of how much he feels the pressure.