Ever since PRIDE FC folded back in 2007, one of the most common lingering regrets among its die hard followers was the fact that a bout between the light heavyweight champion (dubbed middleweight champion at the time), Dan Henderson, and the “uncrowned” champion, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, never materialized. Much has changed since the night “Hendo” knocked out Rua’s training partner, Wanderlei Silva, to capture the title: Henderson went on to have a decent — but unspectacular — stint with the UFC before finding his footing in Strikeforce, while “Shogun” recovered from a stuttering start and multiple injuries to fulfill his long heralded potential and become the UFC light heavyweight kingpin. Finally, the two MMA legends are set to square off in a bout that could determine the next contender for the UFC light heavyweight title.

Light Heavyweight Fight: Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vs. Dan Henderson

One seemingly overlooked aspect of this fight is the state of Rua’s knees. While all was forgotten with a quick knockout of Forrest Griffin, Rua still looked a touch lethargic in that fight. Little can be taken away from a sub-one minute fight, but the fact remains Rua didn’t throw a single kick, was very sloppy with his punches (another fighter could have made him pay), and looked a tad slower compared to his usual explosive self. The same can also be said about his performance against Jon Jones, however, with “Bones” looking utterly sensational in that bout, it is difficult to gauge just how badly hampered Rua’s knees really well. Nevertheless, multiple knee surgeries at such a young age are never good news.

For this bout, Rua needs to on top of his game. I’m of the belief that the incarnation of “Shogun” who showed up for the first Lyoto Machida fight was the best we’ve seen from the Brazilian — his PRIDE days included. In that fight, Rua showcased the perfect balance of technical striking (at least by his standards), tactical discipline, aggression, and patience. Most importantly, his footwork was truly sensational, as he cut off the cage extremely well, landed kicks, was very quick andunpredictable when moving forward, and circled away from Machida’s power. Against Henderson, this will be a key aspect. Whether “Hendo” is in pure “H-Bomb” mode or wrestling mode (for his sake, he better combine the two), Rua’s footwork needs to be on point. For starters, it will be imperative for the Brazilian to circle to his right in order to avoid Henderson’s trademark right hand. Furthermore, Rua can’t allow his opponent to close the distance, get the clinch, tire him against the fence, and potentially take him down.

As such, Rua would be smart to slow Henderson down with bread and butter leg kicks. Given that Hendo’s wrestling is almost exclusively reliant on securing the clinch first, “Shogun” is unlikely to put himself at risk of being taken down if he throws kicks. Additionally, the accumulation of said kicks could very well hinder Henderson’s movement when moving forward, and over five rounds, this could make a substantial difference. Conversely, leg kicks may leave Rua prone to a counter-right hand from Henderson, something he — and any other sane person — does not want to taste. That is why it will be vital for Rua to throw leg kicks from a relatively safer range, outside of Henderson’s reach. However, if anyone could potentially survive a Henderson right hand, it’s Rua, as he possesses one of MMA’s most proven chins. In fact, both individuals’ chins — as well as power — are, for the lack of a better term, freaky.

Despite cringe-worthy technique, Rua punches like a truck, and has excellent timing to boot. That, coupled with his speed, makes up for his uneducated technique — Rua is a major arm puncher. The diversity of his striking is also a key component to his success, as Rua is good at methodically chomping down his opponent with leg kicks, blitzing him with trademark flurries, or punishing his body and head with knees from the clinch. The real challenge however, will be hurting Henderson, and potentially finishing him. Rua may just be the best finisher in MMA in terms of killer instinct, but as discussed, the American’s chin, and especially, his recovery, are stuff of legend. And yet, if someone can become the first fighter to finish Henderson with strikes, it’s “Shogun.”

Henderson’s striking might be a little less versatile, and at times, one-dimensional in his over-reliance on his right hand, but there can be no doubting its efficiency. He does an excellent job at setting up the overhand right, either with an inside leg kick or with a jab; albeit one that he throws with little conviction.  Occasionally, Henderson will mix things up and come underneath with a sneaky uppercut, and he would be smart to do so here. One of Rua’s defensive flaws is the fact that while he’s very good at covering up to avoid getting hit cleanly, this seems to be his instinctive go-to move, rather than attempting to doge the punch altogether. This means that his vision is no longer in direct contact with his opponent, which in the world of combat sport, is risky business. The way Rua covers up when his opponents throws a feint is equally worrisome, as it leaves him a sitting duck for a takedown, or for the aforementioned uppercut. On the other hand, there will be times when Rua times his opponent’s attack correctly, and will look to cut him off with a counter-right instead of covering up, and beat him to the punch; something Machida knows all too well about.

Henderson’s right hand becomes that much more unpredictable when he mixes up his game and uses some clinch work and takedowns. That is what allowed him to catch Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante earlier this year, when Henderson turned in a great, well-rounded performance.

Should Henderson get on top, he likely will struggle to get much going in terms of meaningful ground and pound, however, that should change late in the fight if he can keep taking Rua to the ground and eventually, wear him out. However, while Rua’s takedown defense is shaky to say the least, he does have an active bottom game. While his constant work for fruitless leg locks is at times counterproductive, he possesses some great sweeps in his arsenal. Even when he fails to complete the sweep and get on top, he does a good job at using it to scramble and get back to his vertical base. It wouldn’t be too shocking to see Rua score some takedowns, as Henderson’s over-aggression occasionally gets him in trouble, to the point where he gets taken down by far inferior wrestlers. Rua’s offensive wrestling is underrated, and if timed correctly, he could put the former Olympian on his back. From there, Rua possesses terrific guard passing skills and some of the most brutal ground and pound in the division.

The fight could well come down to cardio. If Henderson doesn’t push things early, and instead allows “Shogun” to settle into a rhythm and fight at his own pace, similar to what Machida did at UFC 104, Rua will likely pepper him with leg kicks, wear him down, and cruise to victory. However, if Henderson clinches up, takes Rua down, and tires him, the former Chute Boxe sensation will be a spent force come the championship rounds. Determining which scenario is more likely is incredibly difficult, but hesitantly, I will side with the American to take a competitive — but ultimately well-earned — decision.

Official Prediction: Dan Henderson to defeat Mauricio “Shogun” Rua by Decision