"Well," I remember saying to ESPN's Brett Okamoto, who was seated next to me on press row, "this one's definitely not going five rounds."
This is why you shouldn't make predictions based on about 60 seconds of action. Not unless you want to feel really, really dumb a half-hour later. But who could blame me? Just 30 seconds into the first round of the UFC 139 main event, the former light heavyweight champ walked straight into one of Henderson's famous right hands. Careers had been forever altered by the arc of that very punch. Nights had been ruined and eight-week training camps rendered meaningless by that exact same blow.
Rua had to know it was possible that he might find out what it felt like for himself, but he couldn't have thought it would happen so soon. When you tiptoe right to the edge of getting knocked out in the very beginning of a 25-minute fight, what's plan B?
If you're "Shogun," apparently it includes blinking away the blood and coming forward, only to get dropped a second time 15 seconds later, then unceremoniously tripped to the mat 20 seconds after that. Four and a half more rounds of this? Are you kidding? As Rua lunged for a takedown like a drunk diving into a cab at 2 a.m., he seemed as if he'd be lucky to survive the round.
But that was the difference between this fight and most. Now matter how unsteady Rua looked at times, it was as if he was never more than one deep breath from regaining his composure. One moment his legs seemed to have stopped taking orders from his brain, and the next he was firing off jumping knees and a looping right hand that caught Hendo behind the ear, giving him a taste of the canvas.
That's the pattern they followed for most of the first three rounds. Henderson attacked, Rua bled. Henderson poured it on, Rua put up just enough of a defense to stay in it. And then, as if he had some alarm in his head that woke him up in the final two minutes of each round, the Brazilian snapped to attention and started giving some of that punishment back. When the horn sounded to end the third round, both men wandered aimlessly around before heading back to their corners. You could almost hear them thinking, shouldn't this be over by now? Haven't we beaten each other up enough?
But no, they still had two more rounds to go. In the fourth Rua got himself in trouble on the mat after a takedown, but again rebounded and had Henderson nearly out on his feet by the end. The fifth was all Rua. He flipped an exhausted Henderson onto his back and camped out in full mount, raining down blows with heavy, exhausted arms until the final horn sounded. Several times it seemed close to being stopped, and you almost wanted to call out to the ref and ask him to disregard the rules just this once, to let these two sort it out for themselves. They'd earned that right, it seemed, and so they continued on until the very last second, when Hendo was almost too exhausted to stand and Rua's once white shorts were now stained a dirty pink from his own blood.
Fans in the crowd didn't know whether to cheer or cry when it was over. You could look around the HP Pavilion and see men standing up in their seats with their mouths hanging open, both hands on top of their heads as if trying to keep their brains from leaping out of their skulls.
Some nights, when you're in the moment, you can't appreciate what's happening. It's only when you look back on them that you realize how special they were. This was not one of those nights. This was one of the nights where, at several points, you turn to your buddy or even just the stranger next to you with a stunned look that says, Are you seeing this? Can you believe what's happening here?
Those looks were all over the arena that night. When Henderson got the nod from the judges, it was as if it almost didn't matter who the winner was. Hendo needed the help of his cornermen just to get out of the cage. Rua's face was so battered and bloodied, it seemed entirely possible that the immigration agents at the airport might refuse to believe he was the same person pictured on his passport.
Both men had suffered. Both men had been partners in creating a masterpiece. Right away we all knew it. Fans shuffled out into the rain with the expressions of people who were already planning how to tell this story to their purely hypothetical grandchildren. Reporters stood around in the media room shrugging at one another. Something like a giddy sense of shock set in. Did we really just see that? Did that really just happen?
Over at the hospital, Rua and Henderson didn't need to ask. They had the proof. They had paid for it.
Other contenders worth noting:
2: Mike Chandler vs. Eddie Alvarez, Bellator 58
The second-best fight of the night on November 19, 2011 was a very close runner-up for fight of the year. The two lightweights went back and forth in Hollywood, Florida with the Bellator title at stake before Chandler finished it in the fourth with a rear-naked choke. They produced a classic, but one that was almost immediately overshadowed by Hendo-Rua, which took place just hours later on the opposite coast. Sometimes timing is everything.
3. Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II, UFC 125
After barely staying conscious through the first round, Edgar battled back to force a five-round seesaw fight that ended in a draw. Unsatisfying? Only if you're the kind of jerk who can't just relax enjoy the ride.
4. Nick Diaz vs. Paul Daley, Strikeforce: Diaz vs. Daley
If there was an award for the best one-round fight of the year, these two would have taken it. They set a furious pace right from the start and neither man was at all interesting in slowing down or even giving the crowd a chance to blink. Not a single second went to waste, and when the dust cleared it was Diaz who was left standing.
5. Diego Brandao vs. Dennis Bermudez, TUF 14 Finale
The Forrest Griffin-Stephan Bonnar finale might have done more for the UFC, but this may very well have been the most action-packed ending to a season of the UFC's reality show. After nearly getting his jaw relocated to the back of his skull, Brandao somehow rallied to secure an armbar submission in another one-round stunner.