Dan Henderson takes on Vitor Belfort in the main event of UFC Fight Night 32 in Goiania on Nov. 9, and that will mark his return to Brazil 5,992 days after his MMA debut, which took place in Sao Paulo, Brazil.
At Brazil Open Fight, Dan Henderson entered a four-man lightweight tournament with Crezio de Souza, Jose "Pele" Landi-Jons and Eric Smith. The Brazilians didn’t know "Hendo" and Smith, so de Souza and "Pele" were the crowd favorites to advance to the final.
"I knew he was an Olympic-level wrestler because I was from the Brazilian wrestling team at that time, so I saw him compete before," de Souza told MMAFighting.com. "When they told me I was going to fight him, I knew it would be tough. I was the favorite to advance in the tournament to fight ‘Pele’, and I was sure that I would beat Dan Henderson."
Brazilians fighters didn’t know how to cut weight properly at that time, so they just moved up weight classes. Henderson knew how to do it, so he dropped from 200 pounds to 175. Crezio de Souza, who walked around 148 pounds, gained 27 pounds to be in the tournament.
"I gassed in the beginning of the fight," he said. "We didn’t cut weight at that time in Brazil, so it was tough for me to fight him."
The tournament fights were contested in one 20-minute round, but Henderson needed less than six minutes to finish the Brazilian. There was some controversy, though.
"It was a tough fight," de Souza said. "I took him down, passed the guard and mounted, but I didn’t finish the fight. I was too calm, too confident. After that, I felt the power of his hands on the ground and pound and couldn’t get out of that position, and it was too late.
"The referee stopped the fight too early, and even Dan Henderson and his coach admitted that at the time. I was too tired, I know it would be hard for me to get back and win, but I could surprise him with a submission."
De Souza’s coach, the legendary Carlson Gracie, protested after the stoppage. The promoters considered restarting the fight, but they agreed to set a rematch for a later date after Henderson submitted Eric Smith with a guillotine choke 30 seconds into the final.
The rematch was set, and de Souza started training for it.
On Sept. 27, 1997, the jiu-jitsu black belt suffered a terrible accident while training -- terrible enough to force him into retirement.
"Dan Henderson accepted to fight me again, so I started training," he said. "I was training at my gym in Petropolis, Rio de Janeiro, sparring with a 200-pound student. He was pushing my chin and I forced to get him out of the mount, but his hand slipped and his finger hit my eye and destroyed my retina.
"The promotion didn’t want a fighter that is blind in one eye, so I had to retire."
With the rematch off, Henderson continued his career overseas. He won the UFC 17 middleweight tournament, Rings’ King of Kings 1999 tournament, two titles at Pride and the Strikeforce light-heavyweight championship.
Sixteen years after his MMA debut, Henderson returns to Brazil to fight Vitor Belfort with his back against the wall following consecutive split decision losses to Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida, and at least one Brazilian will root for the American.
"I'm rooting for Dan Henderson," de Souza said. "I’ve trained with Vitor in the past at Carlson Gracie Team and had my personal problems with him. He wasn’t a nice person with his teammates. I have a problem with him as a person, but not as a fighter. I’ve fought Dan Henderson, so it’s nice to watch him doing well. But I wouldn’t bet in this fight.
"There’s no favorite in this fight. They both hit hard and Dan Henderson has a great chin. One punch can end this fight, but it’s hard to land that punch. It’s hard to predict what’s going to happen. Vitor usually gets tired after the second round, and I believe Dan Henderson would win by decision if that happens."