At 33 years old, Rashad Evans is nearly a full decade younger than his UFC 161 main-event opponent Dan Henderson. Yet of the two, it is Evans who faces more questions about his fighting future. Perhaps he invited it upon himself when earlier this year, he mentioned that he ever-so-briefly considered retirement. It doesn't help that when he went out and faced Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in February, he was uncharacteristically and exceptionally flat, landing only 22 strikes over the 15-minute fight.
Henderson wasn't much better when he fought Lyoto Machida the same month. Though he landed 54 strikes in the bout, 34 of them came in the third round, when he was attempting to come from behind. The judges ultimately ruled it in Machida's favor in a split-decision.
The fact that against Machida, Henderson was competing for the first time in 15 months faded into the background, mostly because Machida has a tendency to make most opponents look bad. But the layoff could have affected him. So could his age. Just two months shy of 43, Hendo is still in the mix as a top light-heavyweight, but those days simply must be numbered. The fact that he's done it at such a high level for this long is something to be admired, but at some point, he is going to begin to fade. About here, we would be remiss if we didn't add that for the last several years, Henderson has, with commission approval, used the controversial treatment testosterone replacement therapy. But even that doesn't guarantee him any longevity past what he's already achieved.
At this point of Henderson's career, he largely favors striking as his favored method of combat, far over his wrestling roots. In most of his fights within the last 4-5 years, takedowns are only a secondary weapon, with most of his energy focused on landing his thudding right hand, often as a counter based on timing. In five of his last nine fights, he hasn't scored a single takedown. Amazingly, that hasn't posed much of a problem for him in terms of attaining victory; he's 7-2 in those fights.
Against Evans, he's a fractional underdog. The line between the two has barely wavered. That's understandable. There have been only a handful of others in MMA history who could boast both the crushing one-punch power and the legendary chin of Henderson. He is exceptionally difficult to put away, yet he can end the fight in an instant.
Henderson's success comes in a simple approach and his ability to cash in on opponent's mistakes. He doesn't necessarily have the foot speed to chase opponents down, but he finds a way to make them engage, and has excellent timing on his straight right hand. He feasts on opponents who circle towards it, but when they don't he goads them there, often setting them up with an inside leg kick which puts his foe off-balance for the split-second necessary to fire off his H-bomb.
If fight-changing power is Henderson's advantage, Evans' edge comes in the diversity of his attack. He's equally capable of blasting a rival with a right cross or a double-leg. The takedown is a staple of his game, and he's not shy about capitalizing on that opening when he sees it to be an advantage. He took down Thiago Silva eight times and Quinton "Rampage" Jackson and Phil Davis three times apiece. Though against Nogueira, he went only 1-for-5 in takedown tries, I would suspect that he'll make it a focus of his attack against Henderson, a far more dangerous striker.
He pretty much admitted such when I asked him to go into his FUEL TV analyst persona and give an objective account on his best route to victory in Winnipeg.
"If Rashad Evans is to win this fight, he has to fight this on a multi-level attack basis," he said. "He can’t get to the point where he’s playing defense too much, sitting waiting for Dan Henderson to do anything. He has to put his combos together followed by his shots. If he’s not able to take Dan Henderson down, this is going to be one of those fights for him where he puts himself in danger of being caught by the big shot Dan Henderson has. Rashad Evans does his best fighting when he's able to go with the up-and-down basis, when he’s got the ability to be able to take his opponents down."
I agree with Evans. The takedown will be the X-factor of the matchup, especially in a five-round fight. If Henderson can stop him and keep the fight standing, he will eventually get comfortable with the rhythm of Evans' offense and potentially land that big right. If Evans can take him down, Henderson will have a lot more to think about. And let's not forget, Evans has pretty good power, too. When he is firing on all cylinders, he is truly elite.
For all of Henderson's exploits of accomplishments, and despite his wrestling pedigree, he is not an automatic shot-stuffer. Machida took him down on his only try. Mauricio "Shogun" Rua took him down five times. Jake Shields put him on his back four times. Evans must put up a number like Rua in order to win. I believe he can. While Hendo has the one-punch edge, Evans has speed, youth and wrestling on his side. Given Henderson's knockout power, I'd never advocate a bet against him, but since I must offer a pick, I'm guessing that Evans' more diversified skill set adds up to a decision victory.