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For Dan Henderson, the Shogun fights bookend a cruel chasm

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Zuffa LLC via Getty

The last time Dan Henderson and Mauricio Rua fought in the fall of 2011, the stage was a lot different. Three months earlier, Henderson had stopped the great Fedor Emelianenko in Strikeforce, a sneaky little knockout in one of the greatest single rounds on historical record. Here was Dan Henderson, the reigning light heavyweight Strikeforce champion, guzzling water to make the heavyweight minimum. He was game to fight anyone in any of three weight classes, no questions asked.

That "you set ’em up and I’ll knock ’em down" attitude is a throwback to the days of old.

When the Strikeforce/UFC partition came down, there was allure to him closing in fast on an H-bomb spree against Jon Jones. Did anybody expect the then 40-year old Hendo to beat Jones? No. But the idea of a champion-versus-champion PPV headliner of that caliber was a good giddy-up. Jones needed fresh victims…and yet Henderson carried an air of spring about him that kept saying "not so fast."

First things first, though, was Shogun, who’d lost his belt to Jones six months earlier. So what happens? That November night in San Jose he and Rua climbed Jacob’s Ladder together, engaging in a perilous back-and-forth fight over the course of five non-championship rounds (a novelty in those days), ending with Henderson, his white trunks now pink with the co-mingling blood of the toil, getting his arm raised. Both men looked like they’d been peeled off the fender of a freightliner afterwards, but it was thoroughly entertaining. It was the fight of the year. And in a game where the word "epic" is thrown around too loosely, this one was epic.

Then, of course, The Great Drought.

Henderson was granted his title shot against Jones, but had to pull out of the fight with a little over a week’s notice when his training partner Sokoudjou accidentally landed on his knee in training. UFC 151, which was to be Henderson’s next chance to add to his collection of belts, became the first PPV card to disappear off the face of the earth. And as if he couldn’t stay away from the magnetic pull of that strange vortex, Henderson has been slowly vanishing along with it.

He lost to Lyoto Machida (narrowly and unenthusiastically), then to Rashad Evans (narrowly yet with his chin high), then to Vitor Belfort in Brazil, in which he got knocked out for the first time in his career.

Three in a row. Flitter, flutter, boom.

In 2014, Sunday’s fight is not the most anticipated rematch in UFC history, as the promos are telling us, as there’s just too much Mojave between the events for it to carry that kind of import. It’s more like a man who’s been on a gambling tailspin returning to a hot table where he once walked away with tall stacks of chips. The now 43-year old Henderson is trying to get back, and this second clash with Shogun may be his last chance to do so.

And, realistically, it might just be the last anything.

After nearly two decades of fighting the game’s most menacing in Pride, in Strikeforce and in the UFC, this could be it for Hendo. It’s not just that a loss makes it four in a row, it’s that he’ll be 44 years old in August. It’s that he’s been on testosterone replacement therapy (TRT), which is now banned in Nevada and Brazil, thus further diminishing his bank of mercies. It’s that the multiple-time champion has climbed in that cage so many times that any reason to keep doing it starts to feel absurd.

Whatever happens on Sunday night in Natal, Brazil, Henderson’s career will go down as a great one. In fact, had UFC 151 happened, and Henderson found a way to drop Jones like he did Fedor not so long before, he would have ever-so-quietly entered into that rarified G.O.A.T. conversation. He was a single H-bomb from that reality. He was a couple of weeks from getting his chance.

As it stands, though, his first fight with Shogun was all about those fun possibilities. This second fight is all about the prolonging; stakes that don’t transmit to the larger active picture, but say, "let’s hope it’s even half as cool as the first fight" in the new immediate. If there’s anticipation for the rematch, it’s in those narrow confines -- Hendo-Shogun once put on a crazy fight, and here’s hoping for a repeat performance.

That’ll have to do.

And if Henderson loses, and if this is it for him, well, his career was good enough even if he never did get that UFC gold. Those Pride and Strikeforce championships, along with the crazy twists and turns all the way to the finish line, will just have to do, too.