Going into Saturday night's UFC Fight Night in New Orleans, there was talk about how, in this sport that is so cruel to the old, it was time for someone to retire.
Two months before his 45th birthday, and with five losses in his last six fights, there was a feeling when Dan Henderson walked to the cage at the Smoothie King Center, that it could and should be his last such walk. This was in spite of the fact all week he said he was feeling great, and, win or lose, he planned on finishing his contract, which had several more fights to go. Then he connected and 28 seconds later his hand was being raised.
But there was a retirement on Saturday, to a unique and colorful character in the sport, Brian Ebersole. Ten years younger than Henderson, Ebersole, who started wrestling competitively at the age of five, knew that his body had already turned on him as he entered the cage for his 70th documented professional MMA fight. His actual number of fights is more than that, given that he dates back far enough in the sport to where record keep wasn't exactly perfect, and he has also fought under other rules.
Ebersole almost perfectly fits the description of a journeyman fighter. He could easily have been the Crash Davis of this sport, the fictional baseball minor leaguer made famous in portrayal by Kevin Costner in the movie "Bull Durham," For years, he was perhaps the most active MMA fighter on message boards using the name EIU Wrestler.
It took him 11 years, and 62 pro fights, before he was able to make it to the UFC, and that was almost an accident. When he got in, it was as a late replacement for a show in Sydney, Australia. By this point the twists of turns of a unique MMA career had taken the native of LaPorte, Ind., to Australia. When someone was needed to face Chris Lytle, he was considered at least good enough to fit the bill. He had recently beaten a former UFC champion, Carlos Newton, in Brisbane, Australia. He'd gone four rounds with Hector Lombard until his knee blew out in Sydney.
He ended up upsetting Lytle, and got the Fight of the Night bonus. And then he followed with three more wins, solidifying his position as a mid-level fighter on the major league level.
In fact, one would argue that the most impressive Ebersole fight of his career is one not listed as ever happening in his Wikipedia bio. In 2005, Ebersole, then living in San Jose, Calif., and training under Frank Shamrock, was booked by Strikeforce, before it was an MMA promotion, to be the victim in a San Shou fight against its biggest star, Cung Le. San Shou was a combination of kickboxing and takedowns. Le never lost under those rules because he could outstrike most of his opponents. Those he couldn't, he was able to take down at will and pile up points that way.
On that night, Ebersole stayed with Le throughout the five-round fight, and outstruck a prime Le. But Le scored repeated takedowns on the former Division I wrestler, and won what was both a close and controversial decision. At the time, MMA was still illegal in California. Once it was made legal the next year, Ebersole became one of its earliest characters.
Ebersole had wrestled at Eastern Illinois University, the same college where UFC Hall of Famer Matt Hughes was an All-American wrestler. The two started training together. Ebersole got into a fight, and was kicked out of college, which led to him starting a career in MMA at the age of 19.
A natural welterweight, in those days you fought who showed up against you. Early in his career, he fought Stephan Bonnar at light heavyweight, which only lasted 51 seconds. Two fights later, he fought 265-pound heavyweight Kerry "Meat Truck" Schall, losing that one as well.
On the first legal and sanctioned MMA show in California, also in San Jose, on March 10, 2006 at the HP Pavilion, a Strikeforce show that drew what is still the largest crowds in the U.S. ever to see the sport (18,265 fans), Ebersole won a decision over Oregon's Matt Horwich, who was a very solid and respected fighter of his time.
But more memorable was his cage entrance. As his music played, he was on the stage, cell phone in hand, ordering a pizza to be delivered.
A couple of months later, at the first MMA show ever held at the Cow Palace in San Francisco, one of the oldest and most historical major arenas in the U.S., things changed. He was fighting Shannon Ritch. Ritch was one of those early MMA characters who would seemingly fight every weekend, lose most of the time, and not all of his bouts were on the level. Ebersole had beaten him, easily, four years earlier in a fight in Monterrey, Mexico.
By this point Ebersole was known for his creative entrances, and came out on a chain, like he was a dog, held by a huge bodybuilder woman. Armando Garcia, who headed the California State Athletic Commission at the time, was so afraid of any kind of criticism for a sport that was so new and still very controversial, that many complained he was trying to legislate the fun out of it. Years later, in UFC, with ordering pizza on his cell phone while walking to a fight likely frowned upon, he ended up being best remembered for shaving his chest hair into different designs.
Ebersole toyed with Ritch for a few minutes, doing some flashy moves, including a cartwheel guard pass made famous in Japan by Kazushi Sakuraba. Ritch just wanted out and tapped to a move that would not have been a submission with most any other fighter. Garcia smelled a work, and suspended both men.
It wasn't a work, although Ebersole probably could have won the fight in less than the 3:46 the fight lasted had he chose to. Feeling no threat from Ritch, did some things that you wouldn't see in most MMA fights at the time. And he appeared upset when Ritch tapped out, even though he won, because he may have had a more spectacular finish in his head.
Under that definition of work, Muhammad Ali and a number of famous boxers who felt that putting on a show to entertain fans against overmatched opponents would have been routinely suspended.
So, banned in the U.S., he went to Australia, fell in love, and pretty much stayed there for years. Of late, he's been fighting out of Thailand. He was largely off the U.S. radar for years, until the UFC needed someone local on late notice to fight Lytle.
He did come back once, in 2007, but that didn't go well. Shamrock was coaching in the old IFL and brought in Ebersole for his San Jose Razorclaws team for a fight against Alex Schoenauer, a guy who may be remembered from being on the first season of The Ultimate Fighter with the likes of Forrest Griffin, Bonnar, Mike Swick, Kenny Florian, Josh Koscheck, Chris Leben and Diego Sanchez.
Ebersole lost that one on a close split decision, then failed a drug test for marijuana, and was suspended for a second time in California.
After the first round on Saturday night, Ebersole, who had taken damage from Omari Akhmedov's low kicks, including one that took out his right knee, decided, seemingly on the spur of the moment, that he was done with the fight, and his career. He later said that he had been hurting for some time. He had already made the decision it was to be his next-to-last fight, wanting to end his career on Nov. 15, when the UFC has its first show ever scheduled in Melbourne, Australia. But his body told him otherwise.
And he listened, or at least that's what his mind was saying after the fight. If this was the end of his career, he finished with a 51-17-1 record, taking one people of all sizes and shapes for 15 years, with one ridiculous no contest for the Ritch win being overturned.
Let's look at how Fortunes Changed for Five Fighters from Saturday's show:
DAN HENDERSON - A lot of people who are experts in their field hate to be wrong. But I'll bet most who wrote all week that Henderson should retire, had as big a smile on their face as Henderson did as Tim Boetsch quickly fell to the canvas.
Henderson (31-13) is one of those characters widely loved and universally respected. Fighters, his opponent included, would outright tell you he was one of their heroes growing up as the undersized former Olympic wrestler who had been a major name fighter for the past 17 years. But his results haven't been impressive dating back to his Nov. 19, 2011, win over Maurico "Shogun" Rua, at UFC 139, going 1-5. In his defense, the first two losses were competitive fights against top tier fighters in Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida. And because he's Dan Henderson, the other losses, to Gegard Mousasi, Vitor Belfort and Daniel Cormier, were to top ranked fighters.
While a lot of very good fighters would have gone 1-5 against that competition, Mousasi and Belfort were quick knockout losses and Cormier rag dolled him wrestling.
Between his accomplishments, including winning a 32-man open weight tournament in Japan in 1999, where he beat several of the top heavyweights in the world at the time, a win over Fedor Emelianenko, holding Pride championships in two weight classes at the same time, and a Strikeforce title as a small light heavyweight, he's a lock for two different spots in the UFC Hall of Fame. His career accomplishments guarantee him one, and the first Shogun fight guarantees him a second.
But once the euphoria and proving people wrong wears off, reality sets in. Nobody ever denied the power in Henderson's right hand. In many ways, Henderson's final days are reminiscent of that of Chuck Liddell. Even with reflexes slowed and the chin gone, people still loved him, and he still could put anyone down if he connected. Last year, in Hendo's only win since 2011, he was looking bad the entire fight in a rematch with Rua. Then, in the third round, he connected.
So, this is the reality of Henderson. He is not going to be a contender for the title, nor will he put together a string of wins. But he is a star, and in the right position, people will want to see him fight again.
His best next opponent should be Michael Bisping. Bisping is also a star. Bisping, and anyone who has been a fan of MMA for any length of time, and even people who aren't, can visualize Henderson's knockout of Bisping at UFC 100 as one of the most famous punches in history. Those who saw it when it happened, also likely remember cringing at the second punch, a far more unnerving spectacle when Henderson blasted an already knocked out Bisping.
The two were coming off coaching The Ultimate Fighter, where Bisping built up a rivalry single-handedly, while Henderson laid back didn't say much, and with the benefit of hindsight, let his fists do the talking. Whether Bisping wins or loses against Thales Leites in his next fight on July 18 in Glasgow, Scotland, it's the biggest fight either man could do at this point in their career. And with Henderson coming off a win, it's the best time to do it. While not a title eliminator or anything close, the names and the back story of such a fight could make it a strong television main event, or solid support on a pay-per-view show.
BEN ROTHWELL - After finishing Matt Mitrione with a front choke, Rothwell (35-9) was not shy about what he wanted next. He said he figured that Stipe Miocic deserved the next heavyweight title shot, and that he and Andrei Arlovski should fight over the next title shot.
It's hard to imagine a world where Rothwell as a heavyweight title challenger can happen in 2016. But that speaks volumes about the depth in that division. Arlovski vs. Rothwell does make perfect sense. However, I can see UFC making Arlovski vs. Alistair Overeem instead, leaving Rothwell on the outside and needing a next opponent.
Arlovski and Overeem are training in the same camp, so that may help Rothwell's chances. What also may help Rothwell out is that UFC has been trying to match Overeem and Junior Dos Santos for years, although that winner would also be in the title picture.
Rothwell does have three straight wins, including beating Overeem. But one of those, over Brandon Vera, is controversial since his testosterone level was over the limits. But his hometown Wisconsin commission didn't overturn the result of that fight.
If it's not Arlovski, Rothwell's next foe could be Travis Browne (17-3-1) or Frank Mir (17-9), provided Mir beats Todd Duffee on July 15.
DUSTIN POIRIER - Poirier (18-4) scored his second straight first-round knockout since moving up to lightweight, taking out Yancy Medeiros in just 2:38. While he made his name in UFC as a featherweight, he's 10-1 in the heavier division.
In a division with so much depth, the climb to the top is a lot slower. Three prospective next opponents offer different arguments. Rashid Magomedov (18-1) is probably the best fighter of the three, but isn't well known. If UFC wants to give Poirier a real test to see where he stands, that's the fight. Diego Sanchez (25-7) is a name fighter, known for exciting fights. At this stage, Poirier should beat Sanchez, and the fight should be exciting and a win would probably help Poirier with the fans more than others. But Sanchez has also made noise about moving to featherweight. In between is Michael Chiesa (12-2), a former TUF winner, who wouldn't provide the fireworks fight Sanchez would, but is enough of a name that would mean something to the public if Poirier picked up a win.
BRIAN ORTEGA - Ortega (9-0, 1 no contest) looked like someone to watch one year ago when the Gracie-trained fighter ran through Mike De La Torre in his UFC debut. But the hype died quickly when he tested positive for Drostanolone, lost his win, and was suspended.
His first fight back, Saturday's win over Thiago Tavares, was a genuine contender for Fight of the Year. Perhaps the best next test right now would be Clay Guida (32-15). If he can take Guida, it'll vault him into top ten fights. What's notable is Guida likes taking fights to the ground, but Ortega loves being on the ground. Another would be the winner of the July 11 fight with Jeremy Stephens (23-11) vs. Dennis Bermudez (14-4), as Stephens would test his striking while Bermudez would give an indication of his level everywhere.
FRANCISCO RIVERA - Rivera, who fights at bantamweight, is a former college football player whose luck has been nothing but bad.
In his previous fight, on Dec. 6, against Urijah Faber, Rivera (11-4, 1 no contest) was more than holding his own until an eye poke, unseen by a ref, led to a quick submission by Faber. By all rights, that fight should have been ruled a no contest, but Nevada didn't technically have rules in place to overturn a decision unless the foul was on the finishing move, as opposed to the foul setting up the finishing move.
Then, with Alex Caceres on Saturday, he scored a 21-second knockout, which would normally be a guarantee for a $50,000 bonus. But on a show with a record tying seven first-round finishes, and a fight of the year candidate, Rivera was the odd man out.
Rivera was very clear that he wants a rematch with Faber. It's the best match for him, and really, it's also the fair thing to do given the circumstances of the prior bout. Faber has also talked about staying at featherweight. If Faber is out of the picture, Rivera would make a good next test for Aljamain Sterling (11-0), or an interesting fight to see where former flyweight contender John Lineker (25-7) stacks up in his new division.