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Bisping vs. Henderson 2 fight has potential for one of great moments in UFC history

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

When  Dan Henderson steps into the Octagon Saturday in the middle of the night in Manchester, England to revive his 2009 rivalry with Michael Bisping, he will become the oldest man ever to compete for the UFC championship.

Even more remarkable is that Henderson has competed at the highest level in both wrestling and MMA -- two sports unforgiving when it comes to tearing up one's knees, back, neck and shoulders -- for roughly a quarter-century. Saturday's title match is more than 24 years after Henderson first represented the U.S. in the Olympics in Greco-Roman wrestling.

Henderson was an elite world-class athlete before some fighters on the current UFC roster were even born. All of his contemporaries in both sports -- names like Randy Couture, Mark Coleman, Mark Kerr, Matt Lindland and Don Frye -- are long gone. Vitor Belfort, who fights Gegard Mousasi in the semifinal on Saturday, was actually fighting before Henderson had his first MMA fight, but Henderson was an Olympian when Belfort was 15 years old.

He goes back far enough that the sport he was in then barely resembles the sport he's in now. On Saturday, Bisping gets a chance to remove his own version of a seven-year itch. And Henderson has the opportunity to not just accomplish the one thing he's never been able to achieve in his career, but also create a moment the likes of which has never happened in the history of the sport.

Dan Henderson started as a fighter in a 176-pound weight division tournament in Brazil in 1997, which, despite having no professional fights under his belt, he won with two quick finishes.

The idea at the time was to use these legalized street fights to pick up money so that he, Couture and Lindland -- all living in Portland, Oregon at the time -- could fund training and try and make the 2000 Olympic team. It would have been Henderson's third go-around, after failing to medal the first two times.

In 1999, after Henderson won a UFC tournament to earn a title shot against then under-200 pound champion Frank Shamrock, he didn't seem to care about that title shot. To him, as he said after winning, his primary goal wasn't a UFC championship, it was all about making the Olympic team. Henderson never got that shot, nor did he make the Olympic team. Because of not taking that title match, more than 17 years later, even though he's considered by many as an all-time great and one of the best of the pioneers, he has never held UFC gold. He's lost in two prior shots, at UFC 75 and UFC 82, and earned a couple of more shots that ended up never happening.

He became viewed as a fighter when he won a 32-man tournament in Japan, an open weight tourney that featured mostly heavyweights, including Alistair Overeem and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. He took home a $250,000 first prize. Suddenly, he was a full-time professional MMA fighter, and one of the big American stars during the Pride era.  .

He held the Pride middleweight (205 pounds at the time) and welterweight (183 pounds) titles at the same time when that organization folded. But he lost a competitive decision to the larger Quinton "Rampage" Jackson in what is still among the most-watched MMA fights ever on cable television, UFC 75, in what was billed as a unification match at 205 pounds.

He also later held the Strikeforce light heavyweight title even though, like in the heavyweight tournament in Japan and the Pride middleweight division, he was significantly smaller than most of the opposition. He once knocked out Fedor Emelianenko as a heavyweight. He also had what many believe was the best fight in UFC history in his 2011 decision win over Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 139.

The draw of Saturday's fight is completely different from any other UFC fight in years. There is a possibility, but not a probability, of an unheard of moment. A 46-year-old man who people have been calling on to retire for years, can end his career the way every athlete hopes, and almost none ever achieve, at the pinnacle, as the world champion.

This storyline enabled Henderson to leapfrog ahead of the "big four" of the middleweight division, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo "Jacare" Souza and Yoel Romero, all of whom are higher rated and, from any kind of a logical standpoint, far more deserving of a title opportunity.

But none have the potential to deliver the real-life movie climax end of a career moment. It's the kind of moment that only one UFC fight in history -- Couture's heavyweight title win over Tim Sylvia in 2007 after coming out of retirement at the age of 43 -- even remotely comes close to.

It's why in an era when so many title fights get criticized, with the idea that the challenger isn't really deserving or that the higher contender isn't marketable, critics have kept quiet about a guy who has lost six of his last nine fights taking the opportunity.

In other weight classes we see legitimate contenders threatening to leave the promotion over being bypassed, but the respect for Henderson is such that the more deserving contenders are quiet about what could be called a mockery of championship matchmaking.

The Manchester Arena sold out tickets the first day they were put on sale for this match. 

Granted, the U.K. sellout is because Bisping, who grew up in nearby Liverpool, had become the country's first UFC champion and was defending in his home country. But the pay-per-view numbers, whatever they may be, will be based on the idea of something that probably won't happen, but absolutely could happen, which is a repeat of something any UFC fan of any tenure remembers vividly, but with even more emotion when it's over.

At UFC 100, back on July 11, 2009, Henderson and Bisping fought after a season of antagonizing each other on The Ultimate Fighter reality show. Henderson spent the entire season as the quiet guy, saying little, but seemingly bottling up waiting for an explosion against the guy who unrelentingly taunted him.

It was one of the big three fights on what was, by far, the biggest UFC event up to that point in history. Henderson knocked out Bisping, and then, in a move that would have likely been viewed as hideous had a fighter not as popular done it, blasted the already knocked out Bisping with one last "H-Bomb." He followed by talking about how much satisfaction he derived from the legal but needless and absolutely brutal last punch. The sequence was one of the most replayed clips in the history of the sport.

He was supposed to get a title shot at Anderson Silva after that win, but Silva turned down the fight since he'd already beaten Henderson once before at UFC 82. Instead, Strikeforce offered Henderson a better contract, and he was gone from UFC. Long after he'd returned, he was set for a light heavyweight title shot in 2012 with Jon Jones at UFC 151, but missed it due to a knee injury. Then, a split decision loss to Lyoto Machida took him out of the title picture.  

For years Bisping wanted revenge for that knockout and the one blow too many. For years Henderson denied it. He noted he had nothing left to prove, and there was no way he could even remotely surpass that moment with Bisping.

Then, seven years later, along after both men were written off as being top tier, Bisping wound up as a late replacement who was expected to be led to slaughter against Rockhold, and ended up as champion.

Henderson, long since written off as a contender, on the same night in Los Angeles, knocked out Hector Lombard and brought the crowd to near tears as his entire family celebrated in the ring with him for what many expected to be his last time in the cage.

But suddenly, he had every reason to want Bisping, and Bisping had every reason to want him.

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