Chaotic Time for PRIDE Culminates in Night of Upsets

Night of Upsets

By Josh Gross and Dave Mandel Feb 25, 2007
LAS VEGAS, Feb. 24 — It is undoubtedly a turbulent period for the PRIDE Fighting Championships.

Constantly rumored to be in financial peril and thus on the verge of sale, the Japanese mixed martial arts organization made its second trek to the backyard of the UFC on Saturday in a desperate search for stability.

The steadiest of all PRIDE assets have been its fighters, chief among them middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva (Pictures), the Brazilian mauler who first captured the 205-pound belt against Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) before capturing the hearts of fight fans across the globe.

Under the umbrella of a teetering promotion, Silva stepped into the ring Saturday to defend his title for the fifth time — and, almost fittingly, ceded its control.

It was a different era when Silva first met Dan Henderson (Pictures), tonight's challenger, in December 2000. With American MMA crumbling under the pressure of ill-informed politicians, a kowtowing cable industry and, as one would expect, a dwindling audience, Japanese promoters — with their liberal rules and deep pockets — made Nippon the dominant landscape for the sport.

Having taken the 1999 King of Kings RINGS tournament, Henderson was the known commodity in Japan when he and Silva, a replacement on two-weeks notice for fellow Brazilian Vitor Belfort (Pictures), met in Tokyo.

Henderson, the current PRIDE 183-pound champion, nearly knocked out the Chute Boxe fighter in the opening round that cold night. No matter that Silva's left eye had swollen to the size of an orange by fight's end, the Brazilian survived, pounded Henderson and walked out of the ring a decision winner — and into a fight against Kazushi Sakuraba (Pictures) at PRIDE 13.

The rest, as they say, is history.

As important as that winter was for Silva, it will be remembered more as the time when a little known fighter manager from Boston convinced two childhood friends to purchase the Ultimate Fighting Championship — the dwindling U.S. MMA standard-bearer — in hopes that they could rekindle in what effect was a dead sport.

Six years later, with the UFC (and MMA in general throughout the U.S.) exploding to unimagined heights, it was PRIDE, once the most influential of all Japanese promoters, attempting to establish itself here as it lost a foothold at home.

Under this backdrop Silva made his American debut in front of a vocal crowd of 13,180 at the Thomas & Mack Center against Henderson, who was put in the fight more as a selling point for U.S. fans than a perceived challenger ala Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (Pictures).

Knowing it would be counterproductive to trade power shots, Henderson, outweighed by five pounds on the scales Friday and at least triple that tonight, used his speed, dangerous hands, and often-forgotten wrestling ability to dismantle the Brazilian in less than three rounds.

Some suggested Silva was foolish for making this fight his first since being badly knocked out by Mirko Filipovic (Pictures) last September. From the outset, they appeared to be correct.

Silva moved backwards more in the first round than any of his other contests in recent memory. Even when Henderson slipped to the floor in the early going, Silva (31-7-1, 1 NC) hardly pressured with the mean shots that earned him the "Axe Murderer" moniker.

Continued stall warnings from referee Yuji Shimada changed little.

"I didn't want to get taken down in the first round," said Henderson, now 22-5-0. "He kind of got on top. I guess I got a little bit of a slow start but once I got going I felt great. I wanted to just keep him guessing if I was going to take him down or not. I wanted to take him down and pound him on top."

The opening stanza during the five-round title fight — under the auspices of the Unified Mixed Martial Arts Rules employed by the Nevada State Athletic Commission — came to an end as Silva landed his best punch of a fight, a clubbing left hook that seared its way into the challenger's face. Henderson took the blow, and returned a couple of his own.

"His punches didn't affect me," Henderson said of Silva's power. "I came out smiling every time because I was thinking to myself I'm going to hit him harder next time because his counter punches weren't hurting me."

Silva, 30, fought from his guard for much of the second frame, where he endured an increasingly efficient Henderson ground attack — made more impressive by the revelation afterwards that the challenger had broken his right hand in the first round.

A deft shoulder strike appeared to open a cut adjacent to the Chute Boxe fighter's right eye, and Henderson continued to pound away until he was forced to defend an armbar from the bottom.

The 36-year-old two-time U.S. Olympic wrestler backed out of the submission and unloaded with another series of shots. "I wanted to make him pay on the ground, especially in the first couple of rounds," said the new champion. "I was right on track to do that."

Having failed to do much through 10 minutes, Silva had to assert himself in the pivotal middle period. But Henderson, fighting out of his Team Quest gym in Temecula, Calf., held up well under the increased pressure of low kicks and wide power punches.

Out of nowhere a beautiful spinning-backfist, connecting more with the forearm than fist, slammed into Silva's jaw and sent him reeling. The warrior from Curitiba tried to stand his ground, eating another straight right from Henderson before a counter left hook dropped him to the canvas. An additional strike hit its mark as Shimada jumped in at 2:08 of the third to officially end Silva's reign.

"This was the biggest fight of my career," Henderson said. "This was the most that was on the line for me."

Silva, who went to a local hospital, was unavailable for comment afterwards. However his teammate Mauricio Rua (Pictures) indicated that the 2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix winner was fine.

"I know how hard Wanderlei trained, and today for sure he did not give his best," Rua said.

Rua, relaying a message for his fallen teammate, made a promise: "The middleweight champion belt will come back to Chute Boxe."

Consecutive losses (albeit to "Cro Cop" and Henderson) severely tarnish the possibility of a bout between Silva and UFC 205-pound king Chuck Liddell (Pictures). And even if they do meet at some point, a bout between the two is significantly devalued unless Silva can regain the title he held for over half a decade.

On the surface a Henderson-Liddell clash doesn't seem so attractive. But give fans some time to get used to the idea of Dan Henderson (Pictures) "PRIDE Middleweight Champion" and they might clamor for him to face Liddell.

If we're to believe the words of Henderson's camp, their man would love a chance to face PRIDE heavyweight champion Fedor Emelianenko (Pictures) — now the undisputed king of PRIDE fighters.

And after a performance like tonight's, what's not to believe?
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