A Battle They Didn’t Build

Sep 11, 2007
LONDON -- A title unification bout has been a salivating thought for years.

It happened Saturday in London at the 02 Arena, but the sellout crowd seemed to have dry mouth.

More than 20,000 fans were in attendance for the historical bout between UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton Jackson (Pictures) and PRIDE 205-pound titleholder Dan Henderson (Pictures).

The man who received the most support? Randy Couture (Pictures).

Fans broke into frantic cheers of approval when the UFC heavyweight champion appeared on the big screen. Entire sections gave him standing ovations.

Roars of that magnitude failed to materialize for the champion-versus-champion main event.

Perhaps fans were emotionally drained from turning against fellow countryman Michael Bisping (Pictures), who they showered with anger after a questionable decision. Perhaps there's a better explanation.

The historic implications of the sport's first major unification bout were sacrificed as nothing more than another subtitle tagged to the event -- a "Respect" or an "Uprising."

Inside the 02 Arena was a stiff breeze of energy when it should have been a hurricane.

Nothing suggested the importance of the tangle. Black and white pre-fight interviews blared on multiple jumbo screens to introduce the bout, just as all other bouts were introduced. Bruce Buffer injected his usual blast of electricity during introductions, but if the pre-fight promotion had been as compelling as the bout itself, the arena's decibel levels would have muted "the veteran voice of the Octagon."

A perpetual quote machine, Jackson had the demanding task of generating excitement for his fight in the shadows of another stunning, and recent, performance by Couture and the upcoming return of Chuck Liddell (Pictures).

The burden was on Rampage to build a fight against his friend, who has a no-nonsense attitude and hasn't appeared in the Octagon since 1998.

The UFC had marketed Henderson as "Hollywood," but he was introduced at the fight as "Dangerous." Although Henderson's nickname has always been up in the air, coherence should have been a prerequisite for presenting one of the most storied fighters in the sport in one of his biggest fights.

The Team Quest pioneer was half of the equation on this historic night, however it felt as if the multiple-time PRIDE champion had been plucked from the Land of the Rising Sun and thrown in the cage without shaking hands with the UFC's extensive fan base. That was apparent when he entered to sporadic recognition.

It is hard to tell a good story with an obscure co-star. No protagonists and antagonists were drawn in this one. No villains or heroes. Though such polarized characters aren't required for a fight (Gonzaga was Couture's friendly opposition), some story is necessary.

Henderson is one of the best fighters in the world. Yet going into this bout he was defined merely by a piece of hardware -- a belt that carries less weight with no organization behind it.

Neither Henderson nor Jackson received an ear-busting welcome. Still, the California-based competitors did what they do in sold-out arenas and empty training centers alike: they fought.

Both left everything in the cage. Both faced adversity. Both responded to the challenge.

For five rounds Jackson and Henderson displayed technical grappling and crowd-pleasing strikes in a true war of wills.

It was, put simply, a championship fight.

Afterward Jackson was declared "still the UFC light heavyweight champion." Not the unified champion.

Rampage had become the first man to unite the PRIDE and UFC belts, yet he was not presented with the PRIDE title post-fight. Imagine watching the first boxer capture the world's two most prestigious championships. That awe-inspiring thought escaped Saturday's struggle.

Suspense master Alfred Hitchcock believed that the anticipation is better than the bang. With Jackson-Henderson, the bang was better. But then there wasn't much anticipation for comparison.

Regardless, it was a pleasure to watch the two champions. It was a good fight on a good night for the UFC. The promotion sold more merchandise Saturday than the Rolling Stones did in London.

It failed, however, to sell its best product.
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