Only a handful of times per year do a pair of fighters step into the Octagon with a real chance to receive the coveted “Fight Of The Year” award from the UFC. This also means that a handful times, two is the number of fighters that have the background and the gusto to garner such an award. The award is not about money or fame, per se, but it is about having the ability to say for the rest of their lives that they went in the cage and let it all hang out.

In November 2011, not only was Dan “Hendo” Henderson one of the recipients of Fight of the Night and eventually Fight of the Year for his five-round battle with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua at UFC 139, that fight earned him what most consider Fight of the Century. This weekend at UFC 161, airing live from the MTS Centre in Winninpeg, Manitoba, Canada, Hendo once again will be facing an opponent that has the ability to produce a fight of the century.

For the night’s main event, Hendo will be facing “Suga” Rashad Evans in a three-round battle that is sure to paint a new chapter in the UFC light heavyweight picture. In fact, the winner of this match between two top-five fighters could be in line for a shot at Jon Jones’ belt. In their combined 59 pro MMA appearances, these men have gone to decision a total of 32 times. Needless to say, this match-up of former champs is sure to be an all-out slugfest.

Dan Henderson held belts as the UFC 17 Middleweight Tournament winner, Pride middleweight champion, and Strikeforce light heavyweight champion. He has one of the longest and most storied careers in the sport, all of which began after he represented the U.S.A. in a couple of Summer Olympics. Evans, who also had a run as an amateur wrestler, is a former UFC light heavyweight champion and winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Season Two. Both men bring great pedigrees into the ring for one of the most exciting match-ups of the year.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up. And as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Henderson – 10, Evans – 9

Wrestling background or not, in the world of MMA, Henderson is a knockout artist more than anything else. He has crisp striking, good footwork, and a power right that will knockout just about anyone that circles into it. Ask Michael Bisping. Evans, while not nearly known as that heavy of a hitter, has crazy head and body movement, in addition to very snappy punches. He has gone the distance recently with light heavyweight champ Jon Jones and Antonio Rogerio Noguiera, who is a former boxing champion.

Evans may have only one knockout loss on his record, but when he got put to sleep by Lyoto Machida at UFC 98, it was not pretty, meaning his eyes rolled into the back of his head. That knockout revealed a jaw that does not appear to be as sturdy as once believed. In fact, that was the first time he ever tasted defeat. This is not the case with Hendo.

Hendo has a face that looks like it has been belted with a shovel, yet he has never gotten knocked out, and has been the distance with guys like Rich Franklin, Wanderlei Silva, Antonio Rodrigo Noguiera, and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, in addition to his fight with Shogun, who is known as a dominant striker. Hendo has an impressive 13 wins by knockout and his right hand could put the Man of Steel to sleep.

If this fight stays standing, it could turn out very bad for Evans.

Wrestling: Henderson – 10, Evans – 9

Looking at both of these fighters as individuals, with no comparison, both are very dominant wrestlers. However, when comparing the two, there is just no contest.

Rashad Evans came into MMA with a wrestling background. He competed as an NCAA Division I wrestler at Michigan State University and ended his career only one win away from achieving All-American status. His opponent, however, has a very different story.

Dan Henderson is a lifelong wrestler and has competed at the very highest level in the sport. As early as 14 years old, he had won a silver medal at the Pan-American Championships in Greco-Roman, and by the 1996, he was competing in his second Summer Olympic Games in a row. He holds numerous gold medals with his latest coming in the Pan-Am Games in 2000.

In MMA, Henderson controls his opponents with ease. While he does have a few standing knockouts, most of them have come in the form of ground-and-pound, the wrestler’s sweet spot in MMA. While Evans does a very good job at body control, utilizing his own wrestling prowess, he lacks the power style that Henderson’s Greco-Roman background brings to the table.

Both men are great wrestlers, but Hendo won a Lifetime Service to Wrestling award for a reason.

Submission Grappling: Henderson – 9, Evans – 10

Unfortunately, in MMA, the term “ground game” gets tossed around rather frivolously, as does “wrestling.” While wrestling is typically thought of as a mat sport, this fighting modality is also useful in powering an opponent up against the cage, controlling them, and maintaining top position on the ground. Hendo may have a huge advantage in wrestling, but as Royce Gracie showed the world in the very first UFC event, there is the other component to the ground game, submission grappling.

Rashad Evans is a much better submission artist and slickster on the ground than his opponent. He holds black belts in BJJ and coach Greg Jackson’s Gaidojutsu. Hendo, on the other hand, obviously trains BJJ techniques, but he has not pursued any belts. However, in this fight, none of that may matter.

In their respective careers, both men have only earned two submission victories, one was by striking and all of them took place in the first two years of their careers. Evans hasn’t submitted anybody since 2004, and Henderson hasn’t since 1999. While Evans may have no losses by submission, he hasn’t really face anybody that would be considered a submission ace, outside of  Rogerio Noguiera, but Hendo has his three submission losses at the hands of both Noguiera brothers and Anderson Silva.

Honestly, if this one hits the ground, which it likely won’t for any kind of grappling spectacle, Henderson holds the upper hand in the wrestling aspect, but Evans has more formal training in submission grappling, so Evans will hold the slight advantage, as long as he’s not getting his head punched in.

X-factor

Both Henderson and Evans area entering this cage off decision losses in February to highly-ranked fighters, yet, both men could earn another shot at UFC gold. Henderson’s wrestling background is definitely the outlier when looking at pure skill sets, but Rashad is a former champ, too, and he really needs this one to avoid a three-fight losing streak that theoretically could put his contract in jeopardy. The big question is: who is hungrier?

At 42 years of age, Hendo is looking at his possible last title run of his career, and a loss to Evans would probably nail the coffin on his future title hopes. As alluded to, an Evans loss could get him out of the organization altogether. If he was 26 years old, that might not be the end of the world, but at 33, it might take Evans until he’s an aging 36 before he would ever get back in the organization for a taste of UFC gold, if ever.

Unfortunately for Evans, the X-factor goes to Hendo in this one. Even as one of the oldest competitors in UFC history, his last five fights have resulted in a 4-1 record with 3 of those wins coming by way of knockout, and his only loss by split decision to the No. 2-ranked light heavyweight in the UFC. Evans has had a lackluster four decisions in his recent 3-2 record, and he just doesn’t appear as hungry as he once did. His loss to former teammate Jon Jones seems to have taken the wind out of his sails, and he’s just not the same. Hendo still has that fire, and it will likely come out again on Saturday night.

Total: Henderson – 29, Evans – 28

Verdict: One fight away from his possibly last shot at a UFC light heavyweight title, and Hendo has everything he needs to secure a win. He may not have the youth he once did, but, like Randy Couture, Henderson appears ageless as a pro MMA fighter. Evans has had a tough run and it only appears to be tougher. Henderson has nothing to lose and Evans has everything to lose, which puts Evans at a disadvantage. Evans may have a shot if this one hits the mat with him on top, but as Hendo has shown time and time again, his wrestling is nearly unbeatable, outside of a few world-class BJJ practitioners. Look for Henderson to take this one, positioning himself for a possible shot at the UFC light heavyweight title.

Photo: Dan Henderson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)