Generally speaking, the UFC tries not to headline its pay-per-view events with fights between guys whose last bouts ended in losses. UFC 160’s main event was a heavyweight title fight between champion Cain Velasquez, who had dispatched Junior dos Santos in convincing fashion to regain the title late 2012, and challenger Antonio Silva, who earned his shot at the belt by upsetting Alistair Overeem in February. UFC 162 will feature the undefeated Chris Weidman in a middleweight title match against the best fighter in MMA history, longtime 185-pound champion Anderson Silva. UFC 163 will see featherweight champion José Aldo (undefeated since 2005) taking on Anthony Pettis, who is 3-0 in his last three fights. You get the point.

Only in extreme circumstances, and with exactly the right pair of fighters, could the UFC dare to sell a pay-per-view event in which the main event is between two fighters who are a combined 1-3 in their last four fights. It just so happens that UFC 161 has fallen victim to those very extremes.

The event was first supposed to have an interim bantamweight title fight as its headlining attraction, with champion Renan Barão taking on Eddie Wineland for the belt. That fight was scrapped after Barão ended up pulling out of the fight with an injury. Fortunately, planned co-main-eventers Rashad Evans and Dan Henderson have remained healthy, and thus, UFC 161: Barão vs. Wineland became UFC 161: Evans vs. Henderson.

The seemingly smooth transition between main events speaks volumes about the level of success achieved and popularity gained by the two new headliners. Rashad Evans is truly one of the UFC’s “home-grown” fighters, having competed under the company’s banner in 16 of his 21 professional bouts. He began his UFC career with a nine-fight unbeaten streak en route to capturing the UFC’s light heavyweight title in December 2008. He would lose the belt in his first defense, but would then rattle off four more victories in a row. Evans has lost his last two—to light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and most recently to Antonio Rogerio Nogueira—but nevertheless remains a significant draw for the company. Evans has remained in the light heavyweight top 10 for several years (he’s currently ranked sixth on the UFC’s list) and could still get one more shot at the belt if he’s able to string together a few more wins.

One would be hard-pressed to find a more similar opponent for Evans than Dan Henderson in terms of where the two find themselves in their careers. Like Evans, Henderson is a former champion, winning belts in two of Pride FC’s weight classes before that promotion’s closure as well as having been Strikeforce’s final light heavyweight champion. In addition, Henderson has also fought for both the middleweight and light heavyweight belts in the UFC, though both times in losing efforts. The ageless Hendo put on one of the best performances of his career against Mauricio Rua in November 2011 in a battle that won the two Fight of the Year honors, but lost his most recent fight to Lyoto Machida. Still, he remains in the third spot in the UFC’s 205-pound rankings.

Despite their cumulative accomplishments and high rankings, though, it still seems like Evans and Henderson will need to do more than get past one another to be considered yet again for a title shot. As guys who have gone to the well on multiple occasions and came back empty-handed, the UFC will likely be reluctant to try to put together another championship opportunity for either fighter until Jon Jones has dispatched every other possible opponent. This is especially true for Evans, who has already lost to him.

Jones is already lined up with the second-ranked Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165 in September, so whoever wins that fight won’t likely compete again until 2014. That fight could very well end up being between the champion and the winner of the upcoming Lyoto Machida-Phil Davis showdown at UFC 163. Elsewhere in the UFC’s 205-pound top 10, Glover Teixeira (No. 4) is coming off of a submission victory at UFC 160, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (No. 5) was supposed to face Mauricio Rua (No. 7) on Saturday, but an injury prevented him from competing. Instead, Rua will take on Chael Sonnen in the main event of the UFC’s first event on Fox Sports 1. And then there’s Gegard Mousasi (No. 9) and Ryan Bader (No. 10), definite threats in the division, to be sure.

Needless to say, the light heavyweight division remains, as always, a crowded one around the top. With all of the other fighters vying for title opportunities, then, it doesn’t seem like a win on Saturday would really improve the standing of either in the weight class. Instead, the victor at UFC 161 would likely end up facing yet another top-10 opponent in the hopes that with enough momentum and a little luck he’ll get to face the champion.

Of the two, it’s probably Henderson who has the clearer path to the title. He’s more highly ranked than Evans and is further removed from his last UFC light heavyweight title shot. If Jon Jones gets past Alexander Gustafsson, Henderson will be the highest-ranked fighter at 205 who has not yet faced “Bones.” Finally, Henderson will be 43 years old in just a few months, so perhaps the UFC will send him off with one more shot at glory, knowing that his time in the cage is likely coming to a close.

If there hadn’t been the injury to Renan Barão, there’s little chance the UFC would have ever placed Rashad Evans vs. Dan Henderson in the main event spot of a pay-per-view event. Despite their recent performances and Octagon longevity, though, both fighters remain among the elite in their division. While a win might not mean an immediate title shot for Evans and Henderson, a loss will likely bump either fighter out of title contention, perhaps forever. There will be no lack of motivation for the two veterans on Saturday night, and the fight should be a good one.

Photo: Rashad Evans (L) squares off with Dan Henderson (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.