Dan Henderson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)History Lessons: Brazil Open Fight ’97 and the Early Dan Henderson and Kevin Randleman The MMA Corner Staff March 22, 2014 Spotlight Every fighter in the UFC, whether champion, legend or debutant, has to start somewhere. That somewhere usually isn’t the big show. Occasionally, multiple future stars end up gathered on a single regional card. At the time, this card may not seem significant, but years down the road, we can look back in hindsight and marvel at how stacked that event turned out to be. That’s exactly what we’ll do in this series, called History Lessons. So, let’s jump in the time machine and travel back. The date was June 15, 1997, and the location was Brazil. It was time for Brazil Open Fight ’97. Real American Wrestling (RAW) Team vs. Hammer House. Dan Henderson vs. a mob of angry fans. Kevin Randleman vs. Tom Erikson’s fist. Ring girls vs. the concept of leaving something to the imagination. Brazil Open FIght ’97 was many things. Yet, the greatest significance of the event came in its role of serving as the first stage for Dan Henderson’s MMA career and the final stage from which Kevin Randleman launched his UFC and Pride career. Henderson had only two weeks of mixed martial arts training under his belt when he stepped into the cage that evening, but he was no stranger to the world of combat sports. He had wrestled in high school and college, and represented the United States in the 1992 and 1996 Olympic Games as a member of the Greco-Roman wrestling team. His entry into the event was to coincide with that of RAW teammates Randy Couture and Tom Erikson, but Couture was invited to fight in the UFC and therefore could not fight at the Brazilian event. Henderson and Erikson, though, made the trip, and each found success. Henderson’s appearance came in the lightweight tournament, which featured athletes at or below 176 pounds. The other fighters in the bracket were Carlson Gracie protege Crezio de Souza, Hammer House’s Eric Smith and a 7-1 prospect named Jose “Pele” Landi-Jons. The two Brazilians were viewed as favorites, primarily because the local fans knew very little about Henderson and Smith. Henderson’s debut came against de Souza, a fighter with a 1-1 record at the time. De Souza, who had competed as a member of the Brazilian wrestling team, had some knowledge of Henderson, but he didn’t have an answer for the American in the cage. Approximately five and a half minutes into the contest, the referee halted the bout and awarded the TKO victory to Henderson. The crowd was not happy, and de Souza and the official had to appeal to the angry fans in order to maintain Henderson’s safety. Henderson’s win over de Souza allowed the native Californian, who was just 26 years old at the time, to advance to the finals of the lightweight bracket. There, he clashed with Eric Smith. Smith represented Hammer House, the other major camp of American wrestlers-turned-MMA-fighters. He was also making his pro debut at the event. To get to the finals, Smith first had to go through Landi-Jons. Landi-Jons launched his career with seven straight wins, including two victories over Jorge Patino, before suffering his first loss. He was looking to rebound from the defeat when he met Smith in the Brazil Open Fight cage. The two went the distance in a one-round, 20-minute bout, and Smith emerged with the decision verdict. That set up the first of two RAW vs. Hammer House tourney finals at the event. Henderson’s second fight was even better than his first. He needed just 30 seconds to sink in a guillotine choke on his rival for the win. It was an impressive first night from Henderson. With his teammate, Couture, already in the UFC, it wasn’t long before “Hendo” was beckoned to join the promotion. In fact, his very next outing, on May 15, 1998, Henderson fought in the UFC 17 middleweight tournament. Henderson won the tourney with victories over Allan Goes and Carlos Newton. The show also marked the UFC debuts of notables Newton and Chuck Liddell. From there, Henderson constructed a legendary career that included five wins in taking home top honors in the open weight Rings King of Kings 1999 tournament, a run as a two-division champion in Pride, a Strikeforce title reign, a 13-5 record under the Pride banner and a 6-5 mark in the UFC thus far. The other competitors in the lightweight bracket didn’t fare quite as well. Landi-Jons built a reputation as a top fighter, going on a 12-2 run in which he picked up a win over Matt Hughes and suffered his only losses against Liddell and Dave Menne. However, following his win over Hughes, Pele went on a five-fight skid that included two losses in the Pride ring. Those two Pride appearances were the only time that Landi-Jons graced the grandest stages of the MMA world. Now 40 years old, he last competed in November 2013 and holds a career record that stands at 28-15. He has yet to fight in the UFC. Henderson’s first foe, de Souza, agreed to a rematch with Henderson for a later event. However, de Souza suffered a career-ending eye injury in training that prevented the bout from taking place. He never fought again and ended his career with a 1-2 record. Smith also failed to return to action after his debut that night. With one win and one loss in the lightweight tournament, his career came to a close. While Henderson was asserting RAW Team supremacy over the lightweight bracket, Erikson was doing the same in the heavyweight tournament. The Purdue University wrestling coach and two-time NCAA Division I All-American had to navigate a bracket that included Hammer House’s Kevin Randleman, whose record stood at 5-1 heading into the tournament, and a pair of Brazilians—Silvio Vieira and Gustavo Homem de Neve—who entered the night with losing records. With Erikson fighting Vieira and Randleman fighting de Neve, the final was destined to be another clash between the RAW Team and the Hammer House camp. Erikson used punches to dispose of Vieira and Randleman forced de Neve to submit. Oddly, both semifinal bouts ended at exactly the 2:21 mark. In the final, Erikson rendered Randleman unconscious after just 71 seconds. Erikson won one more fight in 1997 and returned to MMA action in 1999 under the Pride banner. The super heavyweight went 3-1, including a victory over Gary Goodridge, between 1999 and 2002. The wrestler then veered into the world of kickboxing with a stint in the K-1 organization. He returned to Pride in 2005 and suffered a loss to Fabricio Werdum. Erikson only fought two more times after 2005. In 2006, he lost to Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva, and in 2008, he was knocked out by Alexandru Lungu. Despite losing to Erikson, Randleman went on to experience the greater success of the two men. The two-time NCAA Division I wrestling champion made his UFC debut in his next fight, which came in 1999 at UFC 19. He won the UFC heavyweight championship later the same year and defended it once before losing the crown to Couture. Randleman fought twice more inside the Octagon after relinquishing his belt, then moved on to a lengthy career in Pride. He also made stops in Strikeforce and Sengoku before hanging up his gloves in 2011. “The Monster” ended his career with a 4-3 mark in the UFC and a 3-8 record in the Pride ring. While Henderson and Randleman were just getting started in their MMA careers, another UFC fighter’s campaign was winding to an end. Many recent MMA converts may not recognize the name Paul Varelans, but fans of the early era of the UFC will no doubt recall “The Polar Bear.” The big man—he tipped the scales at approximately 300 pounds—was a fixture with the UFC in 1995 and 1996. He battled the likes of David “Tank” Abbott at UFC 6, Marcos Ruas in the finals of the UFC 7 tournament and Dan Severn. His UFC record stood at 5-4 after his last Octagon appearance. Varelans was 7-7 when he entered the Brazil Open Fight cage. He was only six months removed from his most recent UFC outing, but he’d gone 1-2 in that short stretch and lost a fight to Mark Kerr. His opponent in the Brazil Open Fight ’97 superfight was future UFC and Pride fighter Carlos Barreto. Barreto was undefeated through six fights and was coming off a win over Randleman. Barreto needed just over two and a half minutes to score the TKO victory over Varelans. “The Polar Bear” only fought three more times in his career, picking up two additional wins and one loss. With the UFC entering its dark ages and states banning the competition, Varelans was left with few opportunities in the sport and opted to look for other forms of employment. Barreto used the win as a launching pad to the UFC, where he appeared four months after his win over Varelans. In his lone appearance with the promotion, “Carlao” lost to Dave Beneteau at UFC 15. However, the Brazilian bounced back and moved his record to 9-1 to earn a fight in the Pride organization. He lost to Igor Vovchanchyn, but returned to the promotion nearly a year later with a win over Tra Telligman. From there, it was all downhill. Following an 11-2 start to his career, Barreto went 3-7 over his final 10 fights and never appeared in the UFC or Pride again. His losses in that span, though, came against the likes of Gilbert Yvel, Ian Freeman, Travis Wiuff, Aleksander Emelianenko and Vladimir Matyushenko. The Brazilian has been inactive since 2005, when he suffered a knee injury in his fight with Matyushenko. Many years have passed since that June evening in Brazil. It was more than 16 years before Henderson returned to the South American nation in November 2013 and lost to Vitor Belfort. He’ll return again on Sunday, March 23, against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in the hopes of capturing the same magic he found in those earliest days of his career. The tournament format may be nearly extinct, most of the fighters that shared the cage that night may be retired and the ring girls may even be wearing more modest outfits these days, but Henderson is still battling on. As the stage for Henderson’s debut and a pair of Randleman’s earliest fights, Brazil Open Fight ’97 stands as a significant event in the history of mixed martial arts.