UFC 173 has undergone a lot of changes since the card was first announced back in February. First, the main event was going to be a middleweight title fight between champion Chris Weidman and former title challenger and longtime divisional stalwart Vitor Belfort. Just a few weeks after that fight was revealed, though, the Nevada State Athletic Commission threw a wrench in the UFC’s Memorial Day Weekend plans when it closed a regulatory loophole by instituting a ban on therapeutic-use exemptions (TUE) for testosterone-replacement therapy (TRT), effectively outlawing the controversial practice for all fighters. Shortly thereafter, Belfort—one of the more notable UFC fighters who was receiving a TUE—withdrew from the fight with Weidman, and in stepped former light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida in his place.

Weidman vs. Machida, which pits the relatively new champion against a man who already had success at 205 pounds and is currently riding a two-fight middleweight winning streak, is certainly a compelling match-up, but the main-event plans for UFC 173 would again have to be scrapped after Weidman injured his knee. Instead, Weidman vs. Machida will take place in July at UFC 175.

With one of the UFC’s biggest annual shows now without a signature fight, the promotion looked to another vaunted champion and targeted bantamweight king Renan Barao to defend his belt against Raphael Assuncao. A nagging rib injury would prevent the presumptive challenger from officially answering the UFC’s call, however, and instead Barao will face his second consecutive opponent from Team Alpha Male in fourth-ranked T.J. Dillashaw.

The other scheduled fights for UFC 173 have not gone without alterations as well. The original co-main event for UFC 173 was a heavyweight match between former champion Junior dos Santos and the 11-1 Stipe Miocic. This fight was then moved to the finale of The Ultimate Fighter: Brazil 3, leaving a void near the top of the card. That void was soon filled by what could actually be the most interesting fight on the entire card.

With all due respect to Barao and Dillashaw, and acknowledging that anything can happen in MMA, a Barao victory to close out UFC 173 seems like a foregone conclusion. The champion is an eight-to-one favorite heading into his fourth title defense and, while the fight certainly has the potential to be action-packed, he has not displayed any limitations in his UFC career that would lead one to believe that Dillashaw will be the man to dethrone him.

Instead, the fight at UFC 173 that interests me most is the co-main event between Dan Henderson and Daniel Cormier. Although the fight has the same odds differential as the championship bout that headlines the event (Cormier is an eight-to-one favorite, and Henderson a five-to-one underdog), the ancillary elements of this light heavyweight match make it extremely intriguing.

First, there’s Henderson’s age. At 43, he has officially entered “how can he possibly be fighting at this age?” territory. Really only Randy Couture has been as relevant at an age when most professional athletes have been retired for at least five years, and even though he went 0-3 in 2013, Henderson somehow rebounded this past March in a brutal TKO victory over former light heavyweight champion Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. As long as Henderson is at least somewhat competitive in the Octagon, he’ll be featured in prominently promoted fights if only because people are curious how long he can keep it going.

This actually segues nicely into the next reason this fight is particularly interesting: It’s the first since UFC 161 that Henderson will not have a TUE to assist his performance. Along with Belfort and Chael Sonnen, Henderson is one of the most well-known fighters to take advantage of the commission-approved pharmaceutical-enhancement stipulation that allowed him to replace his testosterone without penalty. While no one could argue that TRT alone can enable a fighter to accomplish the sort of late-career heroics that Henderson has displayed, there’s a reason that the practice has long been criticized and is now outright banned. That being said, how Henderson fares on Saturday will not only be a reflection on his career in particular, but, because Henderson has been so closely associated with TRT use in the past, a marked drop-off in his performance will surely be tied to the ostensible absence of the enhancement from his training regimen and could vindicate its detractors.

This focus on Henderson isn’t to take anything away from his opponent, whose own situation serves to up the intrigue of this co-main event fight. Saturday’s fight with Henderson will be Cormier’s second at 205 pounds after spending the first portion of his career at heavyweight. At 35, Cormier is no youngster himself, but is thus far undefeated in his five-year, 14-fight professional campaign. Cormier was originally supposed to debut at light heavyweight against Rashad Evans at UFC 170, but an injury forced Evans from the fight just days before the card and Cormier instead took on significant underdog Patrick Cummins.

As expected, Cormier made quick work of Cummins, finishing him via TKO in the very first round, so his fight with Henderson on Saturday constitutes the first time Cormier will take on a fellow member of the light heavyweight top 10. Again, Cormier is the heavy betting favorite, but Henderson is not Cummins. Henderson has faced the best the light heavyweight division has to offer and has experienced far more success than failure. Henderson has demonstrated that he can go into deep waters and remain dangerous, so if Cormier can either finish Henderson (something that’s been done exactly three times in the last 10 years) or achieve a convincing decision victory, the UFC will be forced to consider him for a light heavyweight title shot. The same should probably be said for Henderson, particularly if Jon Jones is able to retain his belt as well, since Henderson is one of the few light heavyweights in the UFC who has not yet faced the current champion.

The pay-per-view portion of UFC 173 as a whole is going to be well worth the price, and despite all of the changes made to the event, the UFC has put together a card worthy of one of the promotion’s three big annual shows. Of course, the main event at UFC 173 is the true most important fight on the card, since there’s a belt on the line. Robbie Lawler’s welterweight showdown with Jake Ellenberger could also probably be ranked ahead of Cormier/Henderson in terms of overall importance. The fact that Cormier is facing his first on-paper challenge at light heavyweight, though, and the fact that the challenge comes in the form of a 43-year-old MMA legend fighting without the aid of a formerly permitted performance enhancement makes the co-main event on Saturday night the most interesting fight taking place this Memorial Day Weekend.

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.