Monday, February 26, 2007

American stars shine at PRIDE 33

By Eddie Malone

Dan Henderson made mixed martial arts history at PRIDE 33 on Saturday night by becoming the first fighter in a major promotion to simultaneously hold championships in separate weight classes.

Already in possession of the PRIDE welterweight title, the Californian and former Olympic wrestler systematically dismantled Brazilian legend and world No. 10 Wanderlei Silva to grab the middleweight crown in Las Vegas, winning by knockout at 2:08 of the 3rd round.

"This was the biggest fight of my career," Henderson said in the post-fight press conference. "It meant the most. The most was on the line for me. If I'd lost it wouldn't have been a big deal but to win means everything."

Henderson also revealed that he won the title despite a broken hand. "I broke my hand the 1st round. I think that's why I hit him with my left in the end," he joked. "Actually I didn't really feel it toward the end of the fight. So it didn't affect me at all. I just so happened to catch him with the left hand."

It looked to be Henderson's night from the get-go. He stalked the "Axe Murderer" in the 1st round, beating Silva to the punch. "Standing on my feet with him I felt great," he said. "All of his punches didn't affect me. I came out smiling each time because I was thinking to myself that I'm going to hit him harder next time. His counter punches weren't hurting me. I felt great."

In the second stanza, the Team Quest fighter from Temecula decided to take the fight to the floor. Silva spent most of the 2nd round on his back, defending against a ground and pound attack that paid dividends for Henderson in the end.

In the 3rd round, Silva was looking for a way into the fight when Henderson picked a moment to play possum. Half-turning away from his foe, Henderson then spun around and wobbled Silva with a spectacular backfist. When the two fighters engaged in yet another brawling moment, Henderson countered with a perfect left hook that ended the fight. The Brazilian warrior fell backwards, and his muscled body landed with a huge thud as it crashed onto the mat.

It was a rare scene for MMA fans so used to seeing the roles reversed. Considering Silva's knockout loss to Mirko Cro Cop last year, and his 4-4 record in his last eight fights, one has to wonder if the Brazilian's best days are behind him.

Henderson, on the other hand, ventures into new territory with the win. So often an inconsistent performer in the past, he now has to be considered one of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport. When truly motivated, he is capable of elevating his game to an awe-inspiring level.

Diaz stuns Gomi

Nick Diaz and PRIDE lightweight champion Takanori Gomi brawled it out in a non-title match that was easily the best fight of 2007 so far. Diaz, an Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran who normally fights at 170, used a significant reach advantage to pepper Gomi with shots that took their toll over two rounds.

But it was the Japanese fighter that seized control of the fight early. He took the lanky Diaz to the mat to unleash some ground and pound. Back standing, he then knocked down the Stockton, Calif., native with a powerful right hand.

The Cesar Gracie student managed to survive and, as Gomi, the world No. 6 surprisingly succumbed to fatigue in just the 1st round, Diaz took over the fight. Ever the showman, he threw all sorts of feints before landing a succession of jabs and crosses. The Thomas and Mack Center crowd was on its feet as the two fighters, both bloodied and exhausted, came out for the 2nd round.

Gomi appeared to have Diaz on the run by opening a deep cut under his opponent's right eye early in the round. But Gomi made a fight-ending mistake by going for the takedown again. He immediately ended up in a bad position as Diaz wrapped a long leg around his shoulder, his shin across Gomi's throat. Diaz then pushed down on Gomi's head, forcing his throat against the shin, getting the tapout with that rarest of submissions, the gogoplata.

The win immediately propels Diaz toward the top of the lightweight rankings. Whether he stays at lightweight is a pertinent question. Will there be a rematch, this time for the title?

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