They are two of the longest-standing, most respected fighters in the sport, with careers stretching back over a decade, resumes featuring multiple titles and a "Who's Who" of beaten opponents in their respective wakes. Yet come the evening of July 30, main-event participants Dan Henderson and Fedor Emelianenko will be fighting not only each other, but also for a future.
Since all terms are relative, it's safe to acknowledge that both Emelianenko and Henderson can stay active in the sport for as long as they want them. Given their names and histories, there will not be a lack of promotions bidding for their services in the foreseeable future. But it's also quite possible that after July 30's Strikeforce: Fedor vs. Hendo event, the careers of one or both men in major MMA may be over.
At just 34 years old, Emelianenko is by six years, the younger of the two. Yet after each of his last two fights -- both losses -- Emelianenko has vocalized the possibility of retirement.
Each time, he chose to return, but asked if a loss to Henderson would drive him from the sport for good, Emelianenko does not rule it out.
"I don't know," he told MMA Fighting through an interpreter during a Thursday teleconference with his upcoming opponent. "We'll see. Everything will be known after the fight. It's better to talk about that and answer that question after the fight."
In the immediate aftermath of his last bout, a second-round TKO loss to Antonio Silva that was stopped by the cageside physician, Emelianenko pondered retirement, seemingly announcing to the Izod Center crowd that he would call it quits. By the time he returned home after a long plane ride, he had changed his mind, saying he would fight on if it is "God's will."
On Thursday, Emelianenko voiced a similar sentiment.
There could, however, be other factors at play. Prior to his February fight with Silva, Emelianenko signed a four-fight extension. Though he still has three fights left on it including his upcoming tilt with Henderson, sources with knowledge of the situation confirmed to MMA Fighting that the deal is non-guaranteed. That means that Emelianenko could be cut with a third straight loss, a move that is no lock but is certain to be considered. Another possibility is that he is asked to take a pay cut in lieu of being cut. That could lead to a situation where Emelianenko and his M-1 management team either take a new deal or walk away from the Zuffa umbrella.
If he wins, of course, he is almost a lock to continue on.
But then we must wonder, What would happen to Henderson?
The current Strikeforce light-heavyweight champion turns 41 in August. Though he's been one of the few MMA pioneers to continue excelling well past his 35th birthday (he's 5-1 in his last 6), Henderson is also reaching a career crossroads.
On Thursday, he confirmed to MMA Fighting that he was about to enter the last fight on his current deal. That will make a loss costly, quite literally. Remember, going back to mid-2009, when Henderson parted ways with the UFC after a highlight-reel-for-the-ages knockout of Michael Bisping at UFC 100, company president Dana White let him walk away after a prolonged negotiation, telling MMA Fighting at the time, "For the money he wanted, he's not worth it. He's not a big pay-per-view star, he's not a big attraction, and he's not going to sell out arenas. He wants way too much and he doesn't bring anything to the table."
Two years later, it's unknown if White -- who as a Zuffa co-owner wields considerable influence in Strikeforce's operation -- has changed his tune, or if he was simply posturing all along. That makes Henderson's future with either Strikeforce or UFC a mystery.
Henderson said that has not changed his approach to his preparation or the fight itself. He will still walk out with the intention of finishing the fight, and he says he has ignored the uncertainty of his future.
"I guess it's a question mark that will be answered after this fight," he said. "I don't know what to expect but I feel like I've been around a long time and done enough in the sport. I'm not really worried about it, but we'll have to wait and see."
Whether it is God's will, or Dana White's, the futures of both Emelianenko and Henderson are uncertain. Ten days from now, two legends of the sport will compete in a match that was made by their histories, and it's possible that the fight history of one will stop right there.
In our world, rarely do money, politics and performance combine for two men in the same place in the same time, but this is one of those times. As a result, these may be the last days with both Emelianenko and Henderson on the major MMA scene.
By Mike Chiappetta