WINNIPEG – Saturday night’s UFC 161 headliner proved a tense, evenly matched clash of veteran fighters.
However, in what proved to be a deciding third round, Rashad Evans (18-3-1 MMA, 13-3-1 UFC) took the striking edge and ultimately edged fellow ex-champion Dan Henderson (29-10 MMA, 6-4 UFC) via split decision.
The decision, which easily could have gone either way, seemingly caught Evans by surprise when the 28-29, 29-28 and 29-28 scores were read. Perhaps it was the satisfaction of knowing he won a round when he truly needed it.
“After getting dropped in the first round, I knew I won the second, but I needed to come out strong in the third,” said Evans, who entered the fight while coming off the first back-to-back losses of his career.
Despite Evans’ win, Henderson landed the first substantial blow of the fight. After an initial feeling-out process and the occasional firefight, Henderson caught his opponent with a stiff jab just as Evans was moving in. Evans hit the deck and ate some follow-up punches, but he quickly returned to his feet and shook off the cobwebs before the round ended.
Evans returned the favor in the second round with a powerful right hand, but Henderson answered with a solid knee that forced both fighters to reset. Evans, clearly the quicker fighter, remained the aggressor in the round, but with solid takedown defense and quick footwork, Henderson proved game for a late-round exchange of punches and elbows.
As a close contest entered the final frame, Evans knew he needed the final round. He quickly buckled Henderson with a quick flurry of blows but wisely reset once the veteran regained his wits.
PHOTOS: Top shots from UFC 161: Evans vs. Henderson
“One thing you know about Dan Henderson is you don’t rush in,” said Evans, whose brief UFC title reign ended in 2009. “Only fools rush in with Dan Henderson. … When he’s hurt, he can still hurt you with a good shot.”
In the final minutes of the bout, Evans clinched and pressed Henderson against the cage, where he absorbed some knees. However, Evans dished out some heavy leather and elbows to close out the bout in convincing fashion.
Henderson, a former PRIDE and Strikeforce champion who’s yet to win a UFC belt during his illustrious career, knew the final exchanges probably did him in.
“There’s nobody to blame but myself,” he said. “That third round, I slowed down. I should have gotten more active. … I thought I hurt him bad in the first and second rounds, so I thought I got those.”
With the win, Evans keeps his title hopes alive. However, at 42 years old and with a two-fight losing skid, Henderson knows his prospects for a shot at Jon Jones’ title are dim.