UFC’s parent company purchased Strikeforce some eight months ago, but the merger isn’t truly final until Saturday.
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Sure, Strikeforce — one of several MMA sanctioning bodies UFC has either purchased or outlasted over the years — remains a free-standing promotion. (Strikeforce has an event headlined by middleweights Antwain Britt and Lumumba Sayers in Las Vegas on Friday). But a few of Strikeforce’s major assets in recent years — light heavyweight Dan Henderson and middleweight Cung Le — will fight in co-headliners at UFC 139 at Strikeforce’s home arena, San Jose’s HP Pavilion. “I really didn’t know what to expect,” Henderson told FOXSports.com. “I thought, even before it was announced, that I had a reasonable chance to get back into the UFC.”
Henderson, 41, fought four times under the Strikeforce banner, winning the last three by knockout, with his lone loss coming to Jake Shields by decision in April 2010. He leaves Strikeforce as its light heavyweight champ and enters the UFC much like he did after a stint in PRIDE, where he exited with middleweight and welterweight belts simultaneously in 2007.
His last UFC departure had its benefits (larger payday), although Henderson admits now that it wasn’t an easy call.
“I was a little nervous about it,” said Henderson, who won a middleweight UFC tournament (UFC 17 in 1998) but hasn’t won a title under the UFC’s current system. “I really didn’t know what would happen. My goal was to go to Strikeforce and win there. The jury is still out (on the decision to leave UFC).”
Henderson (28-8) faces Mauricio “Shogun” Rua (20-5), the winner of which is expected to get a shot at the belt currently held by Jon Jones.
“I think certainly this is a marquee fight for me,” said Rua, who was battered by Jones in March. “Dan Henderson is a legend in MMA, was a champion (in) PRIDE (and) a champion of Strikeforce. He’s a guy with a big history in the sport, and this fight obviously means a lot to me, but I’m not thinking right now about fighting for the belt or what will come next.”
In the other headliner, Le (7-1) will take on Wanderlei Silva (33-11-1). Le is making his UFC debut, and while he may be a new name to fans of the biggest MMA league on the planet, those in the Silicon Valley are very familiar with the 39-year-old.
“I had my first MMA fight in San Jose, and now I have my first UFC fight in San Jose, but you know there’s a lot more distractions,” Le said in a conference call this week. “All your old friends from high school, junior high (are) definitely hitting you up for a free ticket.”
And as Le makes his UFC debut, it will also be the maiden UFC card in San Jose. Strikeforce held several events at the building affectionately known as the Shark Tank, which is to be expected. The San Jose Sharks’ parent company, Silicon Valley Sports & Entertainment, owned half of Strikeforce before the sale.
The other half was owned by Scott Coker, who still runs Strikeforce.
“I promoted my first kickboxing event at the San Jose Civic Auditorium in 1985,” Coker said. “There’s a reason why the Bay Area is home to so many mixed-martial arts gyms. A lot of the top teachers migrated to the West Coast and settled in Seattle, Oakland and Los Angeles in the 1950s and 1960s. Bruce Lee even had a gym in Oakland.”
San Jose is home to the American Kickboxing Academy, one of the top MMA gyms in the country, and the UFC opened its first branded gym up the road in Concord. Saturday’s undercard also includes area favorites Kyle Kingsbury, a native of Sunnyvale, and Sacramento’s Urijah Faber.
As far as who Coker thinks will take the light heavyweight fight between the two legends, he’s sticking to his Strikeforce alum.
“I think Dan is going to knock him out in the middle of the second round,” Coker said.