As one of the champions entered in the Ultimate Fighting Championship's first "Champion vs. Champion" light-heavyweight title fight Saturday in London, Temecula's Dan Henderson has a right to ask himself: champion of what?
Henderson, 37, holds two belts in Japan's PRIDE Fighting Championships. He won the 205-pound title by knocking out Wanderlei Silva in a February PRIDE upset in Las Vegas.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday, September 25, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 37 words Type of Material: Correction
Ultimate Fighting: An article in Saturday's Sports section said Ultimate Fighting Championship newcomer Mauricio "Shogun" Rua defeated UFC heavyweight Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira in a 2005 PRIDE Fighting Championships bout. Rua defeated Nogueira's twin brother, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira.
So much has changed for PRIDE since. The organization was purchased later in the year by UFC's parent company, Zuffa LLC; a Japanese television deal critical to PRIDE's future hasn't been negotiated; and an ongoing exodus of PRIDE's best fighters have signed UFC contracts.
For now, UFC President Dana White is saying, "The last thing I want to do is bury [PRIDE] and see it die. . . . I didn't pay for this thing to bury it."
But when asked last week if the winner of Henderson's fight against UFC light-heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson of Irvine would be obligated to defend the PRIDE belt, White said no.
"We'll get rid of the belt," White said.
Said Jackson's trainer, Juanito Ibarra: "If Rampage wins, he may either have to defend that belt, or it'll go into his trophy case for good. We'll see."
Henderson, a former Southern Section and Masters champion wrestler (1987-88) at Victorville Victor Valley High, has fought for PRIDE since 2000 after wrestling stays at Cal State Fullerton, Arizona State and with the U.S. Olympic team in 1992 and 1996.
"I don't know the scope of the [UFC] purchase, other than they bought PRIDE's international rights, but I'd hate to see PRIDE just disappear," Henderson said. "They put on great shows, much bigger productions than the UFC."
At its peak, Tokyo-based PRIDE was broadcast in 40 countries, and boasted a record mixed martial arts announced attendance of 71,000 at a 2002 show in Japan -- more than six times bigger than last month's UFC 74 event in Las Vegas.
Replays of PRIDE fights can still be seen on TV, but the organization hasn't staged a fight since earlier this year, after the UFC purchase was announced.
When the deal was announced, White predicted an MMA version of the old NFL-AFL arrangement, when UFC and PRIDE's respective weight-class champions would meet annually in a Super Bowl of sorts -- in the U.S., Europe and Japan.
That's what's happening with Henderson and Jackson.
"We'll find out who the best in the world is," White said in a conference call last week. "All the questions will be answered now."
However, those super fights increasingly appear destined to be fought strictly among UFC-contracted fighters.
"I don't know what we're going to do with [PRIDE]," White said. "It's been an absolute nightmare, but it's still a powerful brand worldwide. . . . We're doing the best we can with this thing."
Henderson's PRIDE contract, for instance, has only one fight after Jackson left on it, and a renegotiation is expected, especially if he wins Saturday at the low PRIDE-negotiated rate of less than $150,000.
"I never fought because I wanted everyone to know who I was, but I realize my pay is based on a type of popularity contest in MMA, and I think I'll notice a big difference now that I'm in UFC," Henderson said recently at his Murrieta training facility. "This fight should catapult that popularity even more, being the first undisputed champ. After I win, I still have some good years of fighting left in me to solidify I'm the top fighter in the world."
In the last year, UFC has raided PRIDE's stable of elite fighters, most recently signing veteran welterweight champion Silva to a roster that now includes PRIDE former champions Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (heavyweights), and Jackson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua (light-heavyweights).
White said PRIDE's future hinges on landing a new television deal, an effort he said has been complicated by "rumors" that the organization's previous leaders were corrupt, and the fact "the PRIDE name in Japan is not very good at all.
"It's very complicated. . . . I would have liked to have kept it alive."
White said placing some future UFC shows in Japan is "an option," but the UFC president declined to say he has a drop-dead date in mind to announce the official demise of PRIDE.
"Japan is a very tough and weird place to navigate through and we realize that now more than ever," White said.