Dan Henderson (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Toe-to-Toe: UFC Fight Night 68 Preview and Predictions

Fans might be excused for having forgotten about UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs. Boetsch with all of the big stories that surround many of the UFC’s other recent and upcoming cards. UFC 187 featured the crowning of a brand new light heavyweight champion. Last weekend’s UFC Fight Night event was headlined by the return of a former welterweight title challenger after a long layoff. UFC 188 will be the first time UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez fights in more than a year, and the Fight Night event after that will showcase UFC strawweight queen Joanna Jędrzejczyk in her first title defense.

Compared to these events, Saturday’s card might seem somewhat lacking, but there are still plenty of reasons to pay attention. For starters, Saturday might be the last time fans see one of the sport’s icons compete in the Octagon. It wasn’t so long ago that Dan Henderson was considered one of the very best fighters in the world. A man known as much for his astounding longevity as for his once-granite chin and brick-fisted punches, Henderson is one of MMA’s true legendary figures. Those days have passed, and Henderson’s headlining bout against Tim Boetsch on Saturday might just prove to be his swan song.

Saturday’s co-main event is a heavyweight clash between two fighters ranked in the UFC’s top 15, both of whom are riding multi-fight winning streaks. No. 10-ranked Ben Rothwell notched a TKO over Alistair Overeem in his most recent fight, marking the first time in Rothwell’s UFC career that he’s put together consecutive wins. Across the cage from Rothwell will stand No. 12-ranked Matt Mitrione, who has finished each of his last three opponents inside the distance. While a win is far from a boost into title contention, either of these fighters could use a victory on Saturday as a path to top-five competition in his next fight.


UFC Fight Night: Henderson vs Boetsch takes place Saturday, June 6, from the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The action begins at 7 p.m. ET with two contests on UFC Fight Pass, followed by the remaining preliminary bouts airing on Fox Sports 1 at 8 p.m. ET and the main card, also on Fox Sports 1, at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press staff writers Vince Carey and Eric Reinert break down the fights in this edition of Toe-to-Toe.

Dan Henderson is 44 years old and has lost five of his last six fights. Does he have anything left in the tank, or will Tim Boetsch send him into retirement?

Carey: I can honestly say I never thought I’d be previewing a fight where my main concern for Henderson would be his ability to take a punch. At one point in time, “Hendo’s” chin was considered to be maybe his second greatest asset behind the power in his hands, but after he was stopped by strikes in two of his last three losses, my confidence in the 44-year-old legend’s ability to survive a 15-minute fight is starting to waver.

With the competition that Henderson has fought during his current rough patch, it’s pretty easy to start making excuses for the former two-division Pride champion. Tough split-decision losses to Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans didn’t do anything except prove that Henderson could still hang with top-tier talent in the 205-pound division, and he shouldn’t be ashamed about getting tossed around by former heavyweight and current light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier.

It’s really only the knockout losses that are cause for concern, and you could even make a case for why fans should look past them. Henderson getting head-kicked and put away by Vitor Belfort in 2013 was a bit surprising, but it was also forgivable if you’re a Henderson fan. Sure, “Hendo” may have been knocked out, but it came against one of the most dangerous fighters of all time and at a time where a combination of momentum and testosterone-replacement therapy had Belfort at the top of everyone’s list as the scariest man in the sport. It’s Henderson’s most recent loss to Gegard Mousasi that scares me more, but some could argue that it was a questionable stoppage. Henderson was obviously hurt and taking some damage, but many fans thought the fight could have gone on a bit longer and Henderson himself was visibly upset by the referee’s decision.

Regardless of how you feel about the knockout losses, Henderson’s chin is certainly starting to go. There’s a very real chance that Boetsch could land a big punch and cause the UFC to step in and end Henderson’s Octagon career for his own safety after this weekend. However, I’m not ready to count out Henderson’s chin and put him out to pasture quite yet. This is a do-or-die outing for a legit legend of the sport. Considering that this is Henderson’s first opponent ranked outside of the top five or six guys in the division since 2011, I’m willing to give him the benefit of the doubt one last time. “Hendo” will win by knockout in what will end up being the final victory of his MMA career.

Reinert: I actually think the answer here is “both.”

Make no mistake about it, Henderson is one of the most accomplished athletes not only in MMA history, but in American history. If he was “only” a two-time Olympian in Greco-Roman wrestling, that would be amazing enough, but after completing his amateur wrestling career he proceeded to put together an MMA tenure that is more than deserving of an eventual spot in the UFC’s Hall of Fame. He went 29-8 as a professional from 1997-2011 — sometimes fighting two or three times in a night during MMA’s early days — and won the 2005 Pride FC Welterweight Grand Prix en route to simultaneously holding that organization’s welterweight and middleweight titles. After Pride’s demise, Henderson fought in four more championship bouts and, as my colleague points out, firmly established himself as one of the best fighters in the world.

Does Henderson still have anything left in the tank? Probably, but he’s reached a point where he’s no longer anywhere near being a title contender. Let’s not forget that, like his recent opponent Belfort, Henderson also unapologetically took advantage of the testosterone-replacement therapy loophole within MMA’s regulatory guidelines until it was closed several months ago, and there’s no discounting the effect that performance-enhancing drugs can have on an aging athlete’s ability to produce results. Absent that enhancement and against a guy who is 10 years younger than him and ranked No. 13 in the middleweight division, I just don’t see Henderson making it happen on Saturday.

Boetsch has himself hit a bit of a rough patch lately, going 2-4 in his previous six fights. On Saturday, he’s in the unfortunate spot of either a.) winning a fight against an unranked 44-year-old fighter who is no longer using TRT or b.) losing a fight against an unranked 44-year-old fighter who is no longer using TRT. Neither will do many good things for his career, but Boetsch has to be at least motivated enough to avoid scenario B. I’ve got “The Barbarian” by TKO on Saturday, and I’m hopeful that UFC executives will do with Henderson what they did with Chuck Liddell when it became clear he could no longer compete.

The heavyweight division is rather shallow, especially outside of the top 10. Ben Rothwell sits right at the edge of the top 10 and Matt Mitrione is floating around in the top 15. Now, these two men are set to meet in the evening’s co-headliner. Can either man make the jump from borderline top-10 fighter to legitimate contender?

Reinert: My gut reaction here was a quick “no,” but after reviewing both the UFC’s heavyweight rankings and the careers of these two talented heavyweights, I’m not so sure.

First, let’s talk rankings. Cain Velasquez is the most dominant heavyweight champion the UFC has ever seen. Let us not, however, forget that Velasquez hasn’t fought for a year and a half and has been subject to a series of concerning injuries. He’ll fight Fabricio Werdum in two weeks, when we’ll all get to see how Velasquez holds up.

Speaking of Werdum, he’s put together an impressive 8-1 record (including wins in his last five straight) since 2009 and will look for further validation against Velasquez on June 13. At 37 years old, though, Werdum is on the older side of the UFC’s roster, which is actually a common theme among other ranked fighters, so it’s uncertain how long he’ll remain among the best in the division.

Mitrione, ranked No. 12, is another heavyweight on the other side of 35 (he’ll be 37 in July), but he’s defied both age and expectation by stringing together a three-fight winning streak during which he’s defeated all of his opponents by knockout or TKO. The knock on Mitrione, of course, is that he’s faltered against the division’s better fighters, so he’ll surely be looking to free himself of that reputation against the more highly ranked Wisconsinite.

Rothwell is no spring chicken himself at 33, but his age actually makes him one of the youngest heavyweights in the UFC’s rankings. Of his fellow top-10-ranked contenders, only Junior dos Santos (No. 2, 31 years old) and Travis Browne (No. 5, 32) are younger. Rothwell has fared pretty well during his UFC tenure, and his TKO win over Alistair Overeem showed that he does belong in the contenders’ conversation.

Because of Rothwell’s (relative) youth and much greater level of MMA experience, I have to give him the edge both in his fight with Mitrione on Saturday and in the potential (however remote) to contend for the title. With a win on Saturday, Rothwell would need just two more against the veterans ranked ahead of him to secure himself a title shot, and with age rapidly becoming more of a factor for the fighters ranked immediately above him, he could be able to take advantage.

Carey: Calling the heavyweight division “rather shallow” is like saying that Ronda Rousey is “pretty good” at armbars. It is just a ridiculous understatement. I mean, I loved Andrei Arlovski’s fight a couple of weeks ago just as much as everyone else did, but Arlovski, of all people, is possibly in line for a title fight… in 2015. That pretty much tells you all you need to know about the heavyweight division right now, doesn’t it?

So, yes, I’ll agree with my fellow writer in saying that there’s a chance that either one of these guys could score a victory this weekend and, after another win or two, end up in the thick of the title picture. Whether it’s Mitrione on a four-fight winning streak or Rothwell with a three-fight streak of his own that includes Overeem, the winner will have put himself in position for a big fight in his next outing — and a win there would be enough to throw either man into a bout with a legitimate contender.

That being said, I wouldn’t pick either of these guys to come close to taking out one of the top three or four guys in the division. While Rothwell and Mitrione would have a puncher’s chance if they got into a brawl with most of the heavyweight top 10, guys like Velasquez, Werdum, dos Santos and Stipe Miocic are all extremely skilled and well-rounded mixed martial artists who have made a living taking out sluggers similar to the two men fighting this weekend. Obviously, anything can happen when two 250-pound behemoths start throwing leather, but the best of the best in the division have evolved way past the rock ’em sock ’em robots phase at this point in their careers and would likely shut down any push for a title shot that Mitrione or Rothwell could muster.

Rothwell has the better resume, especially after taking out Overeem last fall, but I’m going to go the other direction and pick Mitrione to pull off a win this weekend. If the fight ends in the first round, then it’s anyone’s ball game. However, if both men survive the first frame, I like “Meathead’s” cardio to make a difference and help him start to outwork Rothwell in the later rounds. Even if this one ends in the first, Mitrione’s chin has obviously taken way less damage in his 12 career bouts than Rothwell’s chin has endured in his 44 fights. If I have to pick someone’s chin to give out, I’ll go with the one that’s been tested more often.

Dustin Poirier had a decent 8-3 run at featherweight before being stopped in the first round by upcoming title challenger Conor McGregor. Since that fight, Poirier has returned to the lightweight division (where he began his MMA career), notching his first UFC win at 155 pounds over up-and-comer Carlos Diego Ferreira and going for two straight on Saturday against Yancy Medeiros. Could Poirier one day find himself contending as a lightweight, or will he once again flounder if (or before) he reaches the crowded division’s upper echelons?

Carey: I like Poirier making the move back up to 155 after his setback against McGregor, but I like it because it’s going to provide “The Diamond” a much needed change of scenery more so than a greater opportunity to become a title contender.

Even though his 8-4 run at featherweight provided him some solid names for his resume and proved he could go toe-to-toe with top-tier talents in the division and put on “Fight of the Night”-winning battles, it never felt like Poirier was ever primed to make the jump into the elite set in the weight class while fighting at 145 pounds. Every decent winning streak that brought him a step forward was followed by a tough loss that pushed him another step back, and it felt like “The Diamond” was destined to sit somewhere in the lower half of the division’s top 10 for a few more years. Moving to lightweight may not make too much of a difference in the long run, but in the short term it can breathe some new life into Poirier’s career and could open up some opportunities, especially with seemingly half of the lightweight top 15 on the disabled list at the moment.

If everyone is healthy, the lightweight top five could prove even tougher for Poirier to crack than the featherweight equivalent. I don’t like the idea of Poirier attempting to stand and trade with Anthony Pettis or Donald Cerrone, and I certainly don’t like the idea of “The Diamond” trying to shut down the takedowns of Rafael dos Anjos or Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Although Poirier is still going to remain one of the more skilled guys in the division, everyone at the top has at least one major asset that could give Poirier a ton of trouble. Poirier should win this weekend and continue to do so against similar competition at 155, and I wouldn’t be shocked if Poirier enters the top 10 at some point in the next year or so. However, if Poirier was to make the top five in the weight class, it would legitimately surprise me. His fate at lightweight will look pretty familiar to those who followed him at featherweight.

Reinert: Yeah, if Poirier isn’t able to fight his way into the crowded mix of lightweight contenders, it will be because of the sheer level of talent in the division more than his own inability to stand out. That said, I guess I’ve got a little more confidence than my colleague that he’ll be able to do that.

Had Poirier gone around .500 as a featherweight, I might be a little more hesitant, but his eight wins compared to just three losses (all against the division’s elite) and his impressive lightweight re-debut against Ferreira give me hope. Poirier is just 26 years old, so he’s probably just now beginning to enter his athletic prime, and his coaches at American Top Team no doubt know the sort of talent they have on their hands.

Will Poirier ever fight for the lightweight belt? I’m not so sure, but (provided Poirier defeats Medeiros on Saturday, which I think he will) I could absolutely see him giving guys like Beneil Dariush or Al Iaquinta some trouble.

Undefeated prospect Brian Ortega had an impressive UFC win over Mike De La Torre erased due to a failed drug test last summer. In his first fight back in the cage, the former RFA champ has drawn a short-notice bout with longtime veteran Thiago Tavares. Is Ortega being thrown to the wolves this weekend, or can “T-City” get his first official UFC win and make a jump in the 145-pound division against the Brazilian?

Reinert: I don’t know about “thrown to the wolves,” but Ortega is definitely going to have his work cut out for him against Tavares. The Brazilian is 4-1 in his last five, with the lone loss coming to No. 2-ranked lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov. His UFC career on the whole hasn’t reached the level of success that his recent performances might suggest, but Tavares has been competing against (ostensibly) the best fighters in the world since 2007, and there’s no discounting that amount of high-level experience.

Why won’t Tavares dominate Ortega on Saturday, then? Because 13 of Tavares’s 19 professional wins have come by submission, and Ortega is himself a submission specialist with a black belt under the Rorion/Rener branch of the Gracie family. He’s likely seen enough of what Tavares has to offer on the ground to be able to neutralize the Brazilian’s usual grappling advantage.

This one is all going to come down to who can survive most effectively rather than which fighter can better implement their offense. Neither fighter is known for having big-time knockout power, and this one is almost certain to wind up on the mat. When it gets there, grappling enthusiasts should be in for a treat. It’s a tough fight to call, but I’m going with Tavares by decision.

Carey: Tavares is one of those weird cases where I feel like a fighter is both underrated and overrated at the same time. On one hand, Tavares has been fighting inside the Octagon for almost a decade and has nearly a double-digit win total in the UFC. On the other, his resume doesn’t include a lot of names in the win or loss column that stick out as top competition, and the Brazilian has actually had a couple of seriously disappointing losses in his career. Throw in the fact that Tavares is constantly injured and withdrawing from fights, and it shouldn’t be surprising that I have no idea what to expect from him this weekend.

What makes this even more difficult is that Tavares made his featherweight debut in his last outing and looked damn good in his new weight class. Robbie Peralta may not be a huge name, but the dude is tough to put away and Tavares became the first guy to do so in five years when he finished “Problems” with a first-round choke last August. Ortega is far more established than Peralta when it comes to the ground game, so a repeat on Saturday seems unlikely, but the dominance that Tavares displayed in that fight definitely turned some heads.

Even though the win was overturned, it’s hard to forget watching Ortega run through De La Torre and thinking that the former RFA champion had a chance to make some waves in the featherweight division with the right match-ups. While I’m not sure Tavares is one of those match-ups, a war of attrition on the mat will favor Ortega since Tavares often looked like a big dude at lightweight. A close decision win for the youngster seems like it could be in the cards. I’ll say Ortega wins by decision, but I’m certainly not confident in this one.

Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?

Carey: One fight I’m looking forward to this weekend is the bantamweight contest between Francisco Rivera and Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres, if only because Caceres, despite his 5-5 UFC record, always entertains inside the Octagon. He’s far from an elite fighter and may even be fighting for his job against an extremely tough Rivera this weekend, but “Bruce Leeroy” puts on a decent show pretty much every time he steps into the cage. Between his aggressive striking and creativity on the floor, Caceres is one of the few undercard fighters that I’ll always go out of my way to make sure I watch compete. Against Rivera, a knockout artist with a chip on his shoulder after a controversial loss to Urijah Faber, Caceres is going to be fighting a dangerously motivated man.

Reinert: This one is easy. Shawn Jordan and Derrick Lewis have combined for a total of 24 knockouts and TKOs in their 29 professional wins, with 14 of those occurring in the first round. What’s more, this is actually a rematch of a fight between these two from 2010, which Jordan took in his lone pro win by decision. Also, both of these guys weigh more than 260 pounds. This is a straight-up hoss fight that fans should not miss.

Pair this card with…

Reinert: Your DVR. Do you think the fine people of New Orleans would want you to waste the first Saturday night in June on your couch? Hell no. Call up some friends or just venture out on your own and see what kind of mischief you can get into, and then watch the fights on Sunday morning.

Carey: Why not support Ronda Rousey this weekend and go hit up the movie theater? I might be in the minority here, but I’m still 100 percent on board with the Entourage movie that’s hitting theaters this week, and I will end up checking out Vinnie Chase and the boys at some point this weekend. The fact that Rousey is in the movie is just one reason of about 50 that I want to see what should be a trainwreck of a film (I mean that in the best way possible), but even if you’re not an Entourage fan, you could always go check it out to see the UFC champion beating up on a few actors with highly punchable faces.

Fight Picks

Fight Carey’s Pick Reinert’s Pick
Main Card (Fox Sports 1, 10 p.m. ET)
MW: Tim Boetsch vs. Dan Henderson Henderson Boetsch
HW: Ben Rothwell vs. Matt Mitrione Mitrione Rothwell
LW: Dustin Poirier vs. Yancy Medeiros Poirier Poirier
FW: Thiago Tavares vs. Brian Ortega Ortega Tavares
BW: Joe Soto vs. Anthony Birchak Soto Soto
BW: Alex Caceres vs. Francisco Rivera Caceres Cacares
Preliminary Card (Fox Sports 1, 8 p.m. ET)
HW: Derrick Lewis vs. Shawn Jordan Jordan Lewis
WW: Omari Akhmedov vs. Brian Ebersole Akhmedov Akhmedov
LW: Christos Giagos vs. Chris Wade Giagos Wade
LW: Justin Edwards vs. Joe Proctor Proctor Proctor
Preliminary Card (UFC Fight Pass, 7 p.m. ET)
MW: Ricardo Abreu vs. Jake Collier Abreu Abreu
BW: Leonardo Morales vs. Jose Quinonez Morales Morales