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Thursday night will be the final time Zuffa will promote fights under the World Extreme Cagefighting banner. It marks the end of a foundation built almost exclusively for 155-pound and under fighters, traditionally the most talented (and least recognized) in combat sports.
They'll now have to pack up their things and do their best to stand out in the UFC, where the competition involves a lot of pageantry and swollen physiques. At least their ring is being retired in style. See below.
What: WEC 53, an 11-bout card from the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz.
When: Thursday, Dec. 16, at 9 p.m. ET on Versus.
Why you should care: Because Benson Henderson might surprise a lot of people in the UFC's lightweight division -- providing he can hold on to his WEC belt against Anthony Pettis; because Dominick Cruz is probably going to wind up in the way of Urijah Faber's 135-pound title hopes; because Kamal Shalorus seeks and destroys; and because Tie Quan Zhang continues to raise hopes for China's MMA exports.
Fight of the night: Donald Cerrone versus Chris Horodecki, the fight least likely to be decided by decision.
Hype quote of the show: "But there was a chip on our shoulder. Not getting quite the recognition that we felt we deserve with the UFC as like a bigger brother or bigger sister company organization. Nothing that they've done personally but, yeah, I've got that chip on my shoulder. So I'm definitely going to be here to leave that legacy for the WEC." -- Henderson, summing up how a lot of people felt about the WEC, to the Federal Way Sports Mirror.
Is the winner of Henderson-Pettis ready for the UFC's champion?
A victory at the top of Thursday's card would put either Henderson or Pettis directly in sight of UFC 125's Gray Maynard-Frankie Edgar winner to unify the WEC and UFC belts. While many have credited Henderson with enough skill to contend in the deeper division, ability can really only be measured against your opposition -- and Henderson hasn't yet fought anyone on the level of Edgar, B.J. Penn, Sean Sherk or any of a dozen UFC athletes that could make his night a miserable one.
Is Jamie Varner's quick turnaround a good idea?
Like everyone in the 155-pound division, former champion Jamie Varner wants some momentum heading into the UFC merger. But after going 0-2-1 in 2010, Varner elected to take a seven-week turnaround and accept a fight with credentialed wrestler Shane Roller near Varner's hometown. The home-field advantage is always nice; burning out is not.
How will the WEC be remembered?
Promotions with folding instructions are nothing new to MMA, but it's rare to see a successful, well-managed event make a calculated decision to close doors. The WEC successfully ran 52 events, kept costs under control, secured ownership from Zuffa, made a star out of Urijah Faber, popularized lighter weight divisions and became the most-ordered non-UFC MMA pay-per-view in history.
Nicknames don't always have the meaning they're intended to assign, but Henderson's "Smooth" label is as close to truth in advertising as you'll get: There's not much of a loading delay in his transitions from stand-up to ground work, and there's rarely a moment when he seems confused as to what to do next. It's the composure of someone with twice his 13 fights.
Pettis' biggest problem Thursday will be the same issue that has led to Henderson's five-fight undefeated streak in the WEC: figuring out where Henderson is coming from next. What's unique about Pettis' threat is that Henderson might experience the same problem: Pettis, a very good striker, out-scrambled standout wrestler Shane Roller.
What it means: A chance to both retire the WEC title and contend for the UFC's lightweight title in 2011.
Wild card: Wrestling -- Henderson is terrific, but Pettis has put in time with Ben Askren.
Who wins: With a UFC title shot on the line, neither guy can be too happy about what he'll have to go through to get there -- but Henderson has faced better competition and puts up a pace that might eventually irritate even Edgar. Henderson by decision.
In 17 fights, only Faber has been able to put a blemish on Cruz's record. On the heels of that loss, Cruz dropped to 135, rattled off six victories -- including two to Faber teammate Joe Benavidez -- won a title and is now faced with the prospect of challenging Faber again.
That's a lot of pavement to lay down and it makes for a terrific story, but Cruz's immediate problem is Scott Jorgensen, a very capable Division 1/Pac-10 wrestling champion who likes attrition fights and has never been stopped in the WEC. Jorgensen sits down on his punches; Cruz tends to float. It's a match between aggression and deflection.
What it means: An opportunity for the winner to wear a bantamweight belt with a UFC emblem on it; riding the wave of attention that comes with facing Faber down the road.
Wild card: Jorgensen's aggression; it can kill the defensive game of someone like Cruz, but it also leaves his neck (literally) stuck out in scrambles.
Who wins: Cruz isn't getting anything gift-wrapped, but his busy style will probably influence judges more than Jorgensen's risk-taking. Cruz by decision.