MMA: Chris Horodecki
Yeah. That kick.
Going into Thursday's final WEC event, Anthony Pettis was not the name that received the same heavy rotation as his opponent, champion Benson Henderson: It was Henderson who discussed facing the UFC champion in a unification bout, Henderson who was thought to present problems for everyone in his new home, and Henderson who had gotten preference with bookmakers.
For a round, it all seemed reasonable, with Henderson scoring two takedowns and enjoying control. But for the rest of the fight, Pettis scrambled, landed thudding rights, took Henderson's back -- once for minutes at a time -- and then closed out Round 5 by pushing off the cage with his right foot and then propelling his body into a kick that flattened Henderson. It was the kind of move that would take Jackie Chan at least a few takes to get right.
It's also the kind of effort that typified the WEC as one of the most satisfying programming choices in the sport. The fights were tremendous, but the promotion's smaller audience meant smaller rewards. Athletes like Pettis and Henderson aren't fighters: They're prizefighters. Big difference. And under the WEC's model, their exact same dedication to the sport as bigger men earned them only a fraction of the prize.
An April 30 card featuring Jose Aldo had a disclosed payroll of $336,500 for all 22 fighters; four months later, James Toney got paid a disclosed $500,000 to get stretched in the UFC. Merging is the answer.
To see Pettis again probably means spending $50. After Thursday's performance, I doubt we'll see anyone complaining.
New questions: WEC 53
Can Cruz ever be as big a draw as Urijah Faber?
Given the volume of exposure afforded to Faber during Thursday's broadcast -- Amp commercials, sneaker commercials, a ringside seat interview, in a lab coat and mixing a compound that could cure hip dysplasia in dogs -- it's obvious whom they consider the prize import.
Cruz, who defended his 135-pound belt against Scott Jorgensen in a lopsided decision, has a style that invites a pretty even split of admiration and disgust: He looks like Baryshnikov from below the waist, pedaling around the ring and deflecting blows while hustling to score himself. It's impressive, but it's also a style made for judges. Six of his seven WEC wins went the distance. If he's the guy, it'll be along the Lyoto Machida blueprint, with an eccentric style getting attention by long winning streaks and being debated.
Faber, win or lose, continues to have an "It" factor that touches only a handful of combat athletes; the "It" Cruz has is the UFC belt, though, and that's a proven attractor.
How does Pettis match up with Edgar or Maynard?
There's not much debate over Pettis' striking acumen: He had Ben Henderson backpedaling, trains with Duke Rufus, and can deliver technical strikes with power. The question isn't whether he can trade with Edgar or Maynard -- though Edgar's movement might prove to be as irritating to him as he has everyone else -- but whether he can avoid either man from wearing him out in the clinch or on the ground.
In Pettis' favor: He confused three-time All-American Shane Roller in August, avoiding takedowns and finally submitting him. It doesn't mean he can do the same to the UFC contenders, but it does allow him to walk into the Octagon with more confidence.
Should he root for Maynard or Edgar? Either one is a headache, but no one should ever hope to have to chase down Edgar in a 32-foot cage.
Is Jamie Varner out the door?
The problem with chasing wins to erase the bad taste of a loss is that you run the risk of compounding the problem. Thursday, Varner made an ill-advised decision to tackle a fourth fight in 2010 after going 0-2-1; Shane Roller needed less than four minutes to lock on a choke.
It's a radical change from when Varner entered the year on a four-fight win streak, and it comes as his promotion is being dissolved into the UFC. Roster trims are coming. Whether management considers his aggression over his results is something he might have to sweat out through the holidays.
Was that kick one of the top-five greatest moments ever in MMA?
I'd love to pop off some obscure reference to a 1998 show in Guatemala that only four people have on VHS and how someone pulled off a pressure-point attack or got a flying headbutt win a la "Bonk's Adventure" -- but I can't. Pettis' kick is top-three for sure, blemished only by Henderson's refusal to stay flattened from it. A lot of people are going to hurt themselves in the gym this weekend.
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.
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.
Questions: WEC 53
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.
Red Ink: Henderson-Pettis
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.
Red Ink: Cruz-Jorgensen
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.
Prior to Saturday's fight with Cung Le -- one in which he was expected to lose colorfully -- Scott Smith was told by a concerned corner that he needed to stop taking such significant punishment in his fights.
He went out and spent nearly 15 minutes getting knocked on his rear.
Smith is an accidental storyteller: taking a sustained beating is part of Screenwriting 101, with the protagonist suffering horribly before coming out on top. After being knocked down multiple times and with a Le decision seemingly inevitable, Smith snuck in a left hand, then swarmed in for the kill.
It was Le's first defeat in 24 career combat-sport fights.
Smith's ability to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat -- jaws, to really extend the metaphor, which usually have bitten off an arm and have begun to partially digest his lower body -- has become the new norm. In 2006, nearly ready to keel over from a body shot, he launched a desperation bomb from his hip that dropped Pete Sell; earlier this year, he battled back from a beating to put down Benji Radach in the third round. You could make a lot of money bottling the guy's constitution. And if he could learn to pull these things off earlier in a fight, he might enjoy his 40s.
Next for Le: Likely another long layoff to film movies with highly dubious award potential; a Smith rematch would sell, though, and provide him with a chance to rub out his one blemish.
Next for Smith: Motrin; then eventually Tim Kennedy or Evangelista "Cyborg" Santos.
Next for Gilbert Melendez: Hoping that Shinya Aoki has his passport in order.
Next for Chris Horodecki: 145.
The can't-help-himself award: Mauro Ranallo, for suggesting that it took Scott Smith's "'Hands of Steel' to steal this fight." Nyuk, nyuk. And etc.
The insulation award: Versus, for promoting a program called "The World MMA Awards" on Jan. 6 that is guaranteed to consist of nothing but WEC and UFC nominations.
The look-both-ways-before-crossing-the-mat award: Chris Horodecki, for the absurd decision to jog away from Anthony Njokuani with his back turned. (Lesson No. 1 in any introductory self defense class: Don't fall on your head. Lesson No. 2: Don't turn your back.)
The petition-to-put-Muhammed Lawal-on-last award: Lawal, for shaking and then spraying energy drink solution all over the canvas. Maybe sticky, carbonated water might be better for traction, but it's doubtful anyone wants to experiment during a title fight.
Q: Where does Muhammed Lawal belong?
A: Lawal looked like a fighter cast in bronze next to a gelatinous Mike Whitehead, and the 40-pound weight differential didn't seem to matter. Strikeforce could use free-roaming athletes like Lawal and Dan Henderson to jump around their medium-weight rosters, but it doesn't create much consistency -- and doesn't do any favors to casual fans confused by the skipping. Lawal is a credible threat as a heavyweight, but once he runs into men who know how to use their size -- Brett Rogers, even Bobby Lashley -- he might realize he's in over his head.
Q: Who can handle Ronaldo Souza on the Strikeforce mat?
A: Souza began his MMA career with the sympathies normally given to outstanding grapplers making the transition: of course he's trouble on the mat, but he'll be a mess standing. Instead, De Souza has shown proficiency in all ranges, developing his hands into something to worry about. How Jake Shields or Nick Diaz would approach him -- and where -- is worth exploring.
Q: Can Cung Le still pack a house?
A: Le has fought in MMA seven times at the HP Pavilion: each time, the crowd had some belief that his San Shou background was so unique that his opponents wouldn't have answers. That changed after Scott Smith took advantage of a break in Le's guard, following him to the mat and scoring (another) unlikely victory. Le die-hards will point out that, until that reversal in the closing two minutes, Le was making Smith look foolish.
Everyone loses: A focused Le with more training time, especially in a bid for redemption, might prove to be more popular than ever.
Q: What are athletic commissions going to do about groin shots?
A: If there's one thing worse than suffering a blow to the groin, it's suffering two: Donald Cerrone nailed Ed Ratcliff three times in the basket Saturday, prompting a point deduction and a bit of a tainted victory over a clearly aching Ratcliff; Josh Thomson ate a shot against Gil Melendez. These are fouls with real consequences in the fight, yet no athletic commissions have any particular policies beyond use of a solid-material cup. No material -- even the steel Thai bowls -- can make a fighter totally immune to the shock, but some protection is better than others. Time for regulatory bodies to investigate, then mandate, better shields.
This and that
• Dan Henderson appeared to get the loudest reaction of any Strikeforce spectator Saturday; all the promotion invested by the UFC appears to be paying off
• Following a TKO over Mike Whitehead, "Mo" Lawal is making noise about a fight with Fedor Emelianenko. If he can score that fight without beating one (or three) ranked heavyweights, it's a sorry state of affairs
• The WEC offered up a bizarre contradiction by awarding "Fight of the night" honors to both Donald Cerrone/Ed Ratcliff and Takeya Mizugaki/Scott Jorgensen. I'm not advocating that Ratcliff should've been stiffed, but why award Cerrone with a bonus when he spent half the night fouling his opponent?