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Anthony Pettis had the guts to throw a kick for the ages in what can only be described as a leap of faith.
In the closing minute of a memorable five-round affair, with the outcome still very much in doubt, Pettis ran up the side of the cage, sprang forward in one fluid motion and delivered a clean kick to the head of WEC lightweight king Benson Henderson. The blow dropped the champion flat, and though it did not finish the fight, it paved the way to a unanimous decision for Pettis in the WEC 53 headliner on Thursday at the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz.
All three judges scored it for Pettis, 48-47, 48-47 and 49-46. He will meet the winner of the upcoming UFC 125 matchup between champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard in a unification bout sometime in 2011.
Afterward, with many jaw still ajar, talked turned to the Pettis kick. The new titleholder credited his longtime trainer, former world kickboxing champion Duke Roufus.
"We practice that all the time," Pettis said. "I've got 10 more of those kicks coming when I get to the UFC. How do you like that to end the WEC?"
A seesaw affair brought forth one momentum shift after another, some subtle, some dramatic. Henderson moved in front early, as he scored with a pair of first-round takedowns. Pettis answered in round two and made his move in the third, as he secured a takedown of his own. Henderson surrendered his back and successfully defended the rear-naked choke, ultimately returning to a standing position -- with Pettis still firmly attached. In fact, the challenger spent much of the round riding Henderson, supplying punches to the head and body in a clear attempt to soften him for the choke. His efforts went unrewarded.
"I just couldn't get my tempo going," Pettis said. "I got it going in the third round. It felt good. Ben Henderson is a tough dude."
Round 4 was a barnburner. Henderson fought off an attempted guillotine choke and transitioned to Pettis' back during a wild scramble. In an instant, Pettis found himself trapped in a body triangle with Henderson snaking his arms around his neck. The submission seemed almost inevitable, but the Milwaukee-based tae kwon do black belt escaped and reached Round 5 in a dead heat with the defending titleholder.
There, they traded barbs, Pettis with a nice counter straight right, Henderson with a double-leg takedown. The fight was there for the taking, and Pettis took it in the final minute. His kick sent a dazed Henderson to the canvas, where a series of hammerfists from Pettis sealed his fate on the scorecards.
"Pettis did a good job," said Henderson, who entered the cage on a 10-fight winning streak. "The judges gave it to him. He did a good job."
Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz unleashed an array of strikes from various angles, bobbed, weaved and mixed in takedowns as he defeated the world-ranked Scott Jorgensen by unanimous decision in the co-main event. Scores were 50-45 across the board for Cruz, who will carry his mantle as the world's top 135-pound mixed martial artist into the UFC.
Digging leg and body kicks, multipunch combinations and flying knees were all part of the Cruz onslaught. Utilizing the baffling movement for which he has become known, he weaved a web of mastery around the highly regarded Jorgensen, who appeared off balance and out of sorts for much of the 25-minute encounter.
"My conditioning was top-notch," said Cruz, who has rattled off eight wins in a row. "I trained 10 straight rounds in practice, with a different guy every round. Scott was tough. He took everything I had."
In the second round, Cruz supplemented his attack with takedowns, and his aggression never wavered. He rocked and briefly dropped Jorgensen with a short right hand inside the first 30 seconds of Round 3, later delivering a head kick, a series of grinding leg kicks and another takedown. Cruz took down Jorgensen, a three-time conference wrestling champion at Boise State, three times in the fourth. The challenger's situation only deteriorated from there, as Cruz beat him to the punch again in Round 5, scored with yet another takedown and punctuated his victory.
"I felt I had a chip on my shoulder because a lot of people didn't believe in me," Cruz said. "This is my fourth title fight altogether, and I've won three in a row for a title now. I think you can believe it."
Afterward, Cruz took aim at Urijah Faber, the only man to defeat him. The two could conceivably meet in the first bantamweight title bout in UFC history sometime in early 2011.
"The future holds a lot of title defenses," Cruz said. "Every time I'm in here, I'm fighting for a new belt, and I'm going to keep that mindset from beginning to end. I'm ready to fight Urijah. Let's do it."
Former WEC lightweight title contender Donald Cerrone submitted Chris Horodecki with a second-round triangle choke in a featured duel at 155 pounds. Having spent more than a minute and a half inside the choke, Horodecki finally succumbed to the hold 2:43 into Round 2.
Cerrone worked his jab and kicks from the outset, scored with a takedown and nearly mounted Horodecki in the first period. The Canadian freed himself and later scored with a spinning back kick. However, his offense was limited, and his need to move inside the gangly Cerrone's reach left the Shawn Tompkins protégé in constant peril. Cerrone delivered another takedown with 20 seconds to go and secured back control as the round ended.
In the second, Cerrone again turned to his superiority on the ground. The Jackson's Mixed Martial Arts standout put Horodecki on his back inside the first 30 seconds and went to work. An omoplata-neck crank combination led into the triangle choke. Horodecki fought valiantly to keep himself in the fight, but Cerrone slowly tightened and adjusted the submission, soliciting a reluctant tapout from the 2007 International Fight League lightweight grand prix finalist.
Kamal Shalorus kept his undefeated record intact, as he earned a split decision against IFL veteran Bart Palaszewski. Two of the three cage-side judges scored it for Shalorus, 30-27 and 29-28; a third saw it 29-28 for Palaszewski.
Shalorus stormed out to a commanding lead with a one-sided first round. The Iranian-born lightweight took down Palaszewski and attacked with heavy ground-and-pound: hammerfists, elbows, thudding right hands to the body and standing-to-ground punches. Palaszewski weathered them all, and the two men traded wicked leg kicks to close out the stanza.
A Jeff Curran protégé, Palaszewski succumbed to a single-leg takedown in the second round but battled his way back to his feet, eating punches as he stood. Palasewski's combinations began finding a home on the winded Shalorus, and by the end of the round, he was motioning for his foe to come forward. Shalorus obliged.
After backing up Palaszewski with heavy punches, Shalorus returned to his wrestling roots in round three. He scored with a pair of takedowns, passed to half guard after the second and dropped elbows. Palaszewski scrambled to his feet and attacked with crisp combinations, a stout head kick and a knee up the middle. Still, it was not enough to sway the verdict.
Brian Knapp is a contributor to Sherdog.com.