UFC 144 was all about nostalgia: a chance to look back on a time when Pride Fighting Championships made Japan a thriving hub of mixed martial arts.
There was Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, eliciting what professional wrestling enthusiasts would call a “cheap pop” by using the old Pride theme as his walkout music. There was Mark Hunt, blitzing Cheick Kongo in a little more than two minutes. There was Takanori Gomi, mounting a riveting comeback to beat Eiji Mitsuoka after absorbing a beating in the first round.
By the end of the night, however, it was the remnants of another defunct promotion that had truly stolen the show. Former World Extreme Cagefighting standouts Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson provided memorable bookends to the seven-bout main card on Saturday at the Saitama Super Arena in Saitama, Japan. Pettis literally kicked off the pay-per-view broadcast when he put Joe Lauzon to sleep with a textbook shin-on-chin head kick in the first round, and Henderson put an exclamation point on the show by outpointing the seemingly indomitable Frankie Edgar to become the UFC lightweight champion.
It could not have been more fitting. On Dec. 16, 2010, those same two men gave the WEC a dramatic sendoff, as Pettis captured the nation’s attention with his “Matrix”-style kick off the cage at the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz., to clinch a hard-fought victory over Henderson.
Back then, the long-term future of the WEC 155-pound species was uncertain, as the promotion prepared to dissolve into its more successful sibling. Bantamweights and featherweights were secure in knowing they were breaking new ground inside the Octagon. Lightweights had to address an inferiority complex: if they were indeed on the same level as their Zuffa LLC counterparts, then why had they not relocated to the UFC already?
These questions were raised more by skeptical media and fans than the fighters themselves. It was only fair. Before the NFL and AFL merged in 1970, one league was believed to be far superior to the other. Both leagues played football -- the NFL was just better at it, or at least was supposed to be, until a few Super Bowls changed that line of thinking.
In capturing lightweight gold, Henderson has earned the MMA equivalent of a Lombardi Trophy -- in the sport’s most cutthroat division, no less. To do it, he had to beat Edgar, who was perhaps one victory away from securing some “Greatest of All-Time” accolades in his weight class. Instead, thanks in large part to a perfectly placed upkick from Henderson in the second round, it appears that UFC President Dana White is attempting to nudge the Toms River, N.J., native toward featherweight, where a showdown with Jose Aldo would be sure to generate fireworks.
Meanwhile, the new champion was quick to credit a former rival for the move that seemingly turned the tide of a championship fight.
“I have to thank [Donald] ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone for that,” Henderson said in a post-fight interview. “He landed that on me [at WEC 43], and I told him I was going to land it on somebody because that hurt -- bad.”
Cerrone, another WEC stalwart, had an impressive beginning to his own UFC career, winning four of his first five fights in the promotion last year. That “Smooth” remembers their WEC 43 battle is not surprising, as it was one of the best fights of 2009. Long before the WEC-UFC merger came to fruition, Cerrone was adamant that the best of both organizations could compete equally in the same arena.
When Pettis defeated Henderson on that December night back in 2010, it was with the understanding that he would receive a UFC title shot against the winner of Edgar and Gray Maynard. A draw at UFC 125 and subsequent injuries slowed the process, and Pettis took a fight against Clay Guida in the interim. Guida’s suffocating wrestling would put the title dreams of the Duke Roufus protégé on hold, but “Showtime” is to be commended for taking such a high-risk bout. It allowed him to improve the holes in his game and to further appreciate the opportunity he may receive, if White’s statement at the UFC 144 post-fight press conference is to be believed.
“I think he’s going to get it,” White said in regards to a potential Pettis title shot.
Given the ever-changing nature of MMA today, that hardly qualifies as a concrete statement, but White is aware of the potential drawing power of a Henderson-Pettis rematch. As of now, the top video for the Pettis “Kick Heard ’Round the World” has approximately 3.2 million hits on YouTube.
“I was supposed to get a title shot last year,” Pettis said. “We’ve got some unfinished business. Let’s take care of it.”
There is a decent case to be made for Edgar getting his own rematch. Though FightMetric.com shows Henderson landed more significant strikes than “The Answer” in every round but the first, the fight was closely contested, and things could change in another meeting. Still, a move to 145 pounds or a fresh match against another contender would be more appealing than yet another rematch involving Edgar. No matter what happens, the 30-year-old will not be far removed from title consideration.
“It doesn’t really matter to me ... whoever it is, I’m OK with it,” Henderson said. “There is a long list of guys: Nate [Diaz], Jim [Miller], Frankie, Anthony. Let’s do every single one of them.”
It is hard to ignore the symmetry that Henderson-Pettis 2 would provide, however. Fans of the predominantly Wednesday and Sunday night violence the WEC used to supply can certainly appreciate it.
Another school of thought says it is silly to divide fighters based on their previous affiliations. After all, neither Henderson nor Pettis sports WEC attire on his way to the Octagon. Now, they are all employed by the UFC. Then again, both men entered the promotion with a little more to prove, and they have delivered. They are both part of the reason why the lightweight division is considered to be as deep as it is.
UFC 144 was both a tribute to MMA’s history, as well as a demonstration of its progress. Nothing reflects those ideals more than the achievements of Pettis and Henderson, WEC stars of the past and UFC stars of the present.