What a difference a year makes!
As 2010 came to a close, so did WEC, a Zuffa owned company that had become known for supplying the best array of “little guys” in the world of mixed martial arts. At the start of 2011 the UFC would be absorbing the WEC and the three divisions it currently held, creating two new champions and one new number-one contender.
The champions of the bantamweight 135 (lb.) and featherweight 145 (lb.) divisions, Dominick Cruz and Jose Aldo transitioned from WEC champions to the first ever UFC champions in their respective weight classes. The weight class at the top of the WEC however was 155 pounds. This called for the final WEC champion to be granted a shot at former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.
On the night of the final WEC show, (12/16/10), the proud promotions lightweight champion was freak of nature Benson Henderson. Challenger Anthony Pettis was entering the biggest fight of his career. Henderson was the favorite going into the fight already having faced the likes of Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner. Four rounds into the classic between the two 155 pounders however, it was clear this fight was dead even. Going into the fifth round of one of the best fights in WEC history it was either man’s fight to win.
What happened next changed the face of the next fourteen months in mixed martial arts. Like in a video game, Anthony Pettis leapt off one leg and drove his other leg into the cage. Using the momentum created, Pettis pushed off kicking a defenseless Benson Henderson in the face. The ultimate highlight instantly created right before our very eyes. The crowd erupted as Pettis did his best to capitalize off the jarring springboard head kick.
In reality, the kick did not come close to finishing the champion, however the sheer elegance and surprising nature of the unbelievable move was enough to win the round, and eventually the fight. Anthony Pettis had just won a title for the first time minutes before relinquishing the same title in order to enter UFC’s lightweight division.
The stage was set in January 2011 for UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar to take on Gray Maynard. MMA fans could predict the overall narrative. Winner gets Anthony Pettis in a unification of WEC and UFC titles. Pettis would have no issue staying out of the cage for up to half a year in order to wait for the winner to heal from their most recent war. Pettis would stay out of the cage for half a year knowing UFC gold and a new worldwide fan base were within reach.
In one of the most miraculous comebacks in UFC history Frankie Edgar avoided a knockout in the first round. Gray Maynard punished him worse than any man had ever been punished without referee interferance. The logical decision of a draw would end the fight after five rounds. Frankie Edgar would keep the title but his first loss to Maynard would not be avenged. Edgar and Maynard were primed for an immediate rematch after fans and experts wanted to see it again.
Due to injuries, the rematch was moved to October leaving Anthony Pettis waiting for 10 months to find an opponent. Pettis decided to get his feet wet in the UFC pool by debuting against fan favorite Clay Guida known for his inability to quit and non-stop motor.
What seemed like an easy win for Pettis backfired after loosing the match. Meanwhile the veteran Clay Guida moved higher up the ranks while Pettis fell behind losing his chance at a title shot.
Benson Henderson on the other hand decided to take on all opponents. First was local favorite Mark Bocek at the biggest UFC event of all time in front of over 55,000 in Toronto. After beating Bocek, Henderson next defeated Jim Miller becoming a new star for UFC audiences.
Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard finally collided for the third time on October 8th, ten months after their “Fight of the Year.” In another miraculous comeback, Edgar managed to survive an early onslaught from the much bigger Maynard, this time knocking him out in the fourth round. Edgar had finally won the war with the much larger Gray Maynard.
The question now became who would face Frankie Edgar? Anthony Pettis, the man once thought to have this distinction was now appearing in preliminary fights due to his loss to Clay Guida. Clay Guida and Benson Henderson would decide who had the honor.
The fight took place on November 12, 2011, the first ever UFC event on FOX telecast. Fans let their voices be heard through Facebook as the fight surely delivered another classic.
Benson Henderson won the decision, displaying levels of preparation that had been present ever since he received a wake-up call in the form of a kick to the face costing him the WEC championship. Eleven months later however, Benson defeated Guida and managed to get back exactly to where he would have been had he beaten Anthony Pettis in the final WEC title match. With the two Gray Maynard fights and the injuries that kept those fights from taking place in a timely fashion, Benson would have had to wait a long time to actually get that shot he earned anyway. Instead of sitting around and waiting for that to happen, by losing that initial bout with Anthony Pettis, Henderson was able to spend his 2011 doing nothing but proving himself to the UFC fans through victory after victory and more importantly, getting better.
It was more than fitting than that Anthony Pettis, who once went to bed knowing he would take on Frankie Edgar for the title once he got through Gray Maynard, would be fighting on the same card from Tokyo, Japan on February 25th 2012. Unlike his former counterpart Benson Henderson, who would be performing in the night’s main event, Pettis would be taking on the very tough Joe Lauzon. Although he would be doing so in one of the first matches on the card. On top of that, this was a card that had seven fights on it, two more than the typical five for a UFC PPV. Anthony Pettis and Benson Henderson could not have been further from one another on this deep star-studded card UFC was putting on from Japan.
And then it happened.
He did it again. With the same foot that won him the WEC title in December 2010, Anthony Pettis knocked out Joe Lauzon less than two minutes into the first round in what would be the highlight of the night.
Even with fighters like Jim Miller and Nate Diaz lurking in the wings hoping to receive the next lightweight title shot, Pettis used his opportunity to remind Joe Silva, Dana White and everyone else at the UFC why he was the one who was supposed to defend the WEC against the UFC champion. More importantly, by delivering a picture perfect knockout in a similar fashion to how he once defeated the man in the night’s main event, Anthony Pettis made one thing very clear. If Benson Henderson were to win the UFC lightweight championship, there is nobody who deserves their shot at him more than Anthony Pettis, the man who might be directly responsible for the positive changes and drastic evolution in the game of Benson Henderson.
A year after the final WEC title match was supposed to decide who would be the man to represent the company vs. the UFC champion, the man who lost that fight has just become the UFC lightweight champion.
Benson Henderson defeated Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision to become the new UFC lightweight champion.
The last man to defeat the new UFC champion is Anthony Pettis, who ironically did so in order to win what he thought would be a shot at the UFC title. Through a bunch of random circumstances and chance occurrences like Edgar v Maynard II going to a draw and the rematch getting pushed due to injuries, Benson Henderson was able to leap past Anthony Pettis by getting win after win, proving that in the world of MMA nothing is for certain, even a guaranteed title shot.
By winning the title however, Benson Henderson has done the one thing no other fighter could have done. By becoming champion, Henderson makes Anthony Pettis the obvious number one contender by association. Who better to take on the new champion than the last man to defeat him, a man who is also on a two fight win streak and won his last fight in devastating fashion? The answer is nobody.
Dana White has mentioned that Pettis vs. Henderson II seems too perfect to pass up. With the timing working out perfectly, it makes more sense to book that fight right away than to wait and see who wins the Jim Miller vs. Nate Diaz fight on FOX on May 5th. If Frankie Edgar had retained his title however, there is almost no chance the UFC would even be considering Pettis as the next contender for the belt. Funny how things work out sometimes.
Ever since the kick heard round the world took place on the final WEC show in December 2010, Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis have been connected by that moment, that highlight and that fight. Who knows if Benson Henderson would have been the fighter he is today. The fighter that was able to beat the unbeatable Frankie Edgar, if he had defeated Anthony Pettis on that day.
History shows that the victory over Henderson did not prepare Pettis for UFC competition, namely Clay Guida. The loss however, drove Henderson to become the fighter that defeated Bocek, defeated Miller, defeated Guida and now has defeated Frankie Edgar to become UFC Champion. The loss to Clay Guida however has turned Anthony Pettis into a better fighter, a fighter who now knows just how good he needs to be. Two fights and one impressive knockout later and Anthony Pettis not only seems like a guy who could defeat a UFC champion, but he is a guy that we have seen defeat the man who currently holds the belt. After the fantastic show the UFC put on this past weekend in the land of the rising sun, it sure seems like Anthony Pettis vs. Benson Henderson II might be on the horizon.
What a difference a year makes…