Glendale, Ariz. -- Unlike college basketball, the sport of MMA doesn’t have a “Final Four.” But Thursday night’s main event between Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis certainly has a Final Four type of feel to it. That’s because the victor will not only walk away with the WEC lightweight title, but is also guaranteed a shot at the UFC lightweight title next year. Having so much on the line presents an extraordinary set of opportunities for both fighters as they also prepare to make history by competing in the final bout in the WEC’s illustrious 9 and ½ year existence.
Henderson, the easy-going WEC champ and winner of 10 straight, lives and trains in Glendale and welcomes the potential benefits of a home crowd advantage. He has sparred in the past with former UFC champion BJ Penn and has long been keenly aware that he would never get the full credit he deserves, or be able to prove the full extent of his skills, until he was pitted against the UFC’s lightweight crop. Now, with the WEC set to merge with its big brother, the 27-year-old and his peers will get that chance. Henderson went so far as to say that he will be taking a piece of the WEC with him into the UFC, and that despite being a world champion he will be cloaked in an underdog’s clothing, mindful that some may perceive him to be a second-tier fighter underneath of the UFC’s elite. That is a perception he, Pettis and other WEC veterans hope to shatter.
“You better believe that there’s going to still be a chip on our shoulder, a chip on my shoulder personally, when I go against any UFC guy,” said the soft-spoken Henderson (12-1). “It’s nothing that they’ve done personally but I’ve got that chip on my shoulder. So I’m definitely going to be here to leave that legacy for the WEC.”
Of course, none of the stars in Henderson’s universe will align if he doesn’t first turn back the dynamic, highly unpredictable threat that is Anthony Pettis. Appropriately nicknamed “Showtime” for his penchant for flashiness inside of the cage, Pettis is a standup force who trains under one of the game’s most respected Muay Thai instructors, Duke Roufus. Pettis’ combination of athleticism, speed and technique make him particularly dangerous with punches, head kicks, flying knees and spinning backfists – surprise elements that can end a fight in an instant. While it is widely perceived that Henderson, a former collegiate wrestler with a wicked guillotine, could dominate on the canvas, Pettis is coming off a submission victory over Shane Roller – another accomplished wrestler with a nasty guillotine.
“The biggest thing I like about Anthony is that he gets better every fight,” said Henderson, who holds two bachelor’s degrees in criminal justice and sociology. “He’s shown improvement in every area of his game, every fight. He’s improved his takedown defense and is finishing his submissions as well. He doesn’t fold under pressure; I like that.”
Despite his occasional flamboyance, Pettis is also a tough character. In a 2008 pro fight, the Milwaukee native was slammed to the canvas and suffered a dislocated shoulder. He shot to his feet and soon fired a sizzling head kick that knocked out his opponent. Heading into the biggest fight of his career, the 23-year-old former subject of an MTV “World of Jenks” episode said he aims to “make Milwaukee proud.” The memory of a loved one is also something that continues to fuel his fire.
“My dad was killed in an armed robbery in 2003,” he said. “I still use many of the life lessons he taught me.”
Pettis (10-1) said he is often asked, “How would you do against UFC guys?” He believes that Thursday night’s fight will help answer that question. He is not the least bit concerned about fighting the champ in his hometown.
“I’m excited because it’s not going to be 19 degrees out,” said Pettis, alluding to the frigid Milwaukee weather. “I get to wear some shorts out there. So, I mean, the crowd’s going to boo me or however it plays out. No matter what, it’s just me and Ben in that cage and that speaks for itself. It’s not the crowd inside there, so I’m not going to let that get to my head and I’m just going to fight my fight.”
Pettis conceded that he will try to exploit Henderson in the standup realm, if possible. The No.1 challenger said he looks forward to joining the UFC, hopefully fighting for the world title in his debut.
Henderson, meanwhile, perhaps spoke for both men in framing his gratitude to the WEC and GM Reed Harris, and also the new adventure that is right around the corner.
“I am completely thankful to the WEC, which has been my home,” Henderson said, expressing his mixed emotions. “I grew up a lot as a fighter in the WEC. I got national exposure. The life I live now is all thanks to WEC. For whatever reason, maybe it’s just a small bit of jealousy … but there has been a chip on our shoulder for not getting quite the recognition that we felt we deserve.
“I think every time there was a WEC we fought with a chip on our shoulder; like we wanted to stand out. We wanted to catch people’s attention, catch their eye and make people say, ‘Oh, man, did you watch those fights the other day? That was WEC. I was flipping through the channels and I saw these guys throwing down. They were all over the place, jumping off the cage and running around and it’s just non-stop action.’
Plenty at Stake for Henderson and Pettis
“I am completely thankful to the WEC, which has been my home. I grew up a lot as a fighter in the WEC. I got national exposure. The life I live now is all thanks to WEC."