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Cruz Edges Benavidez, Retains World Title

“Joe Benavidez is a great competitor. I give him all the credit in the world. I respect him a lot. I just concentrated on doing what I do best and that’s being hard to hit. I rank among the best in the world, there’s not a doubt in my mind.” 

LAS VEGAS – The gap between Dominick Cruz and Joseph Benavidez has narrowed considerably, but their rematch Wednesday night produced the same result: Cruz’s hand was raised following a split decision triumph that allowed him to keep his WEC bantamweight title.

The closely contested bout marked Cruz’s first championship defense since winning the belt in March and the 25-year-old Californian fended off a ferocious effort by Benavidez, who landed many more punches against Cruz than in their first go-round last August and even cut the champ on the bridge of his nose.

Coming into the fight Benavidez (12-2) said he could not allow Cruz (16-1) to take him down as he had in their first bout. Yet Cruz’s takedowns again proved to be a big difference maker in their main event at The Palms casino & hotel.

“I gave it all that I had; he just executed again a little better than me,” Benavidez said. “I’m disappointed.”

Judges scored it 49-46 and 48-47 for Cruz and 48-47 for Benavidez. The champ left the cage to an undeserved chorus of boos from a pro-Benavidez crowd that had chanted “Joseph! Joseph! Joseph!” throughout the five-rounder.

“Joe Benavidez is a great competitor. I give him all the credit in the world. I respect him a lot,” said Cruz, who simply seemed “bigger, faster, stronger” than the No. 1 challenger and stuck to his same-old unique and elusive boxing style during the fight. “I just concentrated on doing what I do best and that’s being hard to hit. I rank among the best in the world, there’s not a doubt in my mind.”

In other action Wednesday night at The Pearl:

Anthony Pettis vs. Shane Roller

Get used to seeing a whole lot more Anthony Pettis, perhaps even in a title bout. The man they call “Showtime” found himself in one heck of a scrap in Wednesday night’s co-main event and used stingy takedown defense and a triangle choke to overcome the beast that is Shane Roller.

Standing in the Octagon immediately after the win, Pettis exalted and had a few words for WEC lightweight champ Benson Henderson.

“I’m as high as I’ve ever been … I trained hard for this fight and I’m ready for the champ. Where’s he at?”

Henderson did not respond but was probably impressed with Pettis’ performance, which saw the Milwaukee native often stuffing Roller’s takedowns and scoring with kicks and punches. Not only did Pettis deny most of the takedowns, he actually took Roller down twice.

Dealing with Pettis’ extreme athleticism and acrobatic skills is no easy chore. The Tae Kwon Do black belt fired off cartwheel head kicks, flying front kicks and whacked Roller with a mean upkick. Roller was game and competitive throughout, keeping it close. His best moment came late in the second round when he cornered Pettis against the cage and unleashed a storm of punches.

In the third round, trailing on every judge’s scorecard, Roller had a chance to finish it. He trapped Pettis in his trademark submission – the guillotine – but Pettis rolled out. The Duke Roufus protégé soon trapped Roller in a triangle choke, earning the tap at 4:51 of the final round.

“I was a little frustrated,” Roller said. “I just didn’t feel good in here tonight. I just couldn’t get going.

Chad Mendes vs. Cub Swanson

One of the hottest prospects in MMA, Mendes moved his record to 8-0 by smothering Swanson with eight takedowns and showing much improved standup that will serve as a warning to future featherweights that the former Division I wrestler is just as dangerous with his hands. The Urijah Faber protégé showed evolution in his jab and scored with straight right hands. Swanson heated up in the second round, landing uppercuts and body shots, though he couldn’t really pin down Mendes as he danced about the Octagon.

Judges adjudicated it 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28 for Chad Mendes.

“Cub’s a tough guy,” Mendes said. “Obviously I’m a wrestler so I’m always going to stick with my wrestling. I feel most comfortable on the ground but I’ve been working on my standup so much, so I’m always excited to get in there and use it.”

Brad Pickett vs. Scott Jorgensen

Is Scott Jorgensen next in line for a shot at the WEC bantamweight title? The scrappy Idahoan stated his case by surviving a bloody, back-and-forth bout against Britain’s Brad Pickett.

Jorgensen’s fifth straight win did not come easy. Pickett jumped on him early, catching a kick and knocking him on his rump. Pickett cut Jorgensen beneath his right eye, snapped his head back with a punch, and also stunned him with a powerful right hand. Courtesy of a reliable chin and unquestioned cardio, Jorgensen fought on and, by the second round, his punches were finding their mark with greater frequency – including a right hand that sent Pickett’s mouthpiece flying. The difference in that second round just might have been a Jorgensen takedown that saw him also score with elbows on top.

Blood streamed down the side of Pickett’s face in the third round and Jorgensen scored three takedowns and controlled the action for much of the round, effectively clinching the fight for him and pushing his record to 11-3. Judges scored the fight 30-27 across the board.

“I knew Brad was a tough guy and he can take a punch – I know I can,” Jorgensen said. “I totally deserve that next title shot.”

Bart Palaszewski vs. Zack Micklewright

A barn-burner while it lasted. Palaszewski, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, would have likely enjoyed a significant advantage on the canvas, but instead opted for a slugfest with his fellow Midwesterner that climaxed with an impressive TKO just 31 seconds into round two.

“I’m always out to throw,” Palaszewski said. “I’m an entertainer first and a fighter second. If I have to take a couple blows to the head to put on a show, I’m willing.”

Palaszewski noted that he, in fact, defied the strategy that Jeff Curran and his trainers had designed for the fight.

“We worked wrestling for about three months to get Micklewright to the ground,” he said. “But after a couple of minutes of trying I just said, screw it. Let’s just stand.”

Fans were treated to a high-paced, bombs-away display in the opening stanza that saw both men land some heavy leather – though the blows of “Bartimus” seemed to have more steam on them and landed with a bit more frequency.

Palaszewski stormed Micklewright with punches early in the second round, whacking him with a hard kick to the body and then dropping him with a short right hand. Before Palaszewski could rush in and finish his dazed foe, referee Steve Mazzagatti called an end to the fight. With the win Palaszewski improved to 35-13. Micklewright fell to 9-2.

Anthony Njokuani vs. Maciej Jewtuszko

There aren’t many 155 pounders who crave a standup war with Anthony Njokuani. But Poland’s Maciej Jewtuszko said he wanted a kickboxing match and tonight became the first MMA fighter ever to knockout the lightning-quick contender.

Things started well enough for Njokuani (12-4) when he caught a kick and knocked Jewtuszko to the canvas, then buttered him up with a few heavy punches. Jewtuszko quickly returned to his feet and turned the tables with a spinning backfist that dropped Njokuani. The stunned Nigerian-born fighter gamely fought off a guillotine choke but was dropped again after successive uppercuts. As Njokuani slumped forward and Jewtuszko moved in to pounce, referee Herb Dean stopped the action at 1:36 of round one.

The triumph pushed the Polish firefighter’s record to 8-0.

Mackens Semerzier vs. Javier Vazquez

Vazquez put a jiu-jitsu clinic on Semerzier from the opening horn and then submitted him with a rear-naked choke, making good on his pre-fight prediction. A Gracie jiu-jitsu black belt who considers himself the featherweight division’s best grappler, Vazquez (15-4) slammed Semerzier early in round one and never looked back, constantly threatening for submissions and punishing his Virginia Beach, Va., foe with elbows. The 34-year-old veteran continued his assault in round two, scoring a takedown and transitioning to Semerzier’s back for the fight-ending choke at 1:35 of round two.

Said Vazquez: “I’m pretty sick and tired of getting beat up standing so I made sure I did some beating on the ground.”

Dave Jansen vs. Ricardo Lamas

Lamas notched his third straight win by bloodying Jansen on their feet and holding his own on the mat. In a battle of former collegiate wrestlers, Lamas’ crisp punches and timely kicks – including a nifty body shot to head kick combo – made it clear that Jansen probably needed to take the action to the ground to win. Always very game and extremely tough, Jansen fought on despite a wicked gash over his left eye that bled profusely and made him look like an extra in a horror flick. The gutsy Oregonian kept the fight competitive with takedowns, including a thunderous double-leg in round two.

Despite coming up a little short in the standup exchanges, Jansen controlled much of the second round with three takedowns. Two judges awarded him that round.

Jansen came close to ending the fight in the third-round with a rear-naked choke but Lamas eventually escaped, landed some heavy elbows and threatened with two tight guillotine chokes.

Judges scored the bout 29-28 across the board for Lamas, pushing his record to 9-1 and making him someone to keep an eye on in the WEC lightweight division.

Jansen dropped his second straight and fell to 14-2.

Bryan Caraway vs. Fredson Paixao

The scouting report when you’re fighting Fredson Paixao is fairly simple: Stop his takedowns and make him stand. Well, for the most part Bryan Caraway succeeded at implementing that strategy – and yet it was Paixao who nevertheless emerged with the split decision victory. Caraway often found a home for his left hook in the bout but was on the receiving end of plenty of leg kicks, including one that buckled him early in the first stanza.

Paixao, generally stiff with his standup, scored occasionally with dirty boxing and rare 1-2 combos. Though Caraway successfully stuffed Paixao’s takedowns – and scored a few himself – he seemed overly cautious and unwilling to unleash more than two punches at a time.

Two judges scored it 29-28 for Paixao; one scored it 29-28 for Caraway.

Danny Castillo vs. Dustin Poirier

Determined to halt a two-fight losing streak, Castillo survived several dicey moments in a triangle choke and relied on ground-and-pound to rebuff the previously unbeaten Poirier. A former collegiate wrestler, Castillo’s takedowns were the difference maker in his unanimous decision victory. Poirier, a 21-year-old Louisianan, was making his WEC debut. He came in with a sterling 7-0 record, all by finish. For as long as he could stay upright, Poirier was effective with leg kicks and knees. He briefly threatened Castillo with a knee bar and heel hook but ate some hard leather because of it.

Judges awarded Castillo a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 30-27.

“He’s a tough kid,” Castillo said. “But I’m a tough matchup for anybody. He’a tough, young kid and I think he has a long career in this sport.”