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Not So 'Smooth' Sailing: Henderson Edges Cerrone For Interim Title

Frank Curreri, WEC - Jamie Varner may not have to 'Cowboy up' after all. Instead, the WEC lightweight champion will be preparing to face Benson Henderson, who inched past Donald 'Cowboy' Cerrone in a suspenseful five-rounder that may prove worthy of Fight of The Year consideration.

By Frank Curreri

SAN ANTONIO, Tex. – Jamie Varner may not have to “Cowboy up” after all. Instead, the WEC lightweight champion will be preparing to face Benson Henderson, who inched past Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in a suspenseful five-rounder that may prove worthy of Fight of The Year consideration.

Varner watched cageside at AT & T Center as his archrival Cerrone unleashed five or six deep submission attempts on Henderson, who somehow weathered each storm and refused to tap when most would have. With his victory, Henderson claimed the WEC lightweight interim title.

“Thank God! That was an absolutely awesome fight,” Henderson, sporting a large welt under his left eye, said afterward. “Now I know I can do it (fight a five-round war) and, no I don’t want to do it again … Jamie Varner, let’s do it!”

The judges unanimously viewed Henderson as the winner by identical 48-47 scores. It is fairly safe to say that any reasonably knowledgeable MMA fan would have given Cerrone, a notoriously slow starter, rounds four and five. The lanky Coloradan repeatedly rebuffed Henderson’s takedown attempts in the championship rounds, got the better of the standup (cracking Henderson with a couple of mean uppercuts and upkicks, too) and sunk in deep guillotine chokes, armbars and oma platas that had fans sitting on their edge of their seats. And Henderson calmly played Houdini and somehow escaped.

Rounds two and three told a completely different story. Henderson scored a number of takedowns, stood over Cerrone and battered him with hard punches and elbows for minutes at a time. The pivotal round, it seems, was a heavenly round one. How you scored it might depend upon how much weight you give to grappling versus how much weight you give to striking. It was Cerrone (9-2) who came closest to finishing the fight in round one. Seconds into the bout, he combated a Henderson shot with a deep guillotine choke and squeezed with all his might for what must have been more than 30 seconds. From there, Cerrone smoothly transitioned to a triangle choke. For the first minute and 45 seconds of the round – Henderson was trapped in submissions. Then the pendulum swung dramatically in the second-half of the round, with Henderson standing over his foe and raining down heavy leather. It was indeed a tough round to score.

The outcome throws into jeopardy a Varner-Cerrone rematch, which would be among the most anticipated fights in the WEC’s 10-year history. Varner didn’t seem disappointed and had this to say after the fight:

“Donald, I don’t like you but you’re one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever met. You’re an exciting fighter.”

Neither a date nor a venue has been set for the Varner-Henderson fight, but Varner is lobbying for the bout to take place in Phoenix, where he lives and trains.

In other WEC action on Saturday night:

Rich Crunkilton vs. Dave Jansen

Dave Jansen survived an all-out war with Rich Crunkilton to win his WEC debut and remain unbeaten. The Team Quest product was tested early and often by Crunkilton in a torridly paced bout that featured a barrage of takedowns, submission attempts and standup exchanges.

Round one was pure blitzkrieg and a grappling fan’s delight. There were takedown attempts galore, switches for reversals, a Greco-Roman throw by Crunkilton and Jansen immediately popping to his feet. Crunkilton attempted a kneebar and a heelhook from his guard, and a D’Arce choke from his back. Jansen defended and then went for a north-south choke in vain.

Jansen scored with some effective ground-and-pound strikes and attempted a rear naked choke. But Crunkilton (18-3) fought back to his feet, landed two nice front kicks to the midsection and stunned Jansen with punches before being taken down at the conclusion of round one.

From there, Crunkilton repeatedly landed the bigger punches on their feet, and Jansen, a former University of Oregon wrestler, responded by scoring takedowns and putting Crunkilton in his back and that control is what likely what caused judges to award Jansen a unanimous decision victory by scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28.

An exhausted and spent Jansen improved to 11-0.

Raphael Assuncao vs. Yves Jabouin

Assuncao rattled off his sixth straight win despite stiff opposition from Yves Jabouin, an extremely quick striker who trains in Montreal alongside Georges St-Pierre. If you could decide conclusively who won the first round, well, you’re a better man than I am. In what was exclusively a standup affair, Jabouin stuffed Assuncao’s takedown attempts and both men landed effective punches, but nothing too damaging.

Both men were active and aggressive, and Assuncao, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, surprisingly held his own in the standup exchanges and landed some decent combinations. A key moment of round two featured a pretty spinning back kick by Jabouin that knocked Assuncao against the cage, followed by a hard right hand to the head.

In round three, Assuncao used a beautiful foot sweep that dropped Jabouin momentarily, and later scored a takedown and took the Canadian’s back with the hooks in. The Brazilian was unable to achieve a fight-ending choke as Jabouin showed improved submission defense. Jabouin got back to his feet and scored with yet another powerful spinning back kick, then a hard right hand and then a mean spinning back fist. Assuncao was able to take it to the ground again and take Jabouin’s back again, to no avail.

In the end, the judges awarded Assuncao a split decision by scores of 30-27, 29-28, and 27-30, pushing the Brazilian’s record to 14-1. Jabouin, meanwhile, fell to 14-5.

Damacio Page vs. Will Campuzano

Based on Page’s reputation and the sinister look in his eyes as he walked to the cage, you had the feeling that Campuzano would be under siege in a matter of seconds. And, just as sure as the sun will rise tomorrow, Page and Campuzano met in the middle of the Octagon and swung for the fences. As electric as the moment was, it was short-lived as Page quickly secured a double-leg takedown, evaded a triangle choke, took Campuzano’s back and ended the fight with a rear naked choke just 62 seconds into the opening stanza. That means that all but one of Page’s 12 wins have come in the first round.

Campuzano, who resides in Dallas, had taken the fight on short notice.

Muhsin Corbbrey vs. Anthony Njokuani

WEC lightweights, don’t say we didn’t warn you: You probably don’t want to stand too long against Anthony Njokuani. That was the message that emerged loud and clear after the Nigerian-American’s surgical destruction of a very game but overmatched Muhsin Corbbrey. Despite scattered boos from some in the crowd, Njokuani stayed disciplined and executed his game plan, which was to keep his distance, stuff the takedown, and batter his shorter foe with precision punches and kicks. And the strategy worked to perfection for “The Assassin.”

Late in the first, Corbbrey (14-5) went to the canvas and Njokuani stood over top of him and landed several diving right hands with plenty of mustard on them. Corbbrey, a well-rounded fighter who is adept at leg locks and knee bars, hunted to gain hold of Njokuani’s legs but Njokuani (11-2) would have none of it and wisely invited the Team Lloyd Irvin prodigy back to his feet.

In the second stanza, Corbbrey, who has pro boxing and extensive Muay Thai experience, was unable to gain any momentum. A high kick to the head floored Corbbrey. When the Savannah, Ga., fighter popped to his feet, Njokuani tagged with a hard right that sent him right back to the canvas. Apparently dazed, Corbbrey frantically scrambled but absorbed a few heavy shots, prompting the referee to halt the bout at 1:42 of round two.

“This is a fight you can’t take any chances, even though they were booing,” Njokuani said afterward. “Sorry, but you need to play it safe.”

Noah Thomas vs. Scott Jorgensen

Thomas fought on short notice as a replacement for the injured Rafael Rebello and, unfortunately for Thomas, the lack of preparation showed. Jorgensen stole all the suspense early, muscling the former contestant from The Ultimate Fighter reality show and dropping him with a flurry of punches. On top, Jorgensen pounded Thomas with punches and elbows, forcing a TKO stoppage at 3:13 of round one.

With the win, the former Boise State University wrestler pushed his record to 7-3, 3-2 in the WEC.

Mackens Semerzier vs. Wagnney Fabianno

There was a “wow” moment in the arena tonight, and a relative unknown named Mackens Semerzier provided it. Much of the MMA world will be talking about the unbeaten Virginia Beach, Va., fighter after his stunning first-round submission over Fabiano, one of the world’s preeminent featherweights. To the untrained eye, things seemed to start miserably for Semerzier when he was taken down by the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. As Fabiano attempted to pass the guard, Semerzier explosively raised his hips and caught Fabiano in an ultra-tight triangle choke. Seconds later, the tap came, setting off euphoria among Semerzier’s corner – which included former WEC bantamweight champion and training partner Miguel Torres.

Despite producing the monumental upset – arguably one of the biggest in MMA so far this year – the normally upbeat Semerzier acted relatively cavalier in the cage, as if he himself had been an overwhelming favorite to prevail. He had signed up for this bout on short notice after Fabiano’s original opponent, Erik Koch, succumbed to injury. Coming into the fight, Semerzier spoke confidently in interviews and had the air of someone determined to shock a lot of people. And, to his credit, the Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt under Pedro Sauer did just that while pushing his record to 7-0. Fabiano, who had won eight straight and had not tasted defeat in three years, fell to 13-2.

Manny Tapia vs. Eddie Wineland

The kryptonite to Eddie Wineland has always been submissions. The former WEC bantamweight showed why so few people want to stand with him against Tapia. From the opening horn, until the final horn, Wineland used deft head movement, counterpunching and pinpoint combinations to outclass “The Mangler.” Wineland, fighting out of Chesterton, Indiana, set the tone for the match early, slipping a Tapia punch and countering with a hard uppercut. That scenario would repeat itself many times over – Wineland slipping a Tapia punch and countering with an overhand right, or a straight right, or a left hand.

In the end, the judges awarded Wineland a unanimous decision victory by scores of 30-27 across the board.

Coty “Ox” Wheeler vs. Charlie Valencia

Valencia, who had lost two of three coming into this bout, came out and cracked Wheeler with a hard right hand seconds in and quickly learned that Wheeler is very difficult to floor. Both men waged a fast-paced, back-and-forth fight, with Valencia getting the better of their standup exchanges, but Wheeler repeatedly taking the action to the canvas and fishing for heel hooks, foot locks and kneebars.

The first round was a coin-toss, with Wheeler coming on in the second-half of the round, especially during a 30-second period when Valencia just seemed distracted and let Wheeler unleash a bevy of punches (Valencia would later say “my legs went out on me”).

In round two, the topsy-turvy battle continued, with Wheeler being the aggressor with spinning backfists, kicks, more fishing for heel hooks and an armbar attempt. As he came out for round three, Wheeler had swelling and a small cut above his left eye. The action slowed just a tad, but Valencia looked the busier of the two, landing an impressive 1-2-3 combination and following it up with a knee to the face, doing enough to win the 29-28 twice and 30-27 unanimous decision.

Deividas Taurosevicius vs. Javier Vazquez

Former rugby player Taurosevicius outhustled Vazquez for the first two rounds with punches, kicks and aggressiveness, then held off a furious rally down the stretch to emerge victorious in his WEC debut. A Lithuanian who now runs his own MMA gym in New York, Taurosevicius (11-3) seemed to control the first two rounds (predominantly a standup affair) with his aggression and effective punches and leg kicks that lacked devastation but scored with the judges. He brushed with defeat in the first round when Vazquez locked him in a triangle choke and nearly ended the fight, but Taurosevicius eventually popped his head and escaped.

Vazquez, a Gracie Jiu Jitsu black belt, picked up the pace in the third round. With Taurosevicius slowing a bit, perhaps due to fatigue, Vazquez (13-4) landed two solid right hands that stunned him. The Cuban-American then took his opponent down, took his back and rained down punches. Vazquez hunted for the rear naked choke but Taurosevicius managed to escape and survive until the closing bell.

Taurosevicius was awarded a split decision win by scores of 29-28, 29-28, and 28-29.