It was hard sitting on the WEC/UFC merger news, but I had made a promise and intended to keep it. I did, however, have plenty of time to think about what was coming up. There are lots of positives and a handful of negatives. It will be exciting to see the lighter weights in the UFC (although it will be less exciting for the many fighters who won't make the transition over) and it will eliminate any potential viewer confusion. These are the best smaller fighters in the world - and now there won't be any question about it in the eyes of casual fans.That's a good thing.
The announcement that the WEC lightweight title will be consolidated with the UFC version of the belt, however, fits squarely in the negative column. Neither fighter in December's WEC title showdown, Benson Henderson or Anthony Pettis, has proven they belong in the UFC upper echelon, let alone in a title fight. Henderson is currently ranked fourteenth in the SBNation/USA Today rankings. Pettis is unranked. Making this a title eliminator for UFC gold is mind boggling.
There's nothing wrong with bringing either fighter over to the UFC. Both are super talented prospects. Henderson is 12-1 and the WEC champion. Pettis is 12-1, with his single loss coming in very controversial fashion. But a title shot? Neither man has beaten a top 25 fighter in his entire career. Running through Donald Cerrone and Shane Roller doesn't prepare you for the top of the 155 pound food chain.
I understand why the UFC is keen to make this match. It legitimizes Henderson and Pettis and brings the WEC stars in as equals. It's a damned if you do, damned if you don't proposition. Had they chosen to simply eliminate the WEC title instead of consolidating it, fans would have complained about that too. The UFC will need these fighters going forward with an ambitious and aggressive 2011 schedule. They will need new stars and think this is the way to make them.
The problem? The WEC fighters aren't equals and may not be ready to be stars. Henderson and Pettis have done every thing expected of them. They've beaten the guys put across the cage. But no one pretended that the winner of a Brian Stann-Steve Cantwell fight was worthy of a bout with the UFC champion. Zuffa just quietly folded the division. WEC lightweights, like their light heavweight and welterweight cousins, aren't in the second tier promotion instead of the UFC because Zuffa wanted some equality across brands in the lightweight division. They are in the WEC because they weren't good enough when they signed their contracts to be in the UFC. That's a hard truth, but a truth nonetheless.
The result of all this will be the least qualified UFC title contender since Justin Eilers at UFC 53. But at least Zuffa realized that Eilers, who had just been brutally knocked out by Paul Buentello, wasn't a fitting challenger. They first tried reaching out to Josh Barnett, Pedro Rizzo, and Buentello to face interim champion Andrei Arlovski. All had reasons they couldn't compete. Here Dana White and his team have made a conscious effort to give a title fight to an unworthy challenger. Whoever wins between Henderson and Pettis will skip the line, knocking Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk, George Sotiropoulos, Evan Dunham, and Jim Miller aside. Not an auspicious beginning for a promotion that prides itself on giving the fans the best and most competitive matchups they can.