WEC 53 Preview: Ben Henderson, Anthony Pettis Battle for UFC Lightweight Contention

Wec_53_poster_mediumWorld Extreme CageFighting has provided us with some of the most exciting mixed martial arts action for years, and as a promotion that has been shrouded in the shadow of the UFC for a very long time -- it's sad to see these spectacular cards meet their demise. While we'll still get to see the fantastic speed and ferocity of the featherweights and bantamweights in the UFC, it won't match the excitement that an entire card of those types of fights can bring to an otherwise dull Wednesday, Thursday, or Sunday night. And in retrospect, the WEC offered more bang for your buck than most UFC cards. There in lies the reasoning behind the merger.

Without further ado, the WEC's final event will take place on Thursday, December 16th from the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Arizona, a venue that was chosen by fan voting. The card will feature a main event title showdown between current WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson and #1 contender Anthony Pettis, and it will determine the #1 contender to the UFC Lightweight crown. That title will be up for grabs at UFC 125 as Gray Maynard battles Frankie Edgar. 

Also on the card is a WEC bantamweight championship title bout between current title holder Dominick Cruz and challenger Scott Jorgensen. The winner will be crowned the first UFC bantamweight champion. Donald Cerrone, Chris Horodecki, Bart Palaszewski, Kamal Shalorus, Tiequan Zhang, and Danny Downes round out the main card of action.

Lightweight Title Bout: Ben Henderson (12-1, 5-0 WEC) vs. Anthony Pettis (11-1, 4-1 WEC): This battle will determine the next contender for the UFC Lightweight championship, and while most fans have scoffed at the idea that these "B-level" fighters are getting such a huge opportunity from the outcome of this fight -- people need to remember that Frankie Edgar, if he shall retain the title, isn't exactly a huge 155'er. After all, many fans felt he should drop down to the 145 pound division after his run in with Gray Maynard in their first encounter, and that may still happen if Maynard smothers Edgar in wrestling at UFC 125.

From my own point of view however, I don't think either fighter is capable of attaining the UFC crown, nor are they going to destroy many of the top ten talents in the division. Henderson has made a career out of a slick submission game, but he's also been dominated by opponents in the past -- only to come back and win. We could talk about how he has all of these intangibles that just can't be measured when coming into a huge fight like his WEC 53 showdown with Anthony Pettis, but it's hard for me to ignore past performances and what I consider to be "luck". 

Henderson has been improved in the latter part of his career however, so those supporting statements don't hold water at this stage in his career. But they still sit in the back of my mind when he's facing a legitimate talent like Anthony Pettis. 

I can't say enough good things about Duke Roufus' training methods when it comes to kickboxing in mixed martial arts, and Pettis embodies those principles. Defense isn't ignored in his system, and offense is much more dynamic in its delivery as we saw when Erik Koch blasted Francisco Rivera at WEC 52. Unlike the Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic of recent memory, Roufus' fighters are taught to mix up kicks in order to land the downing blow, and that's been evident in some of Pettis' performances as well. 

On the ground, I think Henderson has an advantage if he can maintain top control. He's one of the stronger competitors in the division from that position, and his ground and pound can be crushing enough to cause some panic from his opponents. That is normally when Henderson takes full advantage in a scramble, sinking in the guillotine choke.

A lot of fans are dismissing Pettis here, but Henderson isn't exactly a dominant force. While he has won fight after fight at the apex of the division,  he hasn't done so in a way that would inspire confidence in him blasting through most of the UFC's top fifteen lightweights. Neither has Pettis, but at only 23 years of age -- it's hard to sell me a story that doesn't include Pettis in the future of the UFC's lightweight division. Henderson will be in that discussion as well, but his skill-set just isn't as well rounded or as effective as what I predict Pettis will become. At this stage however, Henderson has the proven edge in conditioning and survivability, and that will come into play in the latter stages of this fight. I'll go with Henderson via submission in the third or fourth round, but that isn't to say Pettis won't put up a fight or shock the world with a knockout win on Thursday night. 

Check out comprehensive previews of the rest of the WEC 53 card after the jump....

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Bantamweight Title BoutDominick Cruz (16-1, 6-1 WEC) vs. Scott Jorgensen (11-3, 7-2 WEC): I won't dull you with the nitty gritty on each fighter. We've seen Jorgensen many, many times during live broadcasts, and everyone who follows the WEC knows that his style involves in-your-face striking barrages coupled with solid wrestling skills. Cruz, on the other hand, employs a "hit and never be hit" mentality as his footwork has become a staple of his strategy in fights. His herky-jerky movement on the feet has caused a lot of his opponents to swing at air, and it is one of the most effective ways in which Cruz is able to avoid being hit.

Combine those skills with a lengthy frame, great takedown defense, and solid wrestling ability, and you have the skill-set of a champion. While Benavidez certainly showed that Cruz is beatable by taking him to a split decision in August, Jorgensen doesn't have the skills that Benavidez possesses. His wrestling isn't as good as Benavidez, but he does have the striking to possibly catch Cruz in exchanges. The problem with that logic, however, is that Cruz doesn't tend to stand toe-to-toe and let his hands go. He's content with throwing combinations and escaping before the counter is delivered. I fully expect to see that on display Thursday night with Cruz winning via decision.

LightweightDonald Cerrone (12-3-0-1, 5-3-0-1 WEC) vs. Chris Horodecki (16-2, 2-1 WEC): I've been a bit outspoken about my dislike for some of the tactics that Chris Horodecki implements from fight to fight, but I ate crow when he defeated Ed Ratcliff at WEC 51. That doesn't mean I've become a fan overnight, however, as I still think he has a lot of work to do when it comes to mixing up his strikes on the feet. But it's good to see some proof that Horodecki can compete with some of the better fighters in this division, and he'll need to continue to do so if he hopes to have any chance in the UFC.

Cerrone isn't going to make it easy, and most fans would tell you that this is a fight that's tailor made for him to impress on Thursday night. I would tend to agree with that conclusion as Cerrone's lengthy frame, booming Muay Thai kicks, and diverse submission game will cause all sorts of problems for Horodecki. Horodecki's striking game will more than likely suffer from the danger of Cerrone's limbs entangling him on the ground, but as everyone knows -- Cerrone is as hard headed as they come. Look for Cerrone to bang with Horodecki for most of this fight, eventually blasting Horodecki at some point and sinking in the choke while he's stunned.

LightweightBart Palaszewski (35-13, 4-2 WEC) vs. Kamal Shalorus (6-0-2, 2-0-1 WEC): Shalorus' wrestling in tandem with his underrated grappling ability should be the winning formula in this fight. While Bart is highly experienced, he is rather inconsistent in his performances and his lack of knockout power lessens his chances of victory here. Shalorus grinds out Palaszewski for three rounds and earns himself a decision win in this fairly meaningless lightweight scrap.

LightweightDanny Downes (6-1, 0-1 WEC) vs. Tiequan Zhang (12-0, 1-0 WEC): I'm still a bit skeptical regarding Zhang's move to the WEC. While he did dispatch of Pablo Garza quickly at WEC 51 back in September, battling it out against regional competition in countries like China and the Phillipines doesn't inspire confidence that he's a great pick-up for the WEC in terms of talent. Zhang does have quite a bit of skill however, and it's been proven in the grappling arena against better than average, known Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts. 

Normally, I'd side with the Duke Roufus product in match-ups like these, mainly because Duke understands the intricacies of kickboxing in a way that molds perfectly in mixed martial arts. We see that from fighters like Erik Koch and Anthony Pettis. Unfortunately, Downes hasn't followed in those footsteps, and his weakness is the constant pressure of a clinch game that turns into a ground war. Zhang can implement that gameplan well, and it should net him the win here.

Preliminary Card

LightweightShane Roller (8-3, 5-2 WEC) vs. Jamie Varner (16-4-0-2, 4-2-1 WEC): Pettis showed that Roller's wrestling can be neutralized with brilliant takedown defense. Varner has the skills to do the same, and his striking will pepper Roller badly in this fight. Furthermore, Roller is guaranteed to fade as the fight drags on while Varner is a bit more of a safe bet in that department. I suppose Roller could control Varner on the ground, but I'm not banking on it. Varner via TKO.

BantamweightIvan Menjivar (21-7, 0-0 WEC) vs. Brad Pickett (19-5, 2-1 WEC): Menjivar was out of the sport for roughly four years, and he has managed to drop down to bantamweight after slowing progressing down from welterweight over the last five or six years. His return came in June of this year in a first round submission victory over Aaron Miller at W-1 MMA 5 in Montreal, and he was snatched up by his former employer, Zuffa, in November. 

His background make this a very interesting battle. He's only 28 years old, even after retiring for four years, and he has experience against some of the best in the world including a stint with the UFC. A good submission game and powerful hands make up Menjivar's skill-set, but his major weakness during his glory days was his inability to stuff takedowns against better competition. While that did lead to triangle choke submissions from his back, most high level fighters could control him.

Pickett has a style that could be very controlling on the ground, but I'm very interested to see the explosiveness that Menjivar has at 135 pounds. He is training with Firas at Tri-star gym, but that isn't surprising since there is plenty of video from four to five years ago of Firas cornering him and training him in those days as well. That should give him access to all of the best talent, and from what I've heard in interviews -- Menjivar never stopped training.

While I do think Menjivar still has some gas in the tank to make waves in the division at some point, Pickett isn't the easiest debut fight for Ivan. All of that training that Pickett has done stateside with Mike Brown and company has paid dividends for his career, and his grappling game is very dangerous. I anticipate Pickett controlling Menjivar for most of the fight, winning via unanimous decision.

BantamweightKen Stone (9-1, 0-0 WEC) vs. Eddie Wineland (17-6-1, 4-2 WEC): Wineland's recent string of wins has been unnoticed by most fans simply because he's tried and failed when it came to battles against some bigger names in the division. Losses to Rani Yahya and Chase Beebe didn't help his status with fans, but victories over Manny Tapia, George Roop, and Will Campuzano have put him back on track to gain another more relevant fight in the future. 

Stone won't offer much hope of banging out Wineland, and Wineland's footwork and powerful striking should pepper Stone early. Stone is a wrestler however, and Wineland has historically had problems with those type of fighters. But I think he'll land a downing shot quickly in this match-up. I'll take Eddie via TKO.

LightweightWill Kerr (9-2, 1-1 WEC) vs. Danny Castillo (9-3, 4-3 WEC): Team Alpha Male has been on a roll as of late, but Danny Castillo can't say he's been a part of the fight camp's ascension in the WEC. He's gone 1-2 in his last 3 fights, although his two losses weren't against average competition. Anthony Pettis is fighting for the WEC Lightweight title tonight, and Shane Roller has the wrestling background that dwarfs most lightweights. 

Kerr is on the rise after surprising many fans by submitting Karen Darabedyan at WEC 49 via armbar at 1:20 of the first round, but I think he'll run into the typical style mismatch that Team Alpha Male fighters present. Strong wrestling and striking should punish Kerr in this match-up, and I imagine Castillo will find a way to finish off Kerr. I'll take Castillo via TKO here.

LightweightYuri Alcantara (20-3, 0-0 WEC) vs. Ricardo Lamas (9-1, 4-1 WEC): This should be an entertaining clash of wills as both Alcantara and Lamas can bring it in terms of power and pace. Alcantara tends to look rather bored in his approach, but he unleashes flurries of punches and kicks with cruel intentions in flashes. Lamas is the wrestler with brutal ground and pound in this match-up, and that may be the best style for success as Alcantara has shown in past battles in Brazil that he can't keep himself off his back for long. While he does have a threatening jiu-jitsu game, Lamas has shown the ability to power out of holds and keep himself out of trouble. 

With that said, I think Lamas will pull off the victory on Thursday. Alcantara has the skills on the feet to punish Lamas, but if Lamas decides to relentlessly work for takedowns and wear down Alcantara -- he should win via decision. The only question is whether he can avoid the early onslaught.

BantamweightRenan Barao (23-1-0-1, 1-0 WEC) vs. Chris Cariaso (10-1, 1-0 WEC): Conventional wisdom would suggest that the Nova Uniao product will prevail in this match-up, but Cariaso offers some dynamic striking skills that could put Barao on dangerous ground. Cariaso's powerful kicking game will serve as a means to ending this fight quickly, but I anticipate Barao's ground skills to control Cariaso and ride out a decision. But don't put too much stock in that prediction as Cariaso has the stand-up game to be a nightmare for Barao, derailing his hopes of making an impact in the division.

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