One of the interesting discussions among fans in the aftermath of WEC 48 is the potential of the WEC's current lightweight champion Ben "Smooth" Henderson. Not only has he rattled off eleven straight victories with only two going the distance, but he's also managed to knock off some of the WEC's top lightweights in Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone, and top notch NCAA wrestler Shane Roller in his quest to become the WEC's undisputed champion.
While his one minute and fifty-seven second choke out of Donald Cerrone on Saturday night has sparked some interest in his arrival in the UFC down the road, there is some discussion as to whether Henderson will suffer the same fate as those past champions of the heavier weight classes who found their way into the UFC when Zuffa merged the divisions.
As Jonathan Snowden opined in a fanpost here on BloodyElbow.com, he believes the historical precedence of the past merger of the WEC's heavier weight classes may reveal Henderson's fate at a higher level:
They are the lightweight equivalents of Steve Cantwell, Brian Stann, and Carlos Condit. You remember those fine gentlemen right? These were Henderson's WEC counterparts at 170 and 205 pounds. They were all sold as "world" champions, just like Henderson. And then they went to the UFC and quickly faded from the scene. Condit, at one point, was considered a top-10 fighter based on his WEC pedigree. That illusion quickly disappeared as Condit fell back to the middle of the pack. Stann and Cantwell seem to racing each other out of the promotion all together. None of them seem like potential prospects any more. The WEC illusion has washed away. Or it should have.
The point Snowden makes is that success in the WEC is "often illusory". But I think there are some unfair comparisons here in the context of the discussion. While these fighters were sold as "world champions", casual fans were really the only victims of this illusion. Any fan who had followed the WEC for quite awhile knew that its light heavyweight division was not even close to comparable with its stacked UFC counterpart. Anyone who actually thought Steve Cantwell or Brian Stann could compete with the UFC's top LHW's off the bat were just... wrong.
I think the comments regarding Condit as still a bit premature as he's only lost a close split decision to Martin Kampmann in his stint with the UFC, but he's by no means the material to give Georges St. Pierre a run for his money. Chael Sonnen is by far the most successful, gaining a title shot along with a top three ranking. The WEC hasn't completely failed in that regard.
I'll agree on the point that ranking Ben Henderson in the top ten today would be completely absurd. Whether or not he's main event material on a WEC pay-per-view is debatable, although most of us who follow the sport knew what we were buying -- Casual fans, not so much.
The real question coming out of the entire discussion is whether or not Ben Henderson can actually achieve what his predecessors could not -- a top ten ranking in the UFC's lightweight division or at least some sort of relevance in the pack. Right now, he's ranked #16 on the USAT/SBN Rankings, tied with the UFC's Joe Stevenson and above Joachim Hansen, Gesias Cavalcante and Nate Diaz. I actually ranked him #19 with both Cavalcante and Stevenson ahead of him., but you get the point. He's just barely inside the top 20 among most MMA rankings.
Personally, I think Henderson could become a legitimate middle-of-the-pack UFC lightweight. While I don't think he'll ever make a run toward the top of the division, I think he'd be a solid competitor in the 8-12 range of the rankings. I think he'd give a guy like Jim Miller some problems as well as Joe Stevenson, and there is a possibility his speed and transition ability could catch a guy like Tyson Griffin. Top five, probably not, but he's also only 26 years of age and working with some of the best camps in the world. I don't think his ability has topped out quite yet.
Henderson's style is also fairly advantageous to some surprise endings. He's a very good scrambler, solid wrestler, and an improving grappler off his back. His guillotine transitions are lightning quick, and he isn't a bad puncher by any means. With the ability to threaten and land damage in almost any area of a battle, he can do a lot more things than many of the UFC's lower-tier lightweights.
Will Ben Henderson follow the footsteps of his WEC counterparts and fizzle out in the catacombs of the division? Or can he achieve a respectable middle-of-the-pack status? I imagine he could be a steady undercard headliner who may make his way into 5th and 4th main card battles at his peak, but I don't believe he can achieve a top five status. Top ten? Not out of my realm of possibilities.