Can Ben Henderson prove the WEC's best lightweights are as talented as the UFC's best? We'll find out next Saturday at UFC 129. Photo by Ken Pishna, MMAWeekly.com
When the Zuffa decided to merge World Extreme CageFighting (WEC) into the UFC late last year, the focal point of the deal for most fans was the inclusion of the featherweight and bantamweight divisions, two weight classes that housed some of mixed martial arts' most exciting fights in recent years. The ascension to the big leagues was well-received, promising higher pay and bonuses, increased sponsorship dollars, and more exposure for the fighters. It also allowed the UFC to infuse their pay-per-views and televised cards with the energy of the smaller weight classes and fill key slots in the coming year's pay-per-view events, as evident in next weekend's UFC 129 main card.
The WEC's lightweight division received all the benefits of the merger, but the fighters within its ranks gained what was deemed an insurmountable task by some fans. The very best of the WEC's 155 lb. weight class would have to dive right into the UFC's lightweight shark tank, proving their mettle immediately against opponents that were perceived to be far superior.
Six fights have taken place since the merger that pitted UFC-signed talent against the WEC's roster of lightweights. Surprisingly, the WEC veterans have held their own, notching three wins in six bouts:
UFC 128: Edson Barboza def. Anthony Njokuani via unanimous decision
UFC 128: Jim Miller def. Kamal Shalorus via TKO, Round 3
UFC Live: Sanchez vs. Kampmann: Shane Roller def. Thiago Tavares via KO, Round 2
UFC Live: Sanchez vs. Kampmann: Danny Castillo def. Joe Stevenson via unanimous decision
UFC 127: Curt Warburton def. Maciej Jewtuszko via unanimous decision
UFC 126: Donald Cerrone def. Paul Kelly via submission, Round 2
No need to call the MythBusters. The myth that the lightweights of the WEC couldn't hack it in the UFC has been busted. Or has it? I can see the counterarguments piling now. Paul Kelly isn't a legitimate challenge. Warburton vs. Jewtuszko is a prospect vs. prospect match-up, how does that matter? Castillo beat a fading Joe Stevenson. Roller got lucky. The list goes on, and I'm not going to spend the time defending against idiocy.
When the WEC merged the lightweight divisions, most fans laid the barometer of success in the hands of the WEC's top two lightweights: Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis. The two squared off in a thrilling performance at the WEC's last event in December, a fight in which Pettis edged Henderson on the scorecards while also catapulting himself off the cage and into the limelight with an incredible 'Showtime' flying kick. Now, both men prepare to prove that this theory of inferiority is myth, not fact.
Unlike many fighters who enter the UFC from the low-level regional scenes or The Ultimate Fighter, Henderson and Pettis have varying degrees of familiarity with the "big show". The WEC may not have been as large in scale as the UFC, but it did have more eyes thrust upon it than any other regional show in the United States. Fans expected excitement, and both Henderson and Pettis delivered consistently under pressure.
Furthermore, due to the exposure of the WEC on Versus and ownership under Zuffa, many of the fighters in the WEC's upper-echelon were either training full-time or being offered training stints at well-known camps. As you can imagine, this raised the level of talent and competition within the promotion, making it much more realistic that these fighters could move to the UFC and compete immediately.
Can Ben Henderson truly curb the myth that the WEC's best are inferior fighters? Mark Bocek is by no means an easy task, and my initial thoughts on the match-up could be summed up in one word. Tough. If we went by Bocek's performance against Jim Miller, we might believe Henderson is in for a rough start to his UFC career. But that's the thing about the fight game. Every fight is a puzzle that we may or may not have a clue how to solve. I'm not keen on Henderson proving himself to be a top tier UFC lightweight, but I wouldn't be surprised if he proved me wrong next Saturday.