The Rear Naked Column 08.28.13: Revisiting a Classic
Posted by Samer Kadi on 08.28.2013
Nearly three years after engaging in the final fight for WEC, Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis will square off once again at UFC 164! 411's Samer Kadi looks back at their classic first encounter from WEC 53!
It was the last fight in WEC history.
"The little promotion that could" had built its reputation on delivering classics. Lighter weight fighters took turns exhibiting thrilling displays of Mixed Martial Arts brilliance that would make your average Dana White all-caps-tweet-approved UFC brawl dull by comparison. The relocation to the world renowned Octagon was inevitable, and in late 2010, the merging of the WEC with the Ultimate Fighting Championship was announced. WEC 53, the last event in the promotion's history, would be headlined by Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis for the WEC lightweight championship, with the winner squaring off against the UFC champion at a later date to unify the belts.
The stage was set for WEC's swan-song. After a typically exhilarating undercard that produced its fair share of worthy curtain-drawing moments, the lightweights finally took center stage. With the stakes being raised by the UFC title eliminator stipulation, many feared a risk-free bout dominated by cautiousness. Reality however, was far beyond anyone's expectations. Ben Henderson, known for his relentless style and aggression, stuck to what brought him to the dance, while Pettis, ever the show-man, if you excuse the pun, saved his absolute best for last.
Henderson came out aggressive, rushed his opponent down, got him in the clinch, pushed him against the fence, and eventually planted him on his back. It was the typical pre-UFC Ben Henderson approach, and it seemed to be working. Meanwhile, Pettis, as active as ever off his back, regained his feet after threatening with a couple of triangle attempts. A few ill-intentioned -- but ultimately fruitless -- exchanges on the feet added to the rising tension before a close round (that likely went Henderson's way) came to an end. The second round saw Pettis put the champion on his back after an initial slip by "Bendo," who regained his feet shortly thereafter. The round then saw similar striking exchanges to its preceding five-minute frame. This time, it was Pettis who held a slight upper hand.
As the fight progressed, it seemed as though Pettis was the one making the necessary adjustments. He began countering Henderson's kicks in a variety of ways: High kicks were blocked and countered with a leg kick, while body kicks where met with either a left hook or a counter straight right. Moreover, the challenger was timing Henderson's takedown attempts far better, and surprised his opponent by initiating his own. At the start of the third, he immediately tripped "Bendo" to the mat and took his back, where he spent the next five minutes testing Henderson's submission defense, which lived up to its lofty reputation.
With the fight kicking it up a few gears, the two fighters turned in what may well have been the round of the year. The fourth round saw both men trade heavy leather, takedowns, positions and submission attempts. Pettis dropped to his back for an ill-advised guillotine that his foe easily shook off before transitioning into back control and giving "Showtime" the scare of his life. For a brief moment, it looked as though Henderson had the rear naked choke fully sunk in, only for Pettis to show amazing composure and phenomenal technique to get a hold of his opponent's wrists and slide them away from underneath his neck. Seconds later, Pettis twisted on top, secured top control, and returned the favor by taking Henderson's back. This time however, Henderson shook him off far quicker, and the stand-up action resumed until the end of a frantic round.
With both competitors even on two of the judges' scorecards, the last ever WEC round, as well as the fight, were both up for grabs. It is a round that will forever belong to a single moment – a moment that will define Anthony Pettis and perhaps even the WEC as a whole. What happened in the four minutes leading up to that now iconic image matters little (if you're curious, it was much of the same back-and-forth action that made the round near impossible to score up until that point). With the clock ticking on both the title fight and the WEC's lifespan, Anthony Pettis decided to give the world the climax the WEC deserved: With his opponent circling against the cage, Pettis ran across, pushed off the fence with his right leg, and with his entire body airborne, kicked his opponent in the jaw with that very same leg. If that description sounded rough, allow me to simplify it: It was the "Showtime Kick" – the single most breathtaking moment in MMA history.
Call it a moment of magic, a moment of creative genius, or even a moment of pure madness; in the blink of an eye, Anthony Pettis turned in a career exemplifying piece of action at the most fitting of times. This was not a random crazy highlight reel move on some obscure MMA show with mediocre fighters; it was a fight-sealing move at the end of a twenty-five minute action packed title fight between two of the sport's absolute elite. In that regard, the "Showtime Kick" is arguably among the greatest moments in the history of combat sports.
The scorecards gave Pettis the much-deserved victory (yes, Henderson actually survived the impact, quite amazingly). The Duke Roufus protege became the last ever WEC lightweight champion, and was on the verge of completing a monumental feat by potentially capturing the UFC lightweight title. Unfortunately, circumstances dictated otherwise, and a draw between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard altered those plans. Pettis suffered a loss at the hands of Clay Guida and was seemingly forgotten, while Henderson was brought in with the belief that he would be one of the division's gatekeepers.
Over two-and-a-half years later, both fighters have come full circle. Ridiculing any questions regarding their ability to compete with the UFC's elite, Henderson and Pettis once again find themselves in a familiar spot. The champion, Henderson, took the UFC lightweight division by storm, crushing Mark Bocek, Jim Miller and Clay Guida before toppling then-champion Frankie Edgar to capture the lightweight crown (he has defended his title three times since), while the challenger, Pettis, recovered from his disappointing loss to Guida by beating Jeremy Stephens before making a highlight reel out of Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone.
Sequels rarely live up to their predecessors, but that hardly makes Pettis and Henderson's upcoming rematch any less special. Henderson, who has long maintained his desire not to be forever associated with the "Showtime Kick," has done just that by becoming the best lightweight in the world, while Anthony Pettis continues to cement himself as one of the most creative, innovative and exciting talents in the sport.
At WEC 53, both men entered with something to prove and questions to answer regarding the lingering doubts over their UFC worthiness. At UFC 164, they will walk in as the best lightweights on the planet.