Five things to take away from WEC 53
During World Extreme Cagefighting's successful nine-year arc, the mixed martial arts promotion evolved from a means to drive gamblers to a Native American casino near a developing central California community to a major player in the sport, the purveyor of some of the best fights and lighter-weight athletes in mixed martial artists.
Thursday in Glendale, Ariz., the promotion, which will be officially folded into the UFC in 2011, came to an appropriate close thanks to a tremendous main event, punctuated by a kick that will be discussed -- and emulated -- for years to come.
Here are five things to take away from the event.
Dominick Cruz deserves your respect
The lasting legacy of the WEC will be the attention it paid to 145- and 135-pound fighters. Prior to Zuffa revamping the show in 2007, mixed martial artists the size of Manny Pacquiao fought for peanuts in Japan and garnered little attention stateside. But the WEC, even in its earliest days, saw the value of fighters like Cole Escovedo and Urijah Faber.
As we head into 2011, the WEC has built featherweight champion Jose Aldo into a top-3 pound-for-pound fighter. It delivered similar results at bantamweight, with newly-crowned UFC 135-pound champion Dominick Cruz, a fighter worthy of the distinction. Give the 25-year-old jitterbug his due. He's earned it. A top-5 pound-for-pounder, Cruz's striking style is unlike anything in the sport. It's all movement, arms and legs launched and connected from angles that are fundamentally flawed. It's brilliantly effective. And with his ability to easily take down guys who have wrestled their entire lives, Cruz (17-1) is an awful matchup for everyone in his division.
From Thursday night forward, when a fighter leaps off the cage and connects with a kick it's called a "Showtime." Got it?
Anthony "Showtime" Pettis reminded us once again of the innovative potential MMA provides. Even after we thought we'd seen it all, it's clear we haven't come close. Pettis's genius in the fifth minute of the fifth round of a competitive championship fight against Benson Henderson is receiving the attention. It will go viral online, if it hasn't already. It will be lopped on SportsCenter and local sports casts. It was, simply, an incredible sports moment.
Can the WEC lightweights make the jump?
I've never believed that, in bulk, the lightweights competing in WEC were much better than mid-tier fighters. There were outliers, of course: the kids Henderson and Pettis, and gritty veterans like Donald Cerrone. But en masse, no, WEC lightweights were middle-of-the road talents who may have looked good against one another, but won't do much at the upper reaches of the UFC, Strikeforce, Dream or, well, you get the idea. We'll know soon enough how Kamal Shalorus, Dan Downes, Shane Roller and others stack up.
The quickest way people will make a judgement on this: How will Pettis fare against the winner of Jan. 1's UFC lightweight title fight between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. The 23-year-old Neo impersonator's athleticism is on par with anyone. He fights with a sense of purpose and calmness reserved for veterans. There's a lot to like there. Maybe I'm still basking in the post-Showtime kick glow, but I wouldn't put it past him to beat either fighter.
Thursday's WEC lightweight championship was a perfect main event for the promotion to go out on. The company, led in recent years by matchmaker Sean Shelby with an assist to UFC matchmaker Joe Silva, routinely delivered incredible action. Henderson-Pettis now exists in that sphere, and it makes the list of my seven favorite WEC fights ever.
Jan. 16, 2004
Olaf Alfonso def. John Polakowski split dec. -- Absolute war.
Aug. 3, 2008
Carlos Condit def. Hiromitsu Miura 4:43 R4 to retain WEC 170 title -- Condit, now well established in the UFC, got as much as he gave in this one.
Jan. 25, 2009
Jamie Varner def. Donald Cerrone technical split dec. retain 155 title -- Maybe the most violent WEC fight. Varner's never been the same since.
April 5, 2009
Miguel Torres def. Takeya Mizugaki unanimous dec. to retain 135 title -- The coming out party for bantamweights in the U.S. Mizugaki made Torres work for the first time.
Oct. 10, 2009
Ben Henderson def. Donald Cerrone unanimous dec. to win WEC 155 title -- By most accounts, the best fight of 2009.
April 24, 2010
Leonard Garcia def. Chan Sung Jung split decision -- This is up there with Alfonso-Polakowski for sheer haymaker madness.
Dec. 16, 2010
Anthony Pettis def. Ben Henderson unanimous dec. to win WEC 155 title -- Fresh on the brain, but nonetheless deserving.
As for the future
Here's hoping WEC's intensity and action is mainlined into the UFC.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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