Commentary

Breaking down the WEC 53 main card

Updated: December 15, 2010, 3:09 PM ET
By Jason Probst | Sherdog.com

Ben HendersonJeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comBen Henderson needs to get his hands on Anthony Pettis and take him to the mat as often as possible.

With two meaningful championship bouts staged for World Extreme Cagefighting's closing act before the organization is folded into the UFC, WEC 53 should be a swan song to remember.

WEC's three weight classes -- 155, 145 and 135 pounds -- will bring additional storylines and marketable talent to the UFC. The big question: How will the WEC lightweights fare in the UFC's deep 155-pound division? One indicator could come when the winner of Thursday's main event faces the UFC lightweight champion in 2011 to unify the titles.

Below is a closer look at the WEC 53 main card.

WEC lightweight championship
Benson Henderson versus Anthony Pettis

If you wanted to make a match that would showcase the dynamic talents of the lightweight division, it would be hard to beat this one on pure potential. That's because Henderson and Pettis exemplify everything good about the emerging breed of mixed martial artists. Both are athletic, finely-tuned competitors who mix tactical intelligence with a penchant for eye-popping moves.

Neither guy is afraid to take risks, which is why this is an outstanding match. Diametrically opposed in styles, Henderson will want a slower pace on the feet but a fast-paced bout on the ground, while Pettis likely will try to impose his dynamic stand-up. Pettis was impressive in battling Shane Roller in his last bout, a gutsy third-round triangle choke victory in which he got the better of the ground battle while showing off his trademark flashy striking.

Henderson, meanwhile, is developing his stand-up but has a well-honed wrestling base. He closes the gap as quickly as any fighter you'll see and has a sense of positional awareness that makes regaining the initiative a tough thing for opponents caught in bad spots. Henderson will need to be very careful while working his way in for a takedown, though, as Pettis has a clear advantage on his feet.

The key for Pettis will be mixing up his strikes and exploiting the scant openings left by Henderson while closing the gap to tie up. If Pettis can't stuff takedowns and tighten up defensively on the feet -- Roller was able to tag him with some fairly telegraphed shots -- Henderson will be able to take him down and grind out an early lead that could be tough to overcome.

Off his back, Pettis has a good defensive guard, while Henderson is outstanding at escaping submissions and keeping the pressure on. For ground geeks, this will be a very fast-paced yet subtle battle on the mat, should it go there.

This is a highly-competitive match with subplots galore, and although I think Henderson may ultimately match up better with some of the UFC's top lightweights, we'll go with the upset here and take Pettis via fourth-round knockout.

[+] Enlargev
Dave Mandel/Sherdog.comDominick Cruz, right, may be an unconventional striker, but he's undeniably effective.

UFC/WEC bantamweight championship
Dominick Cruz versus Scott Jorgensen

Say this for Cruz: Outside of Lyoto Machida, he probably has the most puzzling stand-up style in mixed martial arts. That's because Cruz uses excellent footwork and feints and constantly-changing angles to befuddle opponents, who are often left guessing where Cruz is coming from and where he's going once he's done striking.

It's a bit of a gambit for Cruz, who often comes in with his hands down and his chin exposed, but it has worked so far. The best counter to a style like Cruz's is to deny him room to operate and to have well-timed leg kicks and a big right-hand counter ready when he lunges in.

For all the flash and panache Cruz brings, Jorgensen is a blue-collar type. He takes a good shot, recovers quickly and gets his licks in, along with possessing good takedowns and the ability to work at a fast pace. What makes Cruz's stand-up more effective is that the 5-foot-9 lightweight wrestles well and has good takedown defense.

For Jorgensen, this five-round challenge is a long haul, but if he can make a few things happen he'll take some shine off Cruz's game. First, he must get takedowns and hold Cruz down, scoring points and making the champion use up stamina. Jorgensen must deny Cruz the long range necessary to set up his strikes.

Given a couple steps to shimmy in and use his patented angles and feints, Cruz is exceptionally hard to figure out. He smacks you and then exits before you can react. If Jorgensen can't counter with a good, compact strike from this position, plan B will be an all-out, push-him-against-the-fence strategy.

Jorgensen has a good right hand and a big-time chin, but he will have to turn this into a down-and-dirty trench war to win. If he stands around waiting to counter and can't be effective on the feet, Cruz will simply have too many options and weapons. It's an interesting fight and one that should answer a lot of questions about both guys.

I like Cruz in a decision, with Jorgensen making a late surge that falls just short on the cards.

[+] EnlargeDonald Cerrone
Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog.comDonald Cerrone has a superior reach, among other advantages, over his young opponent.

Donald Cerrone versus Chris Horodecki

This is one of those fights that seems to be a perfect stylistic matchup for one guy and really unfortunate for the other. Everything here breaks Cerrone's way, as young slugger Horodecki can't outwrestle him -- one of Cerrone's few weak spots -- and gives away three inches in height. Cerrone, who takes big shots and barely responds to them, has one of the better chins in the game, while standing and on his back.

In Horodecki's defense, he is a rapidly-improving 23-year-old and better-rounded than the teenager who burst onto the scene in the International Fight League. His last outing, a split decision win over Ed Ratcliff, showed some maturity and fine-tuning to his game. He'll need it here, as Cerrone is tough to discourage on the feet and is even better on the mat.

Cerrone will be able to dictate the pace and the exchanges, frustrating Horodecki. "The Cowboy" will be able to use clinches to open up shots and takedowns. Look for Cerrone to get a good sweat going while he picks his spots on the feet before closing the door in the second round via submission or ground-and-pound.

Jamie Varner versus Shane Roller

This is a tough, pick-'em type of showdown, as Varner and Roller have shown flashes of impressive ability. Varner's combination of technical, powerful striking and good wrestling makes him a tough opponent for anyone. Roller, a three-time NCAA All-American wrestler at Oklahoma State, has shown improved stand-up over the course of his transition to MMA.

Varner's striking gives him the edge here, and the way he applies it in select spots will be crucial to the outcome. Roller tends to wing punches from outside, as much to close the gap and force clinches as to stun opponents. He has fairly heavy hands and is calm on his back, unlike many top-level wrestlers. Varner will have to pick his openings carefully, mix in kicks and keep moving to deny Roller tie-ups and a chest-to-chest clinch battle.

The pick here is Varner in a tough decision battle and one in which he displays his conditioning and ability to keep popping back up while landing effective counters. It will be a good fight no matter where it goes, but Varner, although seemingly hot-and-cold at times, can be one heck of a fighter when he's at his best.

Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.