A crash course to UFC 164: Benson Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis
Crash Course: Henderson vs. Pettis
Everything you need to know about this weekend's big fight.
Benson Henderson (left) and Anthony Pettis fought a memorable bout in 2010 (Zuffa LLC).
Naturally, there’s a sequel. Isn’t that the way it always is with those cartoon superhero movies?
That’s what the first meeting of Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis three years ago turned into, suddenly and stunningly, around 24 minutes into a 25-minute bout. With Henderson’s WEC lightweight championship on the line for the final time -- the promotion was about to be absorbed by its Zuffa corporate cousin, the UFC -- each man had won two rounds and the deciding fifth was up for grabs. Or up for something.
It was at that moment of go-for-it creativity that Pettis, seeing Henderson lazily circle away from the cage, went directly at the fence, leaped up against it and, as his right foot pressed into the chain links, torqued his body and sprung toward his unsuspecting opponent. (Who would expect this?) Pettis’s swinging right foot clipped Henderson in the left temple. Floored him.
The fight wasn’t over. Henderson scurried to grab a leg of the pouncing Pettis, trying in vain to turn the final scramble his way. No way. Pettis maintained a winning position over the fight’s final minute as the crowd buzzed, the Internet orgasmed and the cageside judges stuck an exclamation point beside the “10” they wrote next to the soon-to-be champion’s name on their scorecards.
Nearly three years later, we’re about to see a sequel, which Henderson hopes won’t be given the title Showtime 2.
The starring performers are the same for Saturday night’s main event of UFC 164 in Milwaukee (10 p.m. ET, PPV, $54.99), but their marquee billing has shifted. Pettis was promised a UFC title shot following his superhero performance, but it never happened. Then-champ Frankie Edgar was engaged in a dramatic miniseries with Gray Maynard, and while awaiting his turn Pettis took a fight with Clay Guida … and lost. Meanwhile, Henderson picked himself up and worked his way up, eventually dethroning Edgar in February of last year.
The 29-year-old Henderson (19-2, 7-0 in the UFC and 5-1 in the WEC) is No. 7 in the SI.com pound-for-pound rankings, and naturally he’s No. 1 at lightweight. He’s defended the 155-pound belt three times, most recently in a split-decision victory over former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez in April. Two of his last three wins have split the judges, in fact, the other being last summer’s rematch with Edgar.
Pettis (16-2, 3-1 in the UFC, 5-1 in the WEC), on the other hand, has left nothing to the judges in his most recent fights. In January he knocked out Donald Cerrone midway through the first round. The previous February he TKO’d Joe Lauzon in less than a minute and a half. At 26, he’s No. 3 among lightweights in the SI.com rankings.
In addition to the pay-per-view telecast of the five-fight main card, four prelims will be shown on Fox Sports 1 (8 p.m. ET) and three will stream on the UFC’s Facebook page (6:30).
Why has it taken three years for this no-brainer rematch to come together?
Well, in order for it to make sense and maximize interest, the fighters would need to have something to fight for. Not just a paycheck, but a brass-and-leather belt or at least a direct route to one. That never seemed to line up.
Pettis’s loss to Guida sidetracked him, and his next outing, a split-decision win over mid-level Jeremy Stephens, did little to get “Showtime” back to full steam ahead. He did raise eyebrows with his quick KO of Lauzon, but then he spent the better part of last year on the shelf following shoulder surgery and a staph infection in his elbow. In January he returned with another knockout performance, and the stage was set for a title fight.
Not against Henderson. Against featherweight champ José Aldo.
Pettis had grown tired of waiting in line for a shot at Benson, behind Edgar, behind Nate Diaz, behind Melendez. So he opted to drop 10 pounds and challenge Aldo.
At this point the saga gets complicated, maybe even convoluted. (And if you’re into conspiracy theories, strap yourself in.) First, Pettis injured his knee in mid-June and had to pull out of the Aug. 3 bout with Aldo, who ended up defending against Chan-Sung Jung. Then, a few weeks later, Henderson also lost his challenger when T.J. Grant suffered a concussion in training. Who’d step in to fight Benson at the Bradley Center? Why, quickly healed Milwaukee native Pettis, the last man to defeat Henderson, that’s who. How convenient.
“Showtime” dismisses any talk of a conspiracy to get Henderson and him back in the cage. “My injuries were legit,” he said during a conference call with members of the MMA media last week. “And from what I know, T.J. Grant’s injuries were legit.”
Official weights announced at Friday's weigh-in (5 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1)
Other Numbers To Count On
0: Fighters in UFC history (having five or more fights) with a longer average fight time than Benson Henderson (20 minutes 43 seconds).
13: Finishes (7 KOs, 6 submissions) among Anthony Pettis’s 16 victories.
8: Consecutive Henderson fights that have gone the distance, a streak that extends back to the first Pettis bout.
4: Number of strikes absorbed by Pettis in his last two fights, first-round KOs of Donald Cerrone and Joe Lauzon. “Showtime” landed 27.
1,000,000: Approximate number of times Benson Henderson has had to watch video of himself being nailed by the Anthony Pettis “Showtime Kick.”
The night Benson Henderson became champion:
Anthony Pettis' 'Showtime Kick' fells Henderson:
If these guys hadn’t met before, this would be one of those fights with a couple of obvious, enormous question marks surrounding it. Can Henderson avoid a Pettis knockout strike? Can Anthony fend off Benson’s relentless grappling?
We do have evidence to support our vision of how Part 2 will go down, but said evidence is nearly three years old. As often is said prior to rematches in combat sports, these guys are both completely different fighters. Well, not completely different. But each has refined his game.
Pettis has been in the cage for a grand total of 3 minutes 56 seconds over the past 22 months. That’s through no fault of his own. He wasted no time in disposing of Lauzon and Cerrone. He’s precise with his strikes, and deadly.
Henderson tirelessly worked 25 minutes in his belt-winning bout and all three defenses since. He’s not faded in the least, but he’s been a clear winner only once, in a decimation of Diaz. By leaving the fate of his reign with the judges, he lives dangerously.
How can we superimpose Henderson vs. Pettis I on top of both men’s more recent results? Well, Anthony was successful in fending off seven of Benson’s 10 takedown tries back in 2010, and that success rate could grow now that Pettis is training every day with wrestling virtuoso Ben Askren, the Bellator welterweight belt holder and a former Olympian and two-time NCAA Division I champ.
So, if Henderson can’t turn this into a wrestling match, is he doomed in the standup? Not necessarily. Pettis clearly has the edge when the fight is standing, but the champ is good at closing distance, which nullifies a significant portion of Anthony’s arsenal. Plus, Benson is simply better than anyone “Showtime” has faced since, well, the 2010 Henderson.
“Obviously it’s a little bigger because I have only lost once in the past seven years. It happened to be to Anthony. So of course you can say you want to get that loss back. You can’t really get a loss back, though. If you lose, you lose. You’ve got to move on, man up in life and that sort of stuff.” --Benson Henderson on the rematch
“Me and Ben, I wouldn’t say we have bad blood or are rivals or anything. He’s a champ, and I want that belt. That’s all there is to it. Nothing personal against him. He’s a cool guy, great champion, great fighter, and he has the belt. And that was my goal, set off when I started this thing. So for me it’s just a matter of whoever has that belt at the time, that’s who I want to fight.” --Anthony Pettis
Henderson is slightly favored at most sports books checked, with odds ranging from -112 (bet $100 to win $89.29) to -135 (bet $100 to win $74.07). Odds on Pettis range from -110 (bet $100 to win $90.91) to +105 (bet $100 to win $105).
Here’s my prediction: This one will be as much of a back-and-forth battle as the first one. Oh, that’s not enough prognostication for you? All right, here’s another prediction: Pettis will wow us with something we haven’t seen before, which is to say he won’t reprise the “Showtime Kick.” There you go. We’re done here. Enjoy the -- what, you want a winner? OK, I’ll give you a pick: The steady, if unspectacular Henderson will stay on top of Pettis the whole way, sometimes figuratively (as in, staying in his face) and sometimes literally (as in, grinding away from top position on the mat). True, Benson hasn’t looked as sharp as Anthony has in recent fights, but he’s competed against a higher level of fighter. And he’s shown an ability to persevere, sometimes narowly, over the long haul. He won’t finish Pettis -- he hasn’t finish anyone in his last eight fights over more than three years -- but he won’t be finished, either. Henderson by decision.
Pettis' famed 'Showtime Kick' he unleashed against Henderson in 2010. (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
The Tweet Beat
Join the conversation about Aldo vs. Jung on Twitter. Track the hashtags #AldoZombie and #ufc163 to see who's tweeting what about Saturday's fight. And get blow-by-blow coverage on SI.com via Loretta Hunt's live blog.
· Non-PPV fights (8 p.m. ET, Fox Sports 1): Jamie Varner vs. Gleison Tibau, lightweight; Louis Gaudinot vs. Tim Elliott, flyweight; Pascal Krauss vs. Hyun Gyu Lim, welterweight; Chico Camus vs. Hyung Ho Kang.
· Facebook fights (6:30 p.m. ET): Soa Palelei vs. Nikita Krylov, heavyweight; Ryan Couture vs. Al Iaquinta, lightweight; Jared Hamman vs. Magnus Cedenblad, middleweight.
· Mike Goldberg will handle blow-by-blow and Joe Rogan analysis for the PPV and prelims on Fox Sports 1 and Facebook. An hour-long postfight show begins at 1 a.m. ET on Fox Sports 2 (formerly Fuel TV).
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