Anthony Pettis finds the perfect ending by beating Benson Henderson
Who would have guessed that the "Showtime Kick" would end up as No. 2 on Anthony Pettis' list of career highlights?
Maybe that's a presumptuous claim, because the man is just 26 years old and has a lot of fight -- and no doubt a lot more highlight -- left in him. No spot on his Top 10 list of magnificence is safe in the long-term. But it's going to be hard to beat what Pettis did on Saturday night. Yeah, the use-the-cage-as-a-springboard ninja kick he sprung on Benson Henderson three years ago was perhaps the most spectacularly innovative strike in mixed martial arts history. And there was nothing particularly pioneering about the armbar he utilized to finish the rematch in the main event of UFC 164.
Still, this was what Pettis has been building toward all his life. For inducing a verbal tapout from Henderson with 29 seconds left in the first round, Pettis was crowned UFC lightweight champion. In Milwaukee, which happens to be his hometown.
"I grew up coming to this arena right here," Pettis said in the cage immediately afterward, taking in the roar of the fans, a good many of whom probably count him as a friend. "As a kid, I remember sitting way up in the nosebleeds." The new champ removed one hand from his shiny title belt and pointed to upper deck. "So this is for y'all up in the nosebleeds. This is for y'all, right here."
As if his local-guy-makes-good performance wasn't inspiring enough, Pettis (17-2) then transformed into a motivational speaker. "You can do anything if you put your mind to," he bellowed to the crowd. "I don't care what situation you're in, what circumstance you go through. I lost my pops as a kid ..." At that, he began to choke up. But he had more to say. "And I'm here, man. I'm here."
Indeed he is, thanks to a lightning-quick armbar that came moments after Henderson (19-3) had fended off a high kick attempt by Pettis and put the challenger on his back. Henderson had been on top of Anthony for most of the round, figuratively speaking, crowding him and muscling him against the cage, not giving him room to do what he does. And now the champ was truly on top. But in a flash Pettis had the arm in his grasp, his legs wrapped around Henderson's head. There was a little jostling. And then, as quickly as he'd seized the submission hold, Pettis let go.
It was a bizarre moment. There was no tap to be seen, and referee Herb Dean didn't jump in until Pettis was running across the cage, arms raised, matching the crowd noise with his "Woo!" And Henderson, shoulders slumped, was walking away with a sour look on his face.
"I felt his arm pop," said Pettis, "and he said, 'Tap, tap, tap.'"
This victory is going to give other lightweights -- and even a certain featherweight -- a headache. The book on Pettis had been to pressure him to neutralize his killer kicks, put him on his back and beat him up. Henderson had done a good bit of that, pushing forward from the start. His three takedown attempts didn't get the fight to the canvas, but he was tangling up Pettis, taking him out of his game. We did see that game, briefly, when the fighters separated with just over two minutes left in the round and Pettis proceeded to land a half dozen kicks to pretty much the same spot on the left side of Henderson's torso. Then Pettis went for a head kick and ended up on his back, which is where he rewrote the book on himself.
"Man, when I got injured before Jose Aldo, my dreams were crushed," said Pettis, referring to the knee injury that forced him to bow out of a scheduled Aug. 3 challenge of the featherweight champion. "I swear, I thought I wouldn't ever get a title shot."
But then Henderson's challenger, T.J. Grant, suffered a concussion in training. And Pettis, his knee ready to go, got the call. To fight for the championship in his hometown.
"You can't write a better story," he said. "I mean, it's crazy how it played out."
There are more chapters to be written. Pettis acknowledged that he'll likely meet the 29-year-old Henderson again down the road, even though he now owns two victories over him -- the only two losses for Henderson in 19 fights since 2007. But that's not the fight Pettis has his eye on at present. The new champ is looking square in the eye of another champ.
"Jose Aldo, we've got some unfinished business," he said. "My belt or your belt."
Notes from the undercard
Long time coming: Back in 2002, Josh Barnett was UFC heavyweight champion and Frank Mir was wrecking everyone he met on the way up the ladder. It was inevitable that they would meet.
They did. Eleven years later.
Having waited all that time, Barnett -- who left the UFC back in '02 after failing a drug test the night he beat Randy Couture for the belt -- wasted not a second before closing the distance on Mir and taking the fight to him. Barnett quickly got the clinch and landed a steady stream of uppercuts and elbows. When Mir gained separation, Barnett clinched again and mauled him, finally landing a knee to the face that sent Mir to the canvas. Referee Rob Hinds immediately jumped in, making it a TKO at 1:56 of the first.
Mir protested, the crowd booed and UFC president Dana White combusted on Twitter, calling it a "[expletive] ridiculous stoppage" and adding of the ref, "That guy had no business being in the co-main event."
But the stoppage was fine. Mir had dropped to the canvas like he'd been shot, and he didn't even try to grab for a leg to he could bring his virtuosic ground game into play. He was on all fours, motionless, with 260 pounds of "The Warmaster" moving in for the kill. Hinds saved Mir from himself.
On the money: When there's a knockout in the cage or ring, we sometimes say the winner "put out his lights." In the case of Chad Mendes, though, last year's KO loss to featherweight champ Jose Aldo apparently hit the "on" switch instead.
Mendes has been a wrecking machine ever since, scoring four straight knockouts, the most recent being his third-round sedation of Clay Guida. That's quite a feat, as Guida had fought 43 times before and never been KO'd.
Mendes was sharp and patient with his strikes and explosive with his takedowns, hitting on three of five tries while stuffing all four attempts by Guida. It did take him a while to figure out his opponent's herky-jerky style, and Guida was more aggressive in his movement than in recent fights. But once Mendes found his range, he took advantage.
The man known as "Money" was on the money with an overhand right that dropped Guida just 10 seconds into the third round. After Guida worked his way to his feet, Mendes unloaded a left-right combo that put him back on the mat. Mendes pounced with a couple more shots before Yves Lavigne jumped in to end it at 30 seconds.
"I needed to make a statement, man," said Mendes. "I want that title shot. I want Jose Aldo. I want that belt."
He learned later in the evening that he might have to wait in line for a chance.