The curtain is closing. So is the theater. When Thursday night's WEC 53 is finished, so is World Extreme Cagefighting.
This adds a bit of intrigue to the evening's two championship bouts.
When Dominick Cruz defends his bantamweight title against Scott Jorgensen in the co-main event in Glendale, Ariz., the winner presumably will have the WEC belt ceremoniously wrapped around his waist, just as usual. But he might as well be awarded the UFC leather, right then and there. Dana White's organization, in absorbing the WEC and its fighters, is launching a new UFC bantamweight class anyway, with the WEC belt holder to be declared the champ, so why wait?
The other new UFC weight class, featherweight, already has its champion, as White presented WEC titlist Jose Aldo with his new belt last month in a ceremony before UFC 123 outside Detroit. Aldo was scheduled to defend the title against Josh Grispi on New Year's night at UFC 125, but was injured in training and had to withdraw.
So Aldo has his UFC belt and Cruz can lay claim to his on Thursday, but no such luck for the evening's headliner, lightweight champion Benson Henderson. He or his challenger, Anthony Pettis, will have to settle for walking out of the cage late Thursday night as the WEC champion while knowing that the next time he walks into a cage to fight, it will be as a challenger. The winner of this final WEC bout gets no UFC title but is guaranteed the next shot at one, after Frankie Edgar puts his 155-pound belt on the line Jan. 1 against Gray Maynard.
Ah, the life of the WEC fighter, always having to prove himself one more time, just like a little brother, which is what this organization has been in relation to the UFC ever since Zuffa took over in 2007. The cage is smaller, and so are the paychecks. And there's always this rumbling that maybe the WEC guys don't measure up.
Henderson brushes it all off. "We still have a lot of guys saying this and that, and that's no problem, whatever, you're entitled to your opinion," he said this week in an interview with Versus, which will televise WEC 53 at 9 p.m. ET. "If you think the WEC 155-pounders will get weeded out shortly, yada yada yada, no problem, that's OK, you're entitled to your opinion. But I'm here to prove otherwise."
To have the opportunity to do so in a UFC title fight, he'll have to get past Pettis in a matchup of two guys with stark differences in their game but also some interesting similarities. The most obvious similarity is in the only numbers that count -- they both have 12-1 records. Both also are finishers, with Pettis having won by decision only once, Henderson just twice. That should make for an exciting fight -- surely a fight that's more exciting than its buildup.
A third similarity between these fighters, after all, is that neither would ever be confused for Josh Koscheck in the trash-talking department. This is no white hat vs. black hat matchup. It's a bout between a couple of nice guys who let their fighting do the talking, which might not help the Publicity Department but makes both of them easy to root for. Henderson will hear more cheers from the crowd, though, because his home base is Glendale.
What about differences between Henderson and Pettis? Let's let the fighters handle that question themselves, each in a gentlemanly way that would make Chael Sonnen nauseous.
Henderson on Pettis, in that Versus interview: "He's pretty unpredictable standup-wise, throws a lot of funky stuff, a lot of weird stuff." Translation: Let's get this fight to the ground.
Pettis on Henderson, also speaking to Versus: "Definitely impressed with the guy. I keep hearing how he's so tough to submit." Translation: Let's keep it standing.
Those translations are reading between the lines, though. Both fighters say they're perfectly comfortable testing the other man's strengths. They're going to have to be. Henderson watched Pettis fend off takedown attempt after takedown attempt by much-decorated wrestler Shane Roller. Pettis saw Henderson escape submission attempts by both Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner that looked inescapable. "So now," Pettis said, "I want to submit this guy."
World Extreme Cagefighting started with a bang, as a pair of knockouts each taking less than a minute (the second one scored by Leonard Garcia) kicked off its inaugural event in June 2001 at a Native American casino in Lemoore, Calif. Since then, the WEC has had a long and storied history -- well, at least long and storied enough for me to pluck a few trivia questions. Try your hand at these, one for every year of the MMA company's existence:
1. How many sides does an octagon have? No, no, I'm not letting you off that easily. OK, here's the real question: How many sides did the original WEC cage have? (Hint: It's not eight.)
2. Nineteen of the first 20 WEC events were held at Tachi Palace Hotel & Casino in Lemoore, Calif. Where was the other one held? (Hint: The UFC also has held events there more than once.)
3. The WEC has held an event outside the United States only once. Where was it? (Hint: It happened this year, so if you consider yourself a fan, you'd better get this!)
4. Which WEC event was the first fought under Zuffa management? (Hint: Rob McCullough won the lightweight championship that night.)
5. What former UFC champion fought in the main event of WEC 1? (Hint: He lost in his only bid for the UFC heavyweight belt but in the early days won one of the UFC's one-night tournaments.)
6. What two future contestants on
7. What two former WEC champs are current Strikeforce champions? (Hint: Neither is named Cris "Cyborg" Santos.)
8. What fighter has successfully defended a WEC championship the most times? (Hint: He fought neither Florian nor Cyborg. Another hint: He's no longer champion.)
9. Before beginning to name its events after the main event fighters -- e.g. "WEC 53: Henderson vs. Pettis" -- the promotion used to come up with some pretty creative names for its evenings of fisticuffs. What was the best WEC event name ever, ever, EVER? (Hint: It was held on May 5, 2006. Another hint: The year doesn't matter. Still another hint: Jason Miller was not on the card but should have been.)