WEC stars celebrate UFC merger

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Dominick Cruz, 135-pound champion: "I can't explain the excitement."

Jose Aldo, 145-pound champion: "It's our time now."

Benson Henderson, 155-pound champion: "The news finally came and it's awesome."

Urijah Faber, the longtime face of light-weight mixed martial artists in the United States: "This is something I've been pushing for a long time."

Across the board, talk of WEC's three weight divisions (155, 145 and 135) falling under the UFC banner beginning Jan. 1, when Aldo will defend his UFC -- yes, UFC -- featherweight championship against a to-be-determined challenger, brought about a feeling that, finally, many of the most exciting mixed martial artists in the world will receive recognition that is well past due.

"Understanding how the business side of this thing works, it was kind of frustrating putting all my best fights on something that wasn't, according to people who didn't really know, on the highest level because of a few initials," Faber said. "To get that across to the rest of the world is pretty exciting."

Making his bantamweight debut on Nov. 11 in Las Vegas, Faber will fittingly headline one of the two remaining WEC-branded events before the 25-foot, blue-canvased cage is mothballed in favor of UFC's larger, ubiquitous octagon. The final WEC competition takes place in Phoenix, on Dec. 16, when Cruz fights Scott Jorgensen for the vacant UFC 135-pound title. On that same card, Henderson's WEC belt will not be the coveted prize in the main event when he takes on Anthony Pettis. Rather, a guaranteed shot at the UFC lightweight title, which is up for grabs on Jan. 1 when champion Frankie Edgar clashes with challenger Gray Maynard, will be the theme that night.

"Yes, there is more at stake with the No. 1 UFC title contendership on the line," Henderson said. "But we're going to go in there, dance and lay it on the line like we do all the time, whether it's for a UFC No. 1 title contendership or my first fight in the WEC against Anthony Njokuani.

"Come January, we're going to find out how WEC guys stack up against the UFC guys," Henderson said of himself and his lightweight compatriots. "And my prediction is we're going to do very well. There's a chip on our shoulders. There always has been us WEC guys not getting the notoriety and same respect as the UFC guys. Not from our peers, not from other fighters, but from fans and media. They saw a difference between WEC guys and UFC guys. Now we'll show it. You better believe every WEC guy who steps in the cage against a UFC guy, they're going to fight their butt off."

More than reputations and newly minted titles are up for grabs, said the fighters. Larger paydays. Increased celebrity. More exposure. All the accouterments of being a star in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. And while winning and being recognized as No. 1 in their respective divisions remains the goal, the possibility of a better life based on nothing more than trading one acronym for another is impossible to ignore.

"I felt like if I was doing all the same work in the UFC as I was in the WEC, I would be getting even more benefits out of it," Faber said.

Said Cruz: "I hope the money takes a step up from what I'm making, absolutely. I don't necessarily fight for the money, but at some point in this career you beat up your body so bad you have to make money."

Said Henderson: "I am definitely looking forward to the pay increase. I'm going to move out of my apartment, buy a house and make sure I save enough to pay my taxes. It's cool. It's not the only factor, but it's a big factor for us WEC guys."

The featherweight and bantamweight divisions should experience a renaissance of sorts as the UFC's massive mainstream appeal allows a spotlight to shine on some of the most talented and fiercest competitors in the sport. Much like lightweight, when Zuffa brought it back into the mix after a hiatus in the mid-2000s, the UFC should come to rely on 145- and 135-pound fighters to headline cards on pay-per-view, Spike TV and Versus, the former home of the WEC that also announced on Thursday that it would carry four UFC events in 2011, double this year's tally.

"The reality is, all of these weight classes should be in the UFC," company' president Dana White said. "There was a time early on, when we first bought this thing, that 155 didn't even exist. Now, as we continue to grow and we're doing more fights every year, and we're going into these different markets, we can continue to add weight classes. That's always been our goal. Our goal is to build this sport worldwide and continue to add weight divisions until we have every single weight division in the UFC."

One immediate benefit to the UFC: It now features the No. 1-ranked fighter in each weight class from bantamweight (135) through heavyweight (265 pounds). And it's expected that the promotion will soon add an emerging flyweight (125) class.

As upper-echelon mixed martial artists across various weight divisions applaud the news, mid-tier fighters -- there are many among the 70 athletes being brought over to the UFC next year, particularly at 155 pounds -- know they'll face a gauntlet that could leave them beaten and quickly banished from the UFC as it sorts through the new additions. Yet the best of the best like Aldo, Cruz and Faber, along with potentially ranked fighters like Henderson, anticipate their move to the UFC will be nothing but positive.

"WEC has been a huge tool to get us all known," Cruz said. "I wouldn't be where I am without it. I hoped and figured it would just be a matter of time before this took place. It's been a long time waiting for something like this. It's surreal. It feels like I won a title all over again."