After upset, Henderson eyes Varner

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"I don't know what more we have to do," said Lally, who runs the area's most successful gym, Arizona Combat Sports, with his twin brother Todd. "The Arizona fellas can fight."

Based on the number of quality mixed martial artists the region has manufactured over the last decade, Lally has a point -- one that was underscored Saturday in San Antonio, Texas, when Benson Henderson captured the interim World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight title following five grueling rounds against Donald Cerrone.

Beyond merely establishing Henderson as the No. 1 contender to WEC champion Jamie Varner -- a prized pupil at ACS who has been sidelined with injuries since defeating Cerrone in January -- Saturday's result sets up a scenario in which two Phoenix fighters could converge for the most important MMA bout in the city's history.

That's their hope at least.

Henderson's work at The Lab, an emerging gym in Glendale, Ariz., vaulted the former two-time NAIA collegiate All-American wrestler into position to challenge Varner (16-2) as the state's best 155-pound mixed martial artist. It's a title Henderson (10-1) covets, and one that Varner expects to retain when he returns at the start of 2010.

The fighters aren't strangers. It's been just over a year since Lally brought in Henderson, a southpaw grappler, to help prepare Varner for his first defense of the WEC belt. Two minutes, eight seconds into the fight with Marcus Hicks, Varner's work paid off and the top 20 lightweight stood with his hand raised in the center of the cage. The experience of training with Varner stuck with Henderson. And while he may have gleaned a thing or two about the man he expects to fight in January or February, the 25-year-old fighter of Korean descent understands information exchanges work both ways.

"That was a while ago, so I'm sure Ben's changed," Lally said. "We're OK with the fight, let's just put it that way."

Watching cage-side in Texas, Varner, who turned 25 on Monday, saw first-hand how much "Smooth" has improved since their sparring sessions. If Varner and his camp weren't already aware, they know now how difficult it will be top an athletic fighter with the will to fight and the cardio to match.

Over the course of his 25 minutes in the cage with Cerrone, Henderson gutted through chokes and arm locks that would have finished weaker contenders, though he was nonchalant about the escapes the day after.

"In my gym people catch me in those locks and I'm not too concerned about it," he said. "I can use my flexibility to last a little longer and then use the proper defense to get out of it. I was never worried I was going to tap from any of those shoulder locks."

In spite of having much to be proud of, Henderson said Sunday that his effort against Cerrone fell short of expectations he set for himself.

"I don't think it's a bad thing to be hard on yourself," he said. "I think the best people in their professions -- the Michael Jordans, Tiger Woodses, the best of the best -- they're hard on themselves. You have to be."

For a fighter with just 11 fights to his name, experience gained by knowing how far he can be pushed, how deep a choke can be applied, how far an arm can be tweaked or a rotator cuff twisted is invaluable. And Cerrone certainly gave Henderson the chance to learn those things -- which is exactly what the interim title winner hoped for heading into Saturday's contest in front of 5,176 fans at the AT&T Center.

Henderson was originally scheduled to fight Cerrone on Sept. 2, yet the promotion pushed the fight back a month when he was forced to take a week and a half off because of a minor MCL sprain in his left knee. The injury -- the first time the swift and powerful Henderson felt what it's like to be hobbled -- never played a part against Cerrone, whom some observers felt deserved the decision. Though Henderson faded in the fourth and fifth rounds as Cerrone pushed forward and threatened with submissions, "Smooth" said he was confident after the final period ended that he did enough to win the fight.

"It's a good thing to know I was pushed to pretty extreme limits and I didn't fold, didn't break," said Henderson, whose left eye was nearly swollen shut after the bout. "I got a lot of hard work and a lot of time to put into where I want to be. But I'm not scared of hard work and I have plenty of time to improve."

While WEC officials have not decided on a date or venue for the pending lightweight title clash, they recognize like most everyone else the value of promoting a major title fight in Phoenix for the first time.

"Arizona Combat Sports carried the flag for the last five, 10 years," Lally said. "Now the other guys are getting up there to. It's something we knew would happen all along."