Victory for the little guys: WEC to merge with UFC on January 1

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The grand WEC experiment is over.

World Extreme Cagefighting -- the little brother organization to the UFC, comprised entirely of fighters who are 155 pounds or lighter -- will close its doors after its Dec. 16 event, UFC president Dana White announced on Thursday afternoon's media call.

The fighters and staff will be absorbed into the UFC, and from here on it Zuffa will only operate one MMA organization, with fighters in the 135-pound and 145-pound divisions finally getting a UFC belt to fight over.

"What's always been in the cards is to continue to grow this sport and add every weight class," White said when asked if the UFC-WEC merger had been the plan all along. "The reality is, all of these weight classes should be in the UFC."

If that sounds familiar, it's because fans and media have been saying it for years.

While exciting featherweights like Urijah Faber and Jose Aldo fought for smaller purses in front of smaller crowds, it was hard not to wonder why the 10-pound difference between them and guys like B.J. Penn or UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar was significant enough to keep them out of the Octagon and away from the big paychecks that come with it.

As of Jan. 1, 2011, that's all over with.

Current WEC featherweight champ Jose Aldo will automatically become the first UFC 145-pound champion, White said. He's slated to defend that title on the UFC's New Year's Day event, against an as-of-yet unnamed opponent.

Lightweight champ Benson Henderson will defend his WEC title one more time, against Anthony Pettis at the WEC's final event on Dec. 16. The winner of that fight will face the winner of Edgar's UFC title defense against Gray Maynard, which is also scheduled for the UFC's Jan. 1 event.

135-pound champ Dominick Cruz will also defend his belt one last time on Dec. 16 against Scott Jorgensen, with the winner automatically becoming the first UFC bantamweight champ.

After that, it's all UFC belts for every Zuffa champion, and no distinction made between the relative value of the weight classes. If there ever was a better time to be one of MMA's little guys, I can't recall it.

White chalked the move up largely to the increased demand for more UFC events now that more foreign markets have begun to open up. He said the UFC was "looking at taking everyone in" from the WEC, and estimated that it would mean an increase of around seventy fighters to the UFC roster.

Similarly, the WEC's staff will also have a home in the UFC in 2011, said White.

"There's so much work to do now, nobody's going to be sitting around."

For the fighters who make the move, it means bigger paydays, more exposure, and better deals from sponsors.

While the WEC's events on Versus pulled steady, if not spectacular, ratings, the UFC's events on the same channel -- there are four live events planned on Versus for 2011, White told Fanhouse's Ariel Helwani -- will no doubt crush those numbers and lift all ships with its rising tide.

Perhaps most importantly, the move gives the smaller fighters a chance to be fully recognized alongside their larger peers. No longer will they have to explain to people that being the WEC featherweight champion is equivalent to being the UFC champion in any other weight class.

Now, just by changing a few initials and bringing all the fighters under one banner, the smaller fighters will finally get the respect they deserve. It's funny how easily that's accomplished, and yet how long it took for it to happen.