Ben Henderson wanted to cry. You could see it in his face. As he sat in the Jobing.com Arena media room waiting for the post-fight press conference to begin, the anguish came over him in visible waves.
It was as if you could see inside his brain and watch as the wheels turned, as the realization hit him that he'd not only lost his WEC lightweight belt and his guaranteed UFC title shot, but also found himself on the wrong end of a spectacular highlight that would live on in MMA lore for years to come.
Who wouldn't feel like crying? Who could have blamed Henderson if he'd given in and let the tears come tumbling out? But he wouldn't. At least not with all those people watching.
"I still get teary-eyed thinking about it," Henderson (15-2) says now, 14 months after his unanimous-decision loss to Anthony Pettis (14-2) at WEC 53. "It affects me deeply to this day. It will affect me for the rest of my fighting career, for a long, long time."
They called it the "Showtime Kick." Some things you have to see to believe. This was something you had to see again in slow-motion just to be sure you weren't hallucinating. In the fifth and final round of a back-and-forth title fight, Pettis leapt into the air and pushed off the cage with his right foot, using the momentum to launch the same foot across Henderson's face in one swift kick that dropped the champion to the mat.
"In the 24th minute of a championship fight, dead tired, exhausted, and what did he do?" Henderson said. "He went big. For that, I have to take my hat off to Pettis."
Henderson recovered quickly and survived the round, but the kick sealed the deal for Pettis. He won the decision and the belt, making him the last WEC lightweight champ before the organization was disbanded and the bulk of its roster absorbed into the UFC. He also gained instant fame. His "Showtime Kick" was named one of the top 10 plays of 2010 by ESPN. Suddenly everyone wanted a piece of him.
"Everything changed," Pettis said. "I was 23 years old, just won my first world title. I did it that way and was on ESPN. It was a big, big jump from where I was before. Nothing was the same. Normal life at home wasn't the same. Training in the gym wasn't the same."
If you'd told Pettis at the time that Henderson would see a UFC title shot before he would, there's no way he would have believed you. Neither would Henderson, and yet that's exactly how it's worked out.
What's more, when Henderson gets his crack at UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar in Tokyo on Saturday, Pettis will be right there on the UFC 144 undercard for a close-up view of the opportunity that was supposed to be his.
It happened the way these things often do in MMA. Since Edgar and challenger Gray Maynard needed two fights and a little over 10 months to sort out the UFC lightweight title picture, Pettis opted to make his UFC debut against perennial contender Clay Guida last June. He lost the decision and, with it, the title shot. Meanwhile, Henderson took a more gradual path and won three straight, including a decision over Guida in November, that punched his ticket to the title fight in the UFC's return to Japan.
For Henderson, it's a story about turning heartbreak into triumph. The loss to Pettis was "absolutely beneficial to my career," he said, even if it was devastating at the time.
"As soon as I lost, I said to myself and to all the reporters, I want to use this loss to make me a better fighter. I want to use it to make me better and tougher, the same way that [UFC welterweight champion Georges] St-Pierre used his loss to Matt Serra to become a better fighter. I was glad I was able to do that and not be a baby and sulk about it and not grow from that loss."
But for Pettis, the lessons weren't quite so clear. At least, not right away. In the months between his win over Henderson and his loss to Guida, he said, "I was on top of the world."
What he didn't appreciate at the time, according to his coach and trainer, Duke Roufus, was how easy it would be to fall.
"I just think it was such a whirlwind for him," Roufus said. "He became such a famous guy so fast. I mean, he'd pulled off one of the greatest all-time moves in the history of mixed martial arts. Then when he had that setback against Clay Guida, the people who told him how great he was, the girls who wanted to talk to him, the opportunities people were offering him, those all shrank up. I think then he really saw the importance of being the best and winning."
After bouncing back with a decision victory over Jeremy Stephens in October, Pettis now faces Joe Lauzon on the UFC 144 undercard in a bout he hopes could move him not only closer to a title shot, but also to a rematch with Henderson, whom he expects to beat Edgar for the belt.
"I'm picking Henderson to take that fight. After our fight, he changed as a fighter. He's hungry. You can see it on his face, he's ready to win this fight."
He'll get no argument from Henderson, who said he could easily envision a rematch with Pettis in "maybe my second or third title defense." It might have been a struggle to get over the heartbreak of their last fight -- a heartbreak that still stings every time he sees the "Showtime Kick" on another highlight reel -- but he hasn't let it define him.
"I will say this: before I retire, before I leave this earth, I will see Anthony Pettis again in the cage," Henderson said.
If he does, then we might find out once and for all who's learned more from his failures, and who's gotten better at handling his triumphs.