Sports

World Extreme Cagefighting: Henderson faces Pettis with UFC title hopes on the line

Decatur High School graduate Ben Henderson sits behind the WEC lightweight title belt in April after beating Donald Cerrone in the first round at WEC 48 in Sacramento. Henderson will defend the title Thursday. - Photo by Lance Giles
Decatur High School graduate Ben Henderson sits behind the WEC lightweight title belt in April after beating Donald Cerrone in the first round at WEC 48 in Sacramento. Henderson will defend the title Thursday.
— image credit: Photo by Lance Giles

Ben Henderson is set to bring the curtain down on World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) Thursday night inside the Jobing.com Arena in Glendale, Ariz.

The Decatur High School grad and current WEC lightweight (155 pound) champion is hoping to win the final bout in the organization’s history when he takes on No. 1 contender Anthony “Showtime” Pettis in the main event at WEC 53. The fight card will be nationally-televised on the VERSUS Network, starting at 6 p.m. Dec. 16.

“It’s going to be a little bittersweet,” Henderson said. “The WEC has been my home and given me all my national and international fame, so it’s going to be sad to leave.”

The closure of the WEC was put into motion earlier this year when Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) President Dana White announced the WEC is merging with the UFC, the largest and most popular mixed martial arts brand in the world.

“Yes, I’m not going to lie. It’s pretty cool,” Henderson said about fighting in the UFC.

And making Thursday's bout even more pressure-packed is the fact that White also confirmed that the winner will automatically become the UFC's No. 1 contender and take on the winner of the UFC 125 main event title bout between UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. UFC 125 is slated for Jan. 1 in Las Vegas.

“When I first heard that and when I first heard the news, No. 1 contender and all that stuff, I was definitely stoked,” Henderson said. “It was very exciting.”

Henderson, 27, is still pretty new to the mixed martial arts game. Like most other MMA fighters, Henderson’s journey into the sport started on the wrestling mat. He began wrestling during his time at Lakota Middle School and continued at Decatur, where he competed under head coach Mike Bressler.

His prep career culminated with a second-place finish at the 2001 Mat Classic state wrestling championships inside the Tacoma Dome, losing to University’s Tommy Owen in the 135-pound title match.

After Decatur, Henderson went on to wrestle at Dana College in Nebraska, where he earned NAIA All-American honors as a senior after finishing in fifth place at 157 pounds in 2006. Henderson’s performance helped Dana College win the NAIA national championship that year. He actually started MMA fighting a year later after a dare from a couple of Dana wrestlers.

Henderson moved to 12-1 during his three-year MMA career by choking out Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone in April at WEC 48 in a title fight. He is currently riding an 11-match winning streak, including two title defenses. Henderson defeated Jamie Varner by Guillotine choke to unify the WEC lightweight championship at WEC 46 on Jan. 10, 2010.

Henderson is an avid yoga practitioner known for his considerable flexibility, earning six of his 12 wins by submission. Henderson has been stopped only once in his career — by a second-round knockout against Chad Klingensmith at Ring of Fire 27 in December 2006. It was his second-ever MMA fight.

That’s when Henderson came to the proverbial crossroads in his fighting career. If he was going to stay in the MMA game, he was going to do so on his terms. If not, he was ready to use his criminal justice degree from Dana College and become a police officer.

Henderson ended up choosing MMA fighting, and the rest is history. He is 5-0 in the WEC, entering the bout with Pettis.

“I started taking fighting seriously after my first loss as an amateur and not just half-assing it,” Henderson said. “Once that happened, I fully intended to be the best on the planet.”

So far, so good. And he’s not letting the minor-league perception of the WEC take anything away from his past, present or future accomplishments in the fighting business.

“I grew up a lot as a fighter in the WEC. I got national exposure. The life I live now is all thanks to WEC,” Henderson said. “But there was a chip on our shoulder. Not getting quite the recognition that we felt we deserve with the UFC as like a bigger brother or bigger sister company organization. Nothing that they’ve done personally but, yeah, I’ve got that chip on my shoulder. So I’m definitely going to be here to leave that legacy for the WEC.”

And Henderson doesn’t want that legacy to include losing the final fight in the organization’s history Thursday to a young and hungry Pettis. A loss would be devastating to the career of the favored Henderson and could cost him his only shot at fighting for the UFC lightweight championship belt.

“I definitely try not to look too far ahead,” Henderson said. “I just take the fight that’s in front of me and to be honest, every fight is like the biggest fight of your life. There’s all sorts of pressure, a whole other level of pressure you haven’t yet experienced, and that’s just the next step in my career, getting used to that. So I’m looking forward to it.”

Pettis is a 23-year-old who is 10-1 during his MMA career. His only loss came to Bart Palaszewski at WEC 45 last year, and he features a very explosive style.

“The biggest thing I like about Anthony is that he gets better every fight,” Henderson said. “I think he’s a dangerous striker. He has good submission and he has a very quickly improving wrestling takedown defense game. He throws some wild stuff, not quite sure what he’s going to do at any given moment. You’ve got to keep your eyes open. You can’t fall asleep.”

But Pettis knows he’s going to be in for a war on Thursday night in Henderson’s adopted hometown of Glendale, Ariz. Henderson has lived in the Phoenix area since joining the WEC.

“Ben Henderson’s the champ for a reason,” Pettis said. “He’s a good fighter and I got to get past him before I can even think about fighting in the UFC. If I let him fight his fight, it’s going to be a tough night. So I’ve got to fight my fight and just watch out for everything he brings to the table. So it’s going to be a tough fight. It has all the makings for a great fight.”

“I just want to go get my hand raised,” Henderson said. “Plain and simple.”

Arizona-bound

Mirror sports editor Casey Olson will be in Glendale on Dec. 16, covering Ben Henderson and WEC 53. The event will be televised on the VERSUS Network starting at 6 p.m. Check out federalwaymirror.com for information and results.

Check out a short video of Henderson in Sacramento last April:

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