WEC 53: Henderson loses decision to Pettis, won't fight for UFC lightweight title

Everything was right in front of Ben Henderson on Thursday night.

The Decatur High School grad had the unquestioned support of the 7,000 fans inside the Arena in his adopted hometown of Glendale, Ariz., at the final World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) event in the franchise’s decade-long history. He was the odds-on favorite against a young and less experienced fighter, and was in peak physical condition after an eight-month layoff.

But it wasn’t meant to be for Henderson.

Anthony “Showtime” Pettis did exactly what his named suggested Thursday in the main event at WEC 53. The Milwaukee native put on a show, including a flying leg kick late in the fifth round that looked like it came out of one of the "Matrix" movies, to win a unanimous decision over Henderson. The win now earns Pettis a coveted shot at the ultimate prize in mixed martial arts fighting: A shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight title.

The winner of the Henderson-Pettis bout was guaranteed the No. 1 contender designation in the UFC when the organization’s president, Dana White, announced the WEC would be merging into the UFC earlier this year. Pettis will now wait for the winner of a Jan. 1 title bout between UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Grey Maynard.

The future for Henderson isn’t as clear. The 27-year-old will fight in the UFC, just not for the 155-pound lightweight title — yet.

He will have to show the streaks of brilliance that vaulted him to the top of the WEC. He reigned as the organization’s champion for nearly two years, which included title defenses against proven fighters like Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone and former champ Jamie Varner.

Henderson knows he will need to earn his way in the UFC by winning matches and putting on good shows, something he doesn’t mind one bit.

"There's a lot of things that go into a fight," Henderson said after the loss. "It's not just two guys who go out there punching and kicking and stuff. There's a science behind it, and I'm going to figure it out, and I will get my hand raised next time."

But it was “The Kick” that had the sports world buzzing Thursday night. Pettis’ ultra-athletic move, which floored Henderson late in the fifth round, led off ESPN’s SportsCenter, along with other shows.

"It will probably be a highlight reel for a while, huh?" Henderson joked at an emotional post-fight press conference.

The kick, which Pettis executed by running up the side of the cage and leaping off before kicking his right leg into Henderson's face, didn't finish the fight, but it most likely ended any hopes for Henderson winning a decision. Henderson said he remained conscious after the blow, though the damage was significant enough that Pettis was able to control the action until the end of the match.

“We practice that all the time,” Pettis said, “and I’ve got 10 more kicks like that coming when I get to the UFC.”

"I was fully aware," Henderson said. "He did a good job. He did a good job of holding me there and rained down some shots from the top. I was woozy, obviously. I'm not going to lie. He did a great job of landing the kick, but I was fully cognizant."

Throughout the fight, Henderson was able to take down Pettis several times, but it seemed as if each time he did, Pettis would squeeze back to his feet and out of trouble. Henderson also had a rear naked choke hold on Pettis' neck during the third round, but Pettis also broke free of that.

Thursday’s loss drops Henderson to 12-2 during his MMA career. He was riding an 11-match win streak entering the fight with Pettis. It was also his first loss in the WEC in six fights, and first since he suffered a second-round knockout against Chad Klingensmith four years ago in his second-ever MMA fight in 2006.

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 High School in Federal Way, 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.

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