Approaching three years past, two of the WEC’s finest lightweights collided in the promotion’s bon voyage event. With parent company Zuffa’s declaration that the fight league’s roster was to be folded into that of the UFC’s, the WEC would exist only in memory after the dust from its final confrontation settled.
But that memory still burns bright, as a nearly identical setting has been transposed upon tonight’s UFC 164 marquee attraction. Stalwart lightweight champion Ben Henderson (19-2) will not only put his belt on the line but endeavor to quench his thirst for vengeance against electrifying challenger Anthony Pettis (16-2), who overtook Henderson’s throne and relegated him to the role of victim in one of MMA’s most celebrated highlight reels.
The original plan for Pettis to challenge the winner of then respective champ/challenger Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard was thwarted by the unusual draw that resulted from their contest and, with bold and admirable spirit, “Showtime” opted to tangle with Clay Guida in the interim. The potential risks associated with Pettis’ courageous choice crystallized in the form of a unanimous decision victory for Guida and, suddenly, Anthony Pettis had something to prove once again.
Though Pettis attracted the lion’s share of attention among the converted WEC hopefuls, it was Henderson who would rise back up to reclaim his former glory. After a pair of demonstrative decision wins over Mark Bocek and Jim Miller, Henderson’s rugged tenacity would overwhelm Guida as well, and the Arizona native was elevated to the title bid originally set aside for Pettis. 2012 proved fruitful for Henderson, who defeated Edgar to become the apex lightweight and defended his territory twice after (Edgar in a rematch, Nate Diaz) in that 12-month span.
Meanwhile, Pettis was trying to get back on track. The journey began with a hard-earned decision over Jeremy Stephens, which was competitive enough to do little for his resurgence. The same cannot be said for his pair of following performances against Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone: both were shamelessly violent 1st-round knockouts, hearkened back to the Anthony Pettis we lauded as one of the most creative and exciting strikers in the game, and fully revivified his championship potential.
And here we are.
Henderson and Pettis are both markedly atypical fighters, much of which can be attributed to the black belt in Taekwondo they share. With his disproportionately immense legs, Henderson might as well be part centaur, and his unparalleled mixture of deceiving strength and explosive athleticism probably stands atop his martial arts prowess as his cardinal asset. Or, rather, no single trait defines Henderson — his efficacy is comprised of his completeness as a fighter. He can box, he can kick, he can clinch, he can wrestle, he can pass guard and neutralize submissions, and cycle through all these tasks while keeping a dangerous typhoon of relentless offense in your face.
Pettis conjoins his Taekwondo background with the rarely implemented art of Capoeira to substantially isolate himself from commonality. But there are more ingredients. While the latter accounts for the bulk of Pettis’ sizzling panache, those unique striking styles are synchronized with the trusty MMA constants of boxing and Muay Thai to form a complex, deeply layered and perilously functional kickboxing acumen. It’s more than just an odd blend too — there’s a reason that Taekwondo and Capoeira lack prevalence in MMA, but they wouldn’t if others had the means to adapt those unorthodox arts as effectively as Pettis.
Still, being a nonconformist, like everything else in our sport, has its positives and negatives, but Pettis has managed to reap the best of both worlds. Though they might land with the foot, Pettis capitalizes on the quick release and awkward trajectories of Taekwondo kicks, best evinced by his chambered roundhouses, which are shrouded in stealth and skim dangerously over his opponent’s shoulder. He can also enforce the tried and proven brutality of Muay Thai by transferring the torque of his hips into the dense cleaving tool of his shin, sacrificing the speed and camouflage of his Taekwondo kicks for raw and damage-inflicting power. He can impose the obvious advantages of technical boxing by pivoting in short and calculated angles before igniting a blur of incendiary combinations from unexpected angles. And his opponent should expect any of these myriad onslaughts to be unleashed at any time and in any conceivable amalgam.
But perhaps his wrestling should take precedence in the conversation. It’s the one area in which he doesn’t excel, and also the aspect most responsible for his losses and close calls. While Pettis’ grappling, particularly his guard, might be just as cunning and creative as his striking, ground exchanges devoid of a submission ultimately put the bottom fighter behind on the cards. Since only one lightweight title fight has been clearly resolved with a stoppage since B.J. Penn vs. Diego Sanchez in 2009, every little inch will count considering the consistency of close decisions in the present era.
That’s why Henderson’s trend of fighting where his opponent is strongest comes into question here. Discarding perceived advantages elsewhere, he engaged grappling specialists Bocek and Guida on the ground while attempting one single takedown in each 25-minute fight with Edgar.
Just because it’s worked thus far doesn’t mean we wait until it doesn’t to mention it. I don’t know if it’s a case of bravado, a shaky Fight I.Q. or just the traditional athletic symptom of fighting on your opponent’s same level, but it represents nothing but sheer danger against Pettis.
Permission to speak freely? If I were the lightweight division’s strongest athlete and alpha wrestler, and I was squaring off with a striking lunatic who fell behind on points the first time whenever I clinched or attempted takedowns, but ended up wobbling me with a punch and rocketing off the cage to flatten me with some inconceivable kick en route to winning a decision …? I’m sure as hell not standing up with him.
For all the unknowns, competitiveness and complexity of this match up, it really seems like Henderson’s willingness and ability to close distance and clinch up or attempt takedowns has the largest influence. Pettis is cunning and complete off his back but, unless he submits Henderson, those sequences will not be scored in his favor. Traditionally, judges have also awarded the one who initiates clinch exchanges and even fails at takedown attempts, so I shouldn’t have to extol the virtues of assuming the role of the offensive aggressor over the feisty defender.
That tactic would also break the cycle of his razor-thin decisions and Henderson seems to have that route within his grasp, but I’m not confident he’ll pursue it. And that habit has exuded an odd uncertainty toward our lightweight champion.
Henderson’s striking is probably his most improved aspect since joining the UFC: his boxing is sound, he has excellent timing and reactions on his counter punches and his nasty kicks, both to the legs and body, are weapons to respect. However, few, if any, can match Pettis’ technical brilliance. The theory of keeping your opponent at 12:00 on the clock face while vigilantly staying at any other position yourself applies fully to Pettis. Every little feint of his head, knifing step forward to engage and angle he cuts on the way in might as well have been crafted for hours on the drawing board, but yet they’re uncorked in the heat of the battle with frightening regularity.
As it stands, while neither will be helplessly inept in any category, Pettis has a substantial striking advantage and Henderson has the same edge in the clinch and grappling departments. Pettis is exceedingly more accomplished with offensive submissions but the likelihood here is that his best option is merely escaping back to the feet. Henderson has been the most intimidating and commanding lightweight we’ve seen in years, yet he allowed himself to be backed up quite often against Pettis the first time and I have no idea as to why.
Perhaps that’s on account of Pettis’ takedown defense, which is not infallible but sound, or the steadily building tempo of his striking rhythm and timing, or perhaps because of Henderson’s lack of urgency to avoid standing exchanges. Regardless, it’s what won Pettis the first fight and I’ve seen no signs that Henderson will break form and cater to it.
My Prediction: Anthony Pettis by decision.
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