Besides Pride Fighting Championships, no dead fight promotion was more loved and has been missed more than World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC).
Bought by UFC parent company Zuffa in 2006, WEC marched along with four nearly flawless years. The talent was phenomenal, the matchmaking was on point and each event was definitely worth watching. It was a bittersweet moment when the promotion's merger with its bigger brother was announced. While the WEC would be gone, its fighters would earn more coin and get more exposure.
The first was easily proven. Fight purses grew, sponsors became more plentiful. The second is less tangible and harder to point out. While the UFC is the king of the mixed martial arts (MMA) mountain and draws tons of eyeballs every single time it holds an event, a lot of the bantamweight and featherweight bouts in the past year have found homes on the prelims. Titles fights, of course, would headline or at least serve as co-main events but it wasn't until The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) doors were opened that a concrete promotional push could be seen.
Last night's The Ultimate Fighter 14 Finale crowned the show's first bantamweight and featherweight champions. Twelve weeks ago 32 fighters -- 16 135- and 145-pounders a piece -- showed up at the TUF house to let the world know what the little guys could do inside the Octagon.
And boy, did they.
Thanks in part to the talent pool not being sucked nearly dry as all the other weight divisions in the UFC have been due to 13 previous seasons of the reality show, TUF 14 seemed both fresh and exciting. It was something that show hadn't been in quite a while. The last time I remember being genuinely excited about the cast was way back in the fifth season when lightweights got a similar introduction -- or reintroduction as it were -- to the TUF fanbase.
There is an entire world of 135- and 145-pound prospects out there that remains untapped. A lot of fans doubt that there is anyone that can challenge featherweight champion Jose Aldo and he should vacate his title and move up in weight. True or not, that remains to be seen but the right challenger might not be fighting inside the Octagon right now. He may be someone most of us have never even heard of. That's a possibility that simply doesn't exist in the five other traditional weight classes.
After a season of great fights, the two finals themselves kept up the trend and were displays of both unabashed brutality and razor-sharp technique.
Stepping inside the Octagon on the bantamweight side was John Dodson and T.J. Dillashaw. Dodson had earned his way to the live Finale by knocking out Johnny Bedford in devastating fashion. Dillashaw dominated Dustin Pague over three rounds to punch his ticket to the finals.
When they met inside the cage, it didn't take long for Dodson to find the same sweet spot he had against Bedford. Less than two minutes into the fight, a punch connected that put Dillashaw down. Replays showed that "The Magician's" entire forearm collided with his opponent's jaw leading up to his ear, causing the disruption in equilibrium. A little bit of ground and pound later and the referee was left with no other choice than to stop the fight.
10 pounds heavier, Diego Brandao and Dennis Bermudez took each other on to decide the featherweight champion. The Brazilian seemed to be getting the better of his opponent until a picture perfect counter from Bermudez stopped "Ceara" dead in his tracks. He collapsed to the mat but recovered quickly enough to not allow Bermudez to finish him off like Dodson had done to Dillashaw one fight earlier.
The New York-native tempted fate a little too long while inside Brandao's guard and was soon getting his arm torqued and bent back thanks to a perfectly executed armbar with only seconds to spare in the opening stanza. It was MMA at its finest, proving that technique almost always trumps strength.
Both men -- along with a handful of their TUF 14 castmates -- could certainly have bright futures in the UFC. Their bouts were exciting and even a few people on my Twitter feed were already calling for Brandao and Bermudez's back and forth to win "Round of the Year" honors.
For the first time since the merger one year ago, the WEC seemed more alive and well than ever. The small guys inside the cage going at it and doing it better than their larger counterparts was something the defunct promotion was known for and that's exactly what fans got last night.
Now that TUF 14 is in the books and the UFC's two newest weight classes have completed every rite of passage needed, it'd make sense to welcome the bantamweight and featherweight fighters already under contract to the company as well as any future fighters who will now get that once nonexistent chance. It's a fantastic opportunity for them and a boon for fans who get to see the fights.
So welcome to the UFC, boys; everyone sure is glad you could make it.