Around 1995 a dank, shoddy bingo ball in south Philadelphia was host to some of the most talked about events in professional wrestling history. Extreme Championship Wrestling (ECW) cut its teeth in that building and with the help of its fanatical, almost cult-like fans, it quickly became a national promotion before collapsing under its own weight.
A parallel can be draw between that and World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC). Aside from having similar initials, the WEC also had a loyal fanbase that knew they would get their money or time's worth when they watched one of its shows. And just like ECW, while the WEC wasn't the biggest mixed martial arts (MMA) company around -- the UFC and Strikeforce trumped it -- it was easily the most entertaining.
Instant classics like Miguel Torres battling Takeya Mizugaki and Carlos Condit taking on Hiromitsu Miura punctuated this point while human highlight reels like Jose Aldo added a healthy dose to violence to the festivities.
The best fight, though, in WEC's too short history has to be when Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone stepped inside the blue cage for the first time. The term "war" is thrown around to describe fights so often that it's nearly lost all meaning but if any bout earns the honor to be addressed as such, it is this one.
Now, hours before "Smooth" takes on Jim Miller in tonight's (August 14) UFC Live: "Lytle vs. Hardy" co-main event, we'll take a look at their WEC 43 headliner.
After the dust settled in the main event of WEC 38, there were more questions than answers.
An illegal knee from Cerrone to Jamie Varner's skull forced the fight to end prematurely as the then-champion could not continue. When the judge's handed in their scorecards, Varner kept his lightweight strap but was dangerously close to losing respect.
The knee connected after a Cerrone flurry had "C-4" on the proverbial ropes. The knee in question did in fact land but the amount of damage it did -- and whether or not it warranted stopping the bout -- put Varner under scrutiny.
Fortunately for "Cowboy," an immediate title shot seemed to be in the cards. But unfortunately, Varner couldn't seem to get himself in the cage due to a long list of medical ailments.
When they finally collided in San Antonio, it was 25 minutes of top notch MMA action.
A closer look, if you would.
"Cowboy" immediately throws a head kick but loses his footing and falls to the mat. Henderson rushes in and shoots for a takedown. In his haste, however, he leaves his neck vulnerable and gets himself stuck in a deep guillotine choke.
It seems the fight is over but somehow "Smooth" pops his head out... only to get hit with a triangle attempt.
A smooth transition leads Cerrone from one submission to the next but he's still unable to secure a tap. Henderson escapes and nearly gets a choke of his own before the two fighters get back to their feet.
90 seconds left in the opening round and "Smooth" has dumped his opponent on his back and begins to rain down ground and pound to the body and head. A half-hearted omoplata attempt from "Cowboy" gets shrugged off and the two-fight WEC veteran finishes off the round on top.
How in the world do you score a round like that?
A takedown from Henderson opens up the next round but Cerrone is able to kick him off and ends up taking "Smooth's" back the Colorado native dives back in haphazardly. The position is reversed quickly and "Cowboy" once again finds himself on his back.
He begins to jockey for position and eventually is able to slide around his opponent's body and again takes Henderson's back. Cerrone extends "Smooth's" arm and begins to crank but Henderson defends perfectly and goes back to the tried and true art that Mark Coleman perfected: the ground and pound.
Each punch that cracks Cerrone's jaw is met by an "Oh!" from the crowd -- of which I was a member of -- but "Cowboy's" only response is to throw a punch of his own.
The next two minutes plays out like the end of the previous two rounds. Cerrone, on his back, unable to keep "Smooth" from folding him up and landing a barrage of punches. "Cowboy" is finally able to kick his opponent off and the two reset on their feet.
A leg kick from the Greg Jackson-trained fighter lands with a smack against Henderson's thigh but he needs to be careful when throwing it lest he ends up on his back again.
A takedown from "Smooth" is quickly nullified but Henderson is nothing if not persistent. Another attempt and the ensuing scramble finishes off the round.
Championship rounds begin and neither fighters look fatigued in the slightest. In what seems to be a case of deja vu, a takedown attempt from Henderson leads to him getting stuck in a sickeningly tight power guillotine. Cerrone squeezes tight but again is unable to choke "Smooth" out.
While the submission didn't elicit a choke, Henderson spends the next few minutes catching his second wind. Fortunately for him, his opponent doesn't take advantage of this momentary lapse in action. Halfway through, another takedown attempt.
"Cowboy" defends beautiful, sliding his arms under Henderson's and delivering a knee to his opponent's sterum. Soon, "Smooth" is on the mat, both knees down, to avoid a kick from the standing Cerrone. "Cowboy" knows he can't use his feet so he throws an uppercut that crushes Henderson's jaw and pops him onto his back.
Five more minutes left and it feels as if the fans watching this amazing bout are more exhausted than the fighters themselves.
Cerrone comes out on fire and immediately pressures his opponent. Crisp combinations are finding their mark, takedowns are being defended and one has to wonder: where was this "Cowboy" three rounds ago?
In what has become a familiar scene, "Smooth" executes a takedown and ends up on top. Cerrone won't go down that easily though and slaps on a triangle choke and then a deep, deep omoplata. It was so far in that you could see Henderson's shoulder bones nearly popping out of socket through his skin.
He gives the referee a thumbs up. There's simply no submitting the guy. To further prove the point, another armbar attempt at the end of the round is shrugged off.
The scorecards came in and they all read the same: 48-47 in favor of Henderson. It was such a close fight -- and incredible at that -- that a rematch seemed in order once the lightweight titles were unified.
Three events later, "Smooth" choked out Varner to crown himself the undisputed 155-pound king of the WEC and at the company's first and only pay-per-view (PPV) event, Henderson took on Cerrone again.
Like a classic film and its sequel, there was no way the rematch could have lived up to the original. The champion once again beat "Cowboy" but in only two minutes after forcing him to tap with the same guillotine choke that bested Varner.
The quality of the WEC's lightweights were constantly called into question but Henderson has more than done his part to quiet those dissenters. His Octagon debut at UFC 129: "St. Pierre vs. Shields" saw him absolutely maul Mark Bocek for three rounds in a fight many pundits picked him to lose.
With a win over Miller, a title shot could only be a fight away for Henderson. While there's no clear number one contender for the 155-pound title after Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard settle their score at UFC 136, the truly great fighters always seem to rise to the top.
Will "Smooth" prove to be one of them?