Going into UFC 144, it seemed you couldn't avoid PRIDE Fighting Championships' (PRIDE) name being brought up.
And for good reason. Ultimate FIghting Championship (UFC) made its return to the "Land of the Rising Sun" by setting up shop in the Saitama Super Arena, a favorite haunt of the much loved and missed Japan-based promotion. While the Yokohama Arena or the Budokan in Tokyo seemed more appropriate a size for the 20,000 seat arrangement Dana White and company were planning, it was the enormous venue that hosted Final Conflict 2005, the 2004 grand prix and a bevy of New Year's Eve events selected and modified instead.
The UFC 144 fight card was also packed with fighters whose names had nearly become synonymous with PRIDE like Quinton Jackson and Takanori Gomi. Others -- like Mark Hunt -- were better known for other accomplishments but still had deep ties with the Japanese promotion.
Rather than come into the building last night (Feb. 25, 2012) and attempt some awkward PRIDE recreation, the UFC opted to put on its own show, while also managing to pay tribute to mixed martial arts' (MMA) past. The shrewd balancing act came full circle when "Rampage" walked out to the bombastic PRIDE theme and the Saitama audience roared in approval.
But, at the end of the night, the long gone promotion on everyone's lips wasn't from Japan. It was an American company.
Before the event, everyone was talking about PRIDE. After UFC 144, no one could stop talking about World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC).
The main pay-per-view (PPV) card opened up with the last WEC lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis, taking on division stalwart Joe Lauzon. Pettis had won the title on the company's last card in the promotion's last fight. He did so after amazingly jumping of the fence and nailing Ben Henderson across the face with what is know famously known as the "Showtime Kick."
He was set to challenge for the UFC 155-pound title after UFC 125 against either Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard. When those two went to a draw after nearly half an hour of fighting, an immediate rematch was set up and "Showtime" was left with the choice of either waiting for the dust to settle to cash in his title shot or stay busy and take another fight inside the Octagon.
He opted for the latter and met Clay Guida in his UFC debut. "The Carpenter" spoiled the WEC champion's evening by nullifying Pettis' striking with unrelenting takedowns. The title shot that was once so secure for Pettis had evaporated. He stepped inside the Octagon for a second time at UFC 136 to take on Jeremy Stephens and while he picked up his first UFC win, it was far from inspired. A fight that all but promised to be a shootout ended up being a grinding, wrestling-heavy affair.
On the other side of the performance spectrum that evening in Houston, Lauzon made short work of Melvin Guillard and walked away with his biggest victory since knocking out Jens Pulver. Pettis and "J-Lau" both seemed open to fighting each other and the bout was set for UFC 144.
Less than 90 seconds into it, "Showtime's" shin cracked Lauzon across the jaw and ended The Ultimate Fighter 5 alumni's night early. The title shot Pettis lost last summer suddenly reappeared.
While the last WEC lightweight champion was opening the event, the man he won the title from closing it out. Henderson may have come up short at WEC 53 but three impressive victories inside the Octagon gave Dana White more than enough cause to give "Smooth" a shot at Edgar.
In an instant classic, Henderson wrangled the lightweight title away from "The Answer," something neither B.J. Penn nor Maynard could do. In doing so, he became the only man to hold the 155-pound titles from both UFC and WEC. After the excitement of Henderson's win began to give way to speculation of his future, one name continuously came up: Pettis.
"Showtime" was the last -- and only in nearly five years -- man to defeat Henderson. While Edgar has more than enough reason to feel an immediate rematch should be in order and Jim Miller and Nate Diaz have a date in May with title shot implications, it looks like the UFC is leaning towards Henderson/Pettis II as their next 155-pound title showdown.
The UFC put together one hell of a card for the Japanese fans at the Saitama Super Arena. But, it was PRIDE and WEC that really made it a night worth remembering.