Alongside the addition of two new weight-classes (bantamweight and featherweight), the forthcoming merger between the UFC and WEC promotion’s will also see a major influx of new challengers into an already stacked UFC lightweight division.
So how will the WEC’s lightweight stars stack up with their peers already plying their trade on the big show?
First off let’s remind ourselves just how stacked the UFC’s 155lb weight division is already. Of course there’s the current champion Frankie Edgar and current No.1 contender Gray Maynard, but beyond that this weight class might hold the biggest number of legit title challengers in any of the UFC’s divisions. On one side you have the highly rated veterans like BJ Penn, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk, Diego Sanchez and Dan Miller, and on other the new blood like George Sotiropoulos, Evan Dunham and Charles Oliveira.
When you consider that we haven’t even mentioned guys like Nate Diaz, Clay Guida, Tyson Griffin, Joe Stevenson, Melvin Guillard, you begin to get a real sense of the daunting challenge that awaits the WEC lightweights.
So let’s pick out a few of them and assess how they stack up.
Benson Henderson (Current WEC Lightweight Champion)
Of all the current WEC fighters I feel that current champion Benson Henderson has the best chance to make some kind of impact, and if he emerges victorious from his fight with Anthony Pettis at WEC 53 in December he’ll get a chance to prove it as he’ll automatically be installed as the UFC’s next No.1 contender.
He brings to the table excellent cardio, good wrestling, impressive submission defense and decent striking. He’s also mentally very strong, spending his free time practicing religion and reading books that’s far removed from the drinking / partying lifestyle that distracts other fighters from becoming the best they can be.
There are negatives though. His submission defense against Cerrone in their fight was remarkable, but the fact that he was getting caught in so many submissions in the first place is a concern. Several of his opponents have also shown signs of edging him in the striking as well, and I think he’ll also have trouble implementing his wrestling against guys with better credentials in that area like Maynard, and better takedown defense like BJ Penn.
Verdict: My gut feeling is that though he’s good enough to top the WEC 155lb weight class, he’s his skills aren’t at the level required to duplicate that feat in the UFC. It’ll be interesting to see how he adapts and develops against tougher opposition though, and it’s possible he could become a solid mid-level fighter in the division.
Anthony Pettis (Current No.1 contender):
With a 4-1 record in the WEC, 11-1 overall Anthony Pettis finds himself thrust into the title picture just weeks before the promotion folds into the UFC.
Pettis main strength lies in his versatile, dynamic striking, blending traditional karate with muay thai and even capoeira to produce an offensive arsenal that’s both effective and exciting to watch. Meanwhile he’s been working hard on his jiu-jitsu, and that’s paying dividends with two triangle choke victories in his last two fights. He also has youth on his side, he’ll turn 24 in January, and with a desire to improve upon his all-round game that means that his best days are still ahead of him.
On the other hand, though his takedown defense and overall ground game are improving I do think he’ll find himself severely tested by the array of high level wrestlers and jiu-jitsu specialists that reside in the UFC. Even in his journey to the top of the WEC ladder he’s managed to sidestep some potentially tough opponents like Cerrone and Varner, so the UFC will be a major step up for him.
Verdict: Pettis is an entertaining fighter, but I don’t think he’s the finished article yet. With youth on his side I think he’ll be given time to develop in the UFC and it’ll be interesting to see how he stacks up in two or three years time. For the time being though I suspect he’ll find life tough in the upper reaches of the division.
Donald Cerrone: (Former No.1 Contender)
Thanks to his swashbuckling fighting style and ‘cowboy’ persona, Donald Cerrone has become one of the recognized headline stars of the WEC and as such has been in the title mix for much of his 3+ years in the promotion.
Though a good striker with a cast iron jaw, it’s Cerrone’s ground game that’s enabled him to finish 10 of his twelve career wins inside the distance via submission. Though by his own admission he can start a little slowly at times, he also has a good gas tank as has been proven in two five round wars in the WEC.
Despite his star status in the WEC it also has to be noted that he has a somewhat patchy record in the promotion, going 5-3 (1nc). Though he’s been able to dispatch the likes of Rob McCullough and Ed Ratcliff, he’s found the going tougher against those at the top end of the division like Henderson and Varner (though he did gain vengeance over Varner in their last encounter).
Verdict: Cerrone will give anyone at lightweight a tough fight but having already met his match with the likes of Ben Henderson in the WEC I think he’ll struggle to make a sustained challenge in the upper reaches of the UFC. Though his wrestling is improving I also suspect guys like Sherk and Maynard for example will give him a hard time. Despite all that he’s still one of the most entertaining fighters to watch in any weight class though as is proven by his four WEC ‘Fight Of The Night’ awards, and that means he’ll be a valuable addition to the division.
Jamie Varner (Former WEC champion):
Varner is a former two-time defending lightweight champion in the WEC and despite a recent dip in form and bad luck with injuries he remains one of the promotion’s leading 155lb’ers
He’s a well rounded fighter with a mix of good technical boxing and wrestling being at the core of his success. He also has had a taste of life in the UFC before, going 1-1 during a brief stint in 2006-2007 before joining the WEC.
A big problem for Varner is his tendency to get injured in his fights and recurring problems with broken hands amongst an assortment of other problems has kept him out of action for extended periods of time. A run of 0-2-1 since returning from a year on the sidelines suggests that his performances are now suffering as a result.
Verdict: Like Cerrone, Varner generally puts on good fights and his ‘heel’ status in the WEC is likely to accompany him to the UFC which should spice up the division a little. His injury woes are a real concern though, and though I think he’s better than his recent form suggests, I think his previous UFC record of 1-1 gives an indication of his ceiling in the division.
The Iranian born Kamal Shalorus quickly moved into title contention in the WEC, put a split decision draw with Varner temporarily stunted his progress. Despite that he remains a significant player in the upper half of the division.
Shalorus’s main strength is undoubtedly his freestyle wrestling which at one stage prior to his MMA career saw him reaching Olympic level in the UK. That’s clearly evident in the cage and his takedowns and takedown defense in particular are breathtaking at times. He also hits hard and an extremely tough competitor, shrugging off the kind of blows that would leave most fighters lying face down on the canvas.
Despite his wrestling credentials Shalorus loves to brawl, and it’s fair to say his striking lacks the finesse of his grappling, often resorting to wild looping strikes thrown with maximum power. Certainly dangerous if they connect, but more often than not they don’t. Therefore his mental / strategic approach to fighting has to be brought into question.
Verdict: Shalorus’s wrestling makes him an interesting addition to the lightweight mix, but if he continues his current trend of wanting to trade blows then more technical strikers are going to have a field day attempting to be the first to find the switch that turns off his lights. Personally I think he was thrust into the limelight a little early in the WEC and he needs more time to round out his skill-set if he’s to make a real impression.
So as you can see overall I’m not overly high on the idea of the WEC’s top lightweight’s making a major impact in the UFC. As I pointed out earlier, the strength in depth the UFC already possesses is going to makes it particularly difficult for the new recruits to make their mark, at least in the short term.
Better news is that a number of the promotion’s top contenders are still at a good age, such as Pettis (23), Varner (26), Henderson (26), Cerrone (27), and the tougher challenges that lie ahead may help push them on to bigger and better things.
While I don’t foresee a raft of new title challengers, I do think that the merger will provide a welcome boost to the lower – mid levels of the weight-class, confirming it as the most stacked division in all of MMA.
Over and above that what a number of the fighters will undoubtedly bring to the UFC is entertainment, excitement and personality, breathing new life into the division.
Final Note: I haven’t included the man on many people’s minds at the moment – Jose Aldo in my analysis simply because he’s still at featherweight for the time being and it could yet be a year or two before he chooses to take the next step. If and when he does move up though I do believe that on his current form he is likely to make the biggest impact of any current WEC fighter in the UFC’s lightweight division.