WEC Lightweights Proving They Belong in the UFC

Former WEC fighters earning their place amongst UFC counterparts

Back before the WEC was folded into the UFC, many viewed the lightweights who fought inside the smaller blue cage as second-class competitors. Sure they had talent and generally delivered exciting fights, but being 155-pound fighters under the employment of Zuffa, many believed that if they were really that good, they’d be fighting in the UFC, and not the Triple A affiliate.

Over the last four months, a number of WEC mainstays have made a smooth transition into the Octagon, abolishing the notion that they couldn’t compete with their UFC counterparts.

Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone was the first to announce himself on the UFC stage, and he did so before even stepping into the Octagon. The Greg Jackson trainee spoke about wanting to avenge best friend Leonard Garcia’s loss to Cole Miller following his final WEC win, and was earned a replacement spot opposite Paul Kelly shortly thereafter, much to the dismay of TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig.

Cerrone made quick work of Kelly, dispatching the Brit via rear naked choke in the second round at UFC 126, setting up a step up in competition for his second trip inside the UFC cage. He’ll meet Danzig in a lightweight grudge match at UFC 131 in Vancouver, and a win could push Cerrone into the top 20 of the deepest division in the organization.

Not a lot was expected of Shane Roller when he made the transition to the UFC. While he’s always been viewed as a strong wrestler with some potential, the former Oklahoma State standout was at the bottom of the list of competitors to cross over in January, having earned his promotion to the big show by defeating former champion Jamie Varner on the WEC’s final card.

Roller proved his critics wrong by knocking out Thiago Tavares with a blistering right hand on the third UFC on Versus event in March, earning Knockout of the Night honors in the process. It was the kind of performance that served notice to the rest of the division and the critics, and the one that really started the shift in the narrative regarding the WEC refugees.

This past weekend in Toronto, Ben Henderson added his name to the list of victorious former WEC fighters, defeating Mark Bocek by unanimous decision at UFC 129. Despite beginning in an atypical fashion – walking out to Bon Jovi’s “It’s My Life” instead of his customary “Revolution” by Kirk Franklin – the performance was a typical Henderson display that showcased his constantly improving striking, high-end cardio, and otherworldly submission defence.

The victory had to be sweeter than normal for Henderson, who had became the overlooked man after being on the receiving end of Anthony Pettis’ “Showtime Kick” in their battle for the lightweight belt at WEC 53. This win proved that one kick doesn’t erase all that Henderson had accomplished prior to that loss, and that he’s still more than capable of competing at the top of the 155-pound division now that he’s in the UFC.

Even those who have had losing efforts in their UFC debuts have acquitted themselves well.

Anthony Njokuani lost a decision to rising prospect Edson Barboza, but a number of people believed the Nigerian-born kickboxer did enough to win the fight. While that doesn’t necessarily provide comfort to Njokuani in the wake of losing his UFC debut, the bonus check he received as one half of the Fight of the Night undoubtedly helped lessen the blow.

Jim Miller may have gotten the better of Kamal Shalorus, but the New Jersey native has done the same to his last seven opponents. Debuting in the UFC with a loss to the one of the two men who might challenge for the lightweight title next doesn’t take away from Shalorus’ standing in the division. He remains a dangerous threat with tremendous power and truly world-class wrestling, although he favors the former at the expense of the latter all too often.

As well as the WEC carryovers have done so far, there are still two more yet to make their debut.

Later this month at UFC 130, Bart Palaszewski will step into the Octagon for the first time against TUF 12 alum Cody McKenzie. It will be the 50th professional bout on record for the former IFL veteran and a chance to get back into the win column after losing to Shalorus in his final WEC appearance.

The 27-year-old Jeff Curran pupil is sure to become a fan favorite, his straight forward, attacking style, multi-colored mohawk and numerous tattoos sure to endear him to his new audience right away. He looks like a fighter and backs it up in the cage, something McKenzie will find out for himself at UFC 130.

Anthony Pettis

Lastly, there is Anthony Pettis, possibly the best of the bunch.

Pettis will make his UFC debut in the main event of the upcoming Ultimate Fighter Finale on June 4 opposite Clay Guida. The 24-year-old Milwaukee native had earned the right to challenge for the UFC lightweight title by winning the WEC belt from Henderson, but when Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard fought to a draw at UFC 125, the young Duke Roufus product decided he’d rather risk his title shot and remain active than sit on the sidelines and wait his turn.

Though some would question the logic of giving up a guaranteed title shot to face a stern challenge from “The Carpenter,” Pettis has always preferred to fight as regularly as possible, and a victory over Guida would convince those who questioned his initial title shot that he’s deserving of the honor. He’s shown steady improvement over his four fights in 2010, earning wins over Danny Castillo, Alex Karalexis, Roller and Henderson in the process, and still has room to grow.

Henderson’s win on Saturday night in Toronto should have laid the question of whether the WEC lightweights can compete in the UFC to rest for good. A victory for Pettis in early June will not only earn “Showtime” a title shot, but it would also prove that most of us were very, very wrong about how good the WEC 155-pound division was in the first place.

Sorry we doubted you.