UFC president Dana White made the landmark announcement on a Thursday conference call: World Extreme Cagefighting will merge with Zuffa LLC's flagship promotion in 2011, with the UFC absorbing the WEC's considerable talent pool in the process.
Several of the WEC's most prominent fighters have weighed in on the folding of the blue cage, speaking exclusively to Sherdog.com on the matter.
"I was speechless [when I heard the news] this morning. It's crazy," said lightweight title contender Anthony Pettis. "I was training hard, but now I'm pushing even harder. There's so much to look forward to in this next year."
Pettis will headline the WEC's final event, WEC 53, on Dec. 16, when he takes on lightweight champion Benson Henderson to determine the brand's final 155-pound king. White said the winner of that matchup will face the victor of Frankie Edgar's UFC title defense against Gray Maynard in 2011.
Currently, WEC talent appears almost exclusively on the Versus network, a fact that will soon change. Starting next year, the fighters will regularly compete on pay-per-view, just like the rest of the UFC roster.
"It's crazy," Pettis said. "It's not even real yet, and it's not going to be real until it finally happens. I've heard the rumors for a year and a half. The possibility of headlining a pay-per-view is huge."
His opponent, however, takes the merger in stride. Henderson claims the medium in which he performs is not as important as the performance itself.
"I'm not so affected by the pay-per-view stuff. No matter the venue, I still have to go out there and perform and get my hand raised," Henderson told Sherdog. "I could be fighting in the back of a 7-Eleven, and I still have to go out and do my best."
However, Henderson admits the prospect of fighting on the biggest stage in mixed martial arts is inspiring. If he manages to get past Pettis in December, the unification fight sits on the horizon. Regardless of who wins in the Edgar-Maynard contest at UFC 125 on New Year's Day, Henderson says he will be prepared to prove himself inside the Octagon.
"It would mean a lot [to become the UFC lightweight champion]," he said. "It'd be a dream come true. I want to be the best on the planet, so I'll probably eventually fight both guys. I want to beat everybody -- not my buddies, but everybody else."
While Henderson and Pettis are relatively new additions to the WEC roster, Urijah Faber and Miguel Torres are not. They were long-standing champions in their respective divisions, and both men helped grow the brand by putting on action-filled fights. For Torres, the merger has produced mixed feelings.
"It's definitely bittersweet, because I've been with the WEC a while, and I've been fighting since '98. I think I'm a pioneer, but now the future is open to me," Torres said. "I think it's really good. It's going to give us lighter guys more attention. We've sort of been viewed as second-tier fighters, and now we've got the opportunity to show the world that we belong in the UFC."
Faber, on the other hand, looks wholeheartedly toward the future and even feels a sense of relief that the brands are finally merging.
"I'm excited, man. I've been pushing for [the merger] for a while now. We WEC guys haven't been getting the credit or the exposure that we deserve. It's also going to mean better paydays, which is obviously great," Faber said. "Not having to explain the difference, or lack of a difference, to the fans is going to be nice. I'm looking forward to the satisfaction of there finally being no difference between the UFC and the WEC. I didn't think there was a difference before, except the initials, but now it's official."
One fact all four men can agree on is that the new surroundings of the UFC's massive, 30-foot Octagon will not negatively impact the action for which WEC combatants are known.
"I don't think [the larger space will affect the action]. The WEC is known for putting on exciting fights. There are potential 'Fight of the Year' nominees on almost every card, and that's because WEC fighters go out there and get after each other," Henderson said. "You could put us in the middle of the ocean or the desert, and we're still going to push forward and have an exciting fight."
John Myers is a contributor to Sherdog.com.