Goodbye, WEC, and welcome to the big show.
Off Thursday's WEC swan song, the organization is now merged into the UFC, bringing with it two new weight classes and fresh faces galore. And while the WEC's bantamweight and featherweight divisions will enjoy a short-term exclusivity while the organization signs outside talent in the coming months, the lightweights face a ruthless process of elimination, as the UFC's 155-pound roster is already exceptionally deep.
There are two no-brainer matchups to make in wake of the WEC 53 card, based on who won in defenses in Glendale, Ariz. Anthony Pettis will face the victor of the Jan. 1 Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard bout, while Dominick Cruz will likely face Urijah Faber next (as of press time Thursday, Sherdog.com awaits UFC President Dana White's announcement of who will coach the next installment of "The Ultimate Fighter.") Whether Cruz and Faber are queued up to host that season or not, their rematch is a natural.
But what WEC 53 really did was end the theoretical assumptions of how the WEC's guys would do amidst the big dogs. The wait is over.
The water's warm, fellas. Jump on in.
Dominick Cruz versus Urijah Faber
When they faced the first time in 2007, Faber was an emerging star in the nascent televised version of the WEC, while Cruz was a 9-0 unknown, plucked afresh and sent in for the 145-pound title. Choked out in the first round, Cruz has since gone 8-0, making his second title defense Thursday in a unanimous decision over Scott Jorgensen.
His style is uniquely his own, utilizing height and a medley of feints and combinations to confuse and outpoint opponents.
Faber's 1-0 since his drop to 135, and with a thin cupboard at bantamweight after the merger, this is the first big super fight the UFC will have in that division. The two have made no mystery of their dislike for one other, and with Cruz holding wins over Faber's stablemates (two over Joseph Benavidez), it's a match one could build up with ease.
Throw in the additional subplot of Faber wanting to get back to championship status off his losses to Mike Thomas Brown and Jose Aldo at 145 and Cruz as the new face, and it's an eminently watchable fight. Cruz has been too tricky and too good a wrestler thus far at 135. Faber would be glad to test him and, at this point, probably is the only guy at 135 in the UFC, outside of the newly signed Norifumi "Kid" Yamamoto, that could outmuscle him and turn the fight into a down-and-dirty slugfest. The UFC needs to jump-start the bantams, and this is the fight to do it.
Anthony Pettis versus Frankie Edgar/Gray Maynard winner
With his rousing decision win over Benson Henderson in the final WEC, "Showtime" capped off the effort in the fifth round, catapulting himself on the cage to deliver a kick that sent Henderson nearly out. It's the kind of move that's a lock for highlight reels, and Pettis' film is getting as good as anyone's this side of Anderson Silva.
He displayed ever-improving wrestling at WEC 53, and worked his way out of some bad spots on the ground against the wily Henderson. Chances are he matches up better against Edgar than Maynard. Edgar's smaller frame and busy stand-up would give him plenty of room to counter with big shots, and it's debatable as to which guy is quicker.
If Maynard emerges with the UFC belt, that's a tough assignment for Pettis, but he has the kind of stand-up and range to make "The Bully" somewhat cautious in his approach. Training with Olympian Ben Askren has really taken Pettis' takedown defense to the next level, which he'd need against the powerful Maynard.
Either way, his victory was the perfect springboard into fighting for the UFC belt. And with the way he flew off the cage in the fifth to deliver the fight-winning kick (it essentially sealed the fifth round and the decision), "Showtime" built serious fan interest in his next bout for the title.
Donald Cerrone versus Cole Miller
After his second-round triangle submission of Chris Horodecki, Cerrone called out Miller, and we'll happily oblige him here. With good stand-up, an active guard and one of the better chins in the game, Cerrone's UFC debut against Miller is a solid matchup for him. Miller is much like the "Cowboy," with excellent jiu-jitsu and aggressive striking, though Cerrone's stand-up is a notch or two above.
This would be an excellent opportunity for Cerrone to show he's ready to compete in the UFC against a name guy. Plus, it would be important for Miller if he could get a win over a fighter that's respected among the hardcore fans who've followed him. Both men have been outmatched by better wrestlers in the past, so the key weakness of both is not likely to be exploited here. You're not going to get a lay-and-pray-style decision in this one.
Benson Henderson versus Tyson Griffin
Though he lost a unanimous decision to Pettis, Henderson was even on two cards going into the fifth round, and could've kept the title with a winning round. It was a close fight and he showed improved stand-up, as well as his trademark ability to get out of bad spots and use great scrambling in transitions.
Griffin has three losses in a row, with the last a controversial decision defeat to Nik Lentz. The UFC veteran has the kind of style against Henderson that would make for an incredibly fast-paced bout. Plus, while Griffin's stand-up might be a little better technically, he's also four inches shorter, so Henderson would probably be a bit more aggressive than he was against the rangier Pettis.
Griffin and Henderson consistently produce exciting fights, and they would be fun to watch, with all swings of momentum, escapes and high drama. It also helps sort out the pecking order at 155 a bit -- both should be considered somewhere in the 15-20 range in terms of overall rankings for the UFC's lightweight cast, which has 60 fighters overall. Both are at least three straight wins from even thinking title shot at this point, but it's a good place to start building a case for it.
Danny Castillo versus Joe Lauzon
On this week's Sherdog roundtable, fellow panelists and I discussed how many of the WEC's lightweight roster would still be with the UFC a year or so from now. Estimates ranged from two to four guys. It's a serious talent pool, and that glut means that the matchmaking dynamic has changed. And styles will go a long way in deciding whether or not you're kept around after a loss or two (and after three, you'd better have at least "Fight of the year"-style showings in defeat).
For my money, Castillo is one of those guys that could make the cut. He's aggressive, exciting and never is in a boring bout. His blowout stoppage of Will Kerr at WEC 53 reminded us of what he's capable of and gives him a good jump-off point into the UFC.
Castillo's wrestling, aggression and heavy hands would make him a live wire against Lauzon, who'd probably want to take the fight to the ground. While Castillo has shown defensive lapses at times in the brawls he seems to always get into, he'd bring a lot of artillery into the match, especially early. While Castillo does not have the experience fighting top competition Lauzon does, he does have a style advantage in this matchup, as he's a better wrestler with heavier hands. It could definitely break either way.
And the thought that this type of match is "beneath" the higher ranked fighter is the old way of thinking (your humble author got a lot of e-mails taking that line of reasoning after suggesting Jim Miller tackle Edson Mendes Barboza Jr., after UFC 124).
There are no matches beneath anyone in today's lightweight division. You are going to have to keep busy and really raise a ruckus to earn a title shot. This is the kind of match that gives both men a platform to shine and get a W.
Jason Probst is a contributor to Sherdog.com.