What we learned from WEC 48
With strong bouts throughout, WEC should be happy with its PPV debut
Young Jose Aldo (17-1) was at his clinical best while dispatching Urijah Faber
The rematch between Ben Henderson and Donald Cerrone lacked high drama
Herewith five things we learned from Saturday night's WEC 48 from Sacramento, Calif:
1. Aldo is a brilliant fighter
Jose Aldo never gave Urijah Faber or Sacramento a chance.
From the outset of his first WEC featherweight title defense (not that you'd know from watching the pay-per-view; more on that later), Aldo smoothly battered the former king of the division, whose support from a hometown crowd inside the sold-out Arco Arena diminished with each passing, painful minute.
This was the 23-year-old Brazilian at his clinical best against a swift, dangerous, smart, technical challenger. Aldo easily avoided Faber's early attacks by circling away or countering with disengaged knees to the wrestler's thickly muscled abdomen. He dug angrily to the body, and then the young champion's game plan took hold.
For three rounds, he pounded Faber's lead leg, picking away when he wanted. After the fight, which I scored 50-42 for the champion, Faber acknowledged that he made an effort during his training camp to defend leg kicks. The 30-year-old "California Kid," far and away the most bankable fighter his size in North America prior to tonight, will have about a month to think about the consequences of failing to check Aldo's kicks each time he takes a step or stands out of a chair.
(Randy Couture once told me the worst pain he ever felt after a fight was in the wake of a five-round war with Pedro Rizzo. Faber, known for his durability after going five rounds against Mike Thomas Brown last year despite two mangled hands, absorbed much more punishment to his legs than Couture did in 2001.)
Aldo, now 17-1, is the top athlete at 145 pounds, and possibly the most gifted fighter in the sport. It was a superlative effort, the kind made only better because of the man standing opposite him. Faber, who fell to 23-4, had never been out-quicked before. Never dictated to the way Aldo beautifully danced around him. Never beaten in every aspect of the game. When action hit the floor, which it did several times after the super-hero tough Faber couldn't support his weight under those abused legs, Aldo found dominant positions, nearly finishing in the fourth round from the crucifix.
As good fighters mature they tend to become more patient. Aldo already displays intangibles that suggest he is a special fighter, someone who can rightly own the title of best featherweight of all time with a few years under his belt. Considering his age, don't expect anything to get in the way of that.
Sure, he didn't finish tonight, but it wasn't for a lack of effort. This wasn't anything like Anderson Silva's performance two weeks ago. Aldo is a destroyer. Long, fast, athletic, with an attitude to match. Hailing from the poor Amazon region of Brazil, he finds himself leading the new breed of athlete that's entered MMA in conjunction with the sport's rising prominence.
2. Henderson legit at 155
The knock against WEC-signed lightweights has long been the inability to measure their worth. Without a proper measuring stick, how could anyone know if Ben Henderson, the division champion, Donald Cerrone, his challenger tonight, or others were good enough to compete at an elite level? We may not know for certain, but Henderson (12-1) appears to be that good after submitting Cerrone (11-3) with a guillotine choke 1:51 of Round 1.
A rematch of a 2009 bout which SI.com called fight of the year, there wasn't any drama Saturday night. Henderson, a powerful 26-year-old Arizona-based wrestler, physically overwhelmed Cerrone, 27, before the choke, pounding away with knees that raised an ugly hematoma above the challenger's right eye.
With Dana White saying recently that Henderson and his brood are headed to the UFC in the not too distant future, expect "Smooth" to fair well there. He's certainly athletic enough to hang with anyone. As he builds up his skill, Henderson will need to be reckoned with.
3. A very good night of fights
There has been so much drama the past two weeks -- the disappointment of Anderson Silva in Abu Dhabi; awful judging at UFC 112; a lackluster night of in Nashville on CBS culminated by an embarrassing brawl for Strikeforce to clean up -- it felt like fans and media had lost sight of what makes MMA fun to begin with: excellent action.
WEC (or whatever you want to call it, more on that next) regularly delivers some of the best bouts in the sport, and fighters from 155 to 135 certainly made good on that. While the main event turned out lopsided, WEC's first pay-per-view has to be considered a success. Of course, that will ultimately be decided by how many people paid to watch.
4. Where art thou, WEC?
When I called DirecTV Saturday afternoon to order "Aldo vs. Faber," the automated prompt politely wondered if I wanted to purchase the evening's UFC pay-per-view event. Well, of course not. For starters, there wasn't a UFC card scheduled. I declined and asked for the WEC. No luck. Aldo-Faber, perhaps? Nope. OK, fine, give me the UFC.
It's clear now this was the final step by Zuffa to remove any and all WEC branding from the card -- save close-ups of the lightweight and featherweight championship belts.
Since announcing it was bringing this card to pay-per-view, Zuffa blurred the lines between its two MMA brands. Dana White, not WEC general manager Reed Harris, acted as the lead promoter. A cursory mention of WEC on the event poster was later removed. Not one peep was uttered about WEC on the SpikeTV-aired undercard (which makes sense since WEC has a broadcast deal with Versus).
Then the pay-per-view started and the "Where's Waldo?" treatment continued. There wasn't any placement of the WEC name on the cage canvas. No branding on the gloves.
Though I certainly don't mind subdued schilling for an organization, the card was counter to everything Zuffa has done so brilliantly with its branding in the past in the past, and it came off as nothing less than confusing to the consumer. Henderson, for example, was acknowledged as THE lightweight champion, which must seem strange to UFC title holder Frank Edgar.
I'm told the decision by Zuffa was a result of switching networks from Versus to SpikeTV for the undercard. But that wouldn't seem to explain the pay-per-view treatment. Rumors have persisted that Zuffa is biding time before folding the divisions featured by WEC -- 155, 145, 135 and possibly 125 -- into the UFC. WEC insiders have said in the past that wasn't true. The "organization," as play-by-play man Mike Goldberg repeatedly said in place of WEC, is now this nebulous thing.
Just make it UFC already. Fighters like Aldo and Faber deserve the payday that would come as a result.
Odds and ends
Expect a vigorous debate over Aldo's placement on pound-for-pound lists. I had him No. 6 prior to B.J. Penn losing his UFC title in the Middle East. He would have automatically moved into the top five with a win but, after a performance like that against a fighter like Faber, it wouldn't shock me to see him move into the top three. For now, I think I'll keep him at No. 4, behind some combination of Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and Fedor Emelianenko. I've yet to figure out that mess.
Manny Gamburyan improved to 3-0 in the featherweight division (11-4 overall) with a quick stoppage of former WEC champion Mike Thomas Brown (23-6). Gamburyan countered a left hook-straight combination with a punch that dropped Brown on the spot. Punches followed on the defenseless former champ, before the end was called at 2:22 of Round 1. Gamburyan could be next in line for Aldo.
It was ugly as all get out, but congratulations go out to featherweights Leonard Garcia and Chan Sung Jung for giving every ounce of themselves during a three round brawl on SpikeTV. Garcia (17-5-1) took a split decision in an extremely difficult bout to score, though most observers, myself included, saw it 29-28 for Jung (10-2). It wasn't the best fight I've ever seen, but Garcia-Jung now resides among the top five for pure action.
Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields mugged it up for the camera besides UFC president Dana White. Shields, who according to his management and promotion remains under an exclusive negotiating period after ending his contract with a victory over Dan Henderson on April 17, is obviously headed to the UFC, and is likely to face UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre.