Henderson-Pettis II is the right match for the wrong reasons
Benson Henderson didn't have time to enjoy his win for the UFC lightweight title
After beating Frankie Edgar, Henderson immediately faced questions on his future
Dana White wants Henderson to fight Anthony Pettis, but Pettis isn't deserving yet
Benson Henderson had barely had time to bask in Saturday night's glorious present moment -- having his hand raised and the lightweight title belt wrapped around his waist -- when his future was already being thrust in his face. The guy had just taken down reigning champion Frankie Edgar in the main event of UFC 144 outside Tokyo, and immediately potential challengers were being lined up in front of him.
Will the first title defense come against the man Henderson dethroned via a unanimous but hotly debated decision? Or will "Smooth" face a different rematch, one with Anthony Pettis, who earlier in the evening had smashed Joe Lauzon with a highlight-reel head kick -- and who 14 months ago took the WEC title from Henderson on the strength of an even more spectacular kick, a leaping-off-the-fence spinning maneuver right out of a ninja movie? Or will Henderson await the winner of the May 5 UFC on Fox main event between top-of-the-food-chain contenders Jim Miller and Nate Diaz?
UFC president Dana White's immediate choice was Pettis, who after finishing Lauzon had jumped onto the top of the cage and motioned in front of his midsection in the shape of a championship belt. Asked during the post-fight press conference whether "Showtime" was indeed first in line for a shot at Henderson, White said, "I think he's going to get it." But a few minutes later he tempered that proclamation, saying he wasn't yet ready to make a decision.
Good call, Dana. Booking a Henderson-Pettis II would be the sexy move, one guaranteed to get a good buzz going. And as a fight promoter, you know the value of generating a buzz among fans. But as head of the UFC, which ostensibly is the major leagues of mixed martial arts, you're also akin to a commissioner, and when wearing that hat you have to consider what best fits the competitive meritocracy of the sport and supports the credibility of your championship belts. When you factor that in, Pettis is not the No. 1 contender. Not yet.
Yes, my memory does extend back to Dec. 16, 2010, when Pettis was the UFC's No. 1 contender at lightweight. He earned the lofty designation that night by going all Matrix on Henderson in the last fight in WEC history, which was being absorbed into the UFC. The victory earned Pettis not just the disappearing fight promotion's brass-and-leather strap but also a promise: He would get the next shot at Edgar. That plan went awry 16 days later, however, when Frankie fought to a draw with Gray Maynard, necessitating a rematch. Rather than sit and wait his turn, "Showtime" opted to take a fight, and when he lost a decision to Clay Guida last June, his spot at the head of the line went poof.
A victory over Lauzon -- as spectacular as it may have been -- does not cancel out the Guida loss. "J-Lau" is a good fighter, and he was coming off an upset of Melvin Guillard, a stellar lightweight who'd also been given a title shot promise. But to climb back to the top of the ladder, Pettis needs to beat someone on a higher rung. Gray Maynard, maybe. The Miller-Diaz winner. Or how about Nate's training partner, Gilbert Melendez? "El Niņo" is aching for a challenge. On the surface, it might seem like a step down for Pettis, moving to Strikeforce, even for a title bout. But fighting Melendez is nothing to scoff at, especially if the winner is assured of a belt-unifying bout with the UFC champ. And c'mon, if you're a promoter, you've got to be able to work some magic with "Showtime" fighting on Showtime.
If not Pettis, then, who should step in with the new champ? I think it should be the old champ. I favor a rematch with Edgar, in part, because I thought the Jersey guy won Saturday night. Watching live, I was too busy typing a story on deadline to focus on scoring, but my general sense was that Frankie was connecting with more strikes and controlling extended stretches, while Henderson was more sporadic with his attacks. I watched again on Monday morning -- Sunday was a day of rest, after the long fight card had kept me up till the middle of the night -- and this time I kept a scorecard. Again, I saw it for Edgar, giving him the first, third and fifth rounds.
But it was close. "Smooth" inflicted much damage, and when the final horn sounded, Edgar did not look like someone who'd just won a fight. Looks are deceiving, though. Henderson's most telling blow, for example, was an up-kick late in the second round. It nailed Edgar square in the face, knocking him down and allowing Henderson to reverse to top position and rain down some leather on the champ. But all of this occurred in the final few seconds of a round that Edgar had been winning. More important than stealing the round, though, the kick bloodied (and possibly broke) Edgar's nose and dramatically worsened the swelling in a mouse under his left eye. For the three rounds that remained, Edgar looked like the victim of assault while Henderson was unmarked. That visual had to leave an impression on the judges, who scored the fight 49-46, 49-46 and 48-47, all for Henderson.
I don't necessarily agree with those scores, but I don't think a travesty occurred. The challenger inflicted more damage and had the champ in trouble a couple of times. I understand how someone could give the fight to Henderson. But even though two of the judges essentially called it a landslide, giving Henderson four of the five rounds, I think a rematch is in order. For one thing, while Henderson made Edgar look beaten up, he didn't really beat up the champ. By the fight's end, neither man was running on fumes. They both looked like they could have gone a few more rounds. So they should -- for reasons ranging from competitive integrity to karmic justice. After all, when Edgar took the title from B.J. Penn in the spring of 2010, he had to fight a rematch. Same thing after his New Year's Night draw with Maynard. As Edgar said in last weekend's postfight press conference, "I'm not trying to shoot anyone out of anything they deserve, but I had to do two immediate rematches. So what's right?"
What's right would be for Henderson and Edgar to go at it again this summer, with the Miller-Diaz winner next in line. That might seem like an injustice to Jim and Nate, whose bout has been characterized as a No. 1 contender eliminator. And rightly so, since they've both worked their way up the ranks, and whoever wins their May 5 bout will have just beaten one of the best lightweights on the planet. But timing is everything. They don't square off for two months, and even if the winner comes away unscathed, that'd still be a lot of time for Henderson to wait. And what if the UFC asks "Smooth" to wait, and the Miller-Diaz survivor sustains enough damage to cause a further delay? Of course, you also could point to Edgar's battered face and wonder how long it will be before he'd be ready for a rematch. Meanwhile, Pettis escaped Tokyo as unscathed as Henderson. But that's merely a scheduling convenience, not enough on which to build a championship fight.
There's no denying that to stick "Showtime" into the octagon with Henderson at this point would be exciting, based on their WEC meeting and The Kick in particular. But that would be the type of sports/entertainment decision-making that transformed Jeremy Lin's Warholian 15 minutes of NBA renown into an All-Star weekend invitation. It'd be the kind of thinking that would have matched the Giants and Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI simply because they'd put on a darn good show four years ago and a rematch would be fun for fans. That's not the way the NFL runs its business. There are standards to adhere to, a step-by-step procedure known as the playoffs to go through. You don't just Tebow your way into the championship game, just because you've thrilled the fans and have a nice Twitter buzz. The two teams that ended up playing for the trophy in Indianapolis had to earn their tickets on the field, beating the best their conferences had to offer.
UFC fighters also should have to earn their rise to glory by beating the best inside the cage, not just in the court of public opinion.
Questions? Comments? To reach Jeff Wagenheim or contribute to the SI.com MMA mailbag, click on the E-mail link at the top of the page.
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