It seems like the cosmos really didn’t like Anthony Pettis’s decision to drop to 145 to take on Jose Aldo instead of face Benson Henderson for the 155 title. After a knee injury derailed his planned jump into the deep end of 145, and perhaps be Jose Aldo’s swan song opponent at featherweight, Pettis was ready to fight again at 155 when fate happened: TJ Grant wound up hurt and with UFC 163 in his backyard of Milwaukee, WI, the matchup was set. Pettis vs. Henderson 2 is a rematch of the final fight in WEC history and Pettis walks in as potentially the favorite in the fight on a lot of people’s cards.
This time the stakes are higher for both men, mainly resulting from the final moments of that legendary WEC fight.
For Pettis this is the long awaited title shot he’s been promised since defeating Henderson with the “Showtime Kick” sealing the fifth round for him. He was supposed to get the winner of Maynard/Edgar, way back when, and history wasn’t kind to him. He wound up losing to Clay Guida and losing the shot during the logjam that the draw caused, moving back in line. Ever since then the narrative about his career has been about getting back that title shot he lost. After WEC 53 there were high hopes for Pettis; he was looked at as perhaps the next UFC lightweight champion and a matchup with either Edgar or Maynard was expected to be a barnburner. Anthony Pettis has been magnificent in his UFC run so far … but the hype train that accompanied him into the UFC isn’t quite what it once was.
UFC 163 is about the promise of what he could be for Pettis. This is what he was destined to do, it seems, and at 26 one imagines this won’t be his only dance for a UFC belt. The Octagon jitters are gone and he’s in his hometown, as well, and with a couple of nasty finishes in recent memory he comes in to the fight as the strongest challenger to Henderson’s throne in some time.
The fact that Benson Henderson, on the other hand, has ascended to the mountaintop of the UFC after WEC 53 is nothing short of miraculous. The “Showtime Kick” that lost him the fight against Pettis would’ve ruined a lot of other fighters mentally. It’s one of the defining moments of the WEC and the fact that he got so close to fighting for a UFC title and lost, and lost in spectacular fashion, would have ruined a lot of other fighters. Many fighters are stilled haunted by moments of other’s glory; it would’ve been easy for Henderson, who openly was weeping after the razor-thin decision loss was announced, to lose his way in the cage.
Instead Henderson has gone undefeated in the UFC so far and has only loss (to Pettis) since he joined the WEC in 2009. His UFC lightweight title run has been far from dominant, of course, but the fact that he’s retained the belt means something. He may be the king of the close, contested decision victory but the fact that he keeps winning is something we have to respect on a number of levels. The fact that he’s winning despite being so close shows how good the elite of the lightweight division really is; there isn’t much separating Henderson from the rest of the pack but he’s perhaps just a hair better than the best of his contemporaries.
But the loss to Pettis still haunts his career because Pettis has been looked at as the one man with the right style to beat him. We’ve seen the fight before, as well, and both fighters are improved versions of their WEC selves. But Pettis has that win, razor thin as it was, and it’s something we can’t ignore. The “Showtime Kick” aired on Sportscenter and to the victor went the spoils; Anthony Pettis came into the UFC with a much greater profile and Henderson wasn’t expected to do much by a great many pundits and fighters alike.
Henderson was immortalized in the digital era in the same way tall, marginally athletic white guys were immortalized in the poster era of NBA hoops. UFC 163 represents his shot at redemption, of turning the tables once and for all.