Henderson edges Cerrone in WEC thriller

“Cowboy” Donald Cerrone has waited since the end of January to get his rematch with Jamie Varner for the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight championship.

And now that Varner has said he’s ready to return, Cerrone is on the outside looking in after being upset by Ben Henderson in a match for the WEC interim lightweight title on Saturday night in San Antonio.

The crowd of 5,176 at the AT&T Center was thrilled by a match that never stopped for five rounds, in what turned out to be a battle of Cerrone’s submission skill against the wrestling of Henderson, a former NAIA All-American. The decision was controversial, and booed by the crowd in one of those matches where there really was no loser to the fans, but there was a loser in the record books and in the race for the title shot.

All three judges had it 48-47 for Henderson. Yahoo! Sports had it 48-47 for Cerrone. Both fighters received $20,000 fight of the night bonuses for their efforts.

“Donald is a super tough fighter, and as you guys saw, some really tough submissions,” Henderson said in a post-fight phone interview. “I was able to weather those storms, and at the end of the fight, use my wrestling and my ground skills to edge out the win.” Most likely the first round ended up deciding the fight, since Henderson clearly won rounds two and three, while Cerrone just as clearly won rounds four and five.

The fight was a great argument for those who want all main events to be five rounds, regardless whether there is a title on the line, because the fight got better as it hit the fourth and fifth rounds. Despite the fast pace, despite that Cerrone spent so much time squeezing hard in trying to finish submissions and despite that Henderson was stuck in oxygen-depriving moves on several occasions, neither man seemed tired in the fifth round.

But Cerrone was clearly doing better as time went on.

Cerrone (10-2, 1 no contest) was unable to capitalize on his Muay Thai skill because Henderson’s ability to constantly take him down negated that part of the game. But what won the fight for Henderson was his ability to remain calm as Cerrone caught him in tight submission attempts in the first, fourth and fifth rounds.

“I had some really good opportunities to put Ben away, but he’s really, really tough,” said Cerrone. “Hats off to Ben, and I look to climb my way back up the 155-pound ladder.” By round four, the mental aspect of the game had taken over, as Cerrone had to be frustrated that Henderson was in tight holds for long periods of time, never panicked, and continually escaped. But at the same time, in the last two rounds, Cerrone improved at avoiding Henderson’s takedowns, the strongest part of his game. In the end, it was a battle of conditioning and while Cerrone seemed to have the edge in the last round, neither man mentally broke.

Even though Henderson wasn’t able to get takedowns regularly in rounds four and five, he was continually shooting for them, keeping Cerrone on the defensive. And while Cerrone is largely known for his striking because of his background going 28-0-1 as a kickboxer, in MMA, nine of his 10 wins have been via submission.

Henderson and Cerrone consider each other friends, growing up and starting their careers together in Colorado Springs, Colo. In recent years, Cerrone migrated to Albuquerque, N.M., to train at the Greg Jackson camp, while Henderson went to Glendale, Ariz.

The first and likely deciding round opened with Cerrone missing a kick and going down. Henderson rushed in to take advantage, and was caught in a guillotine, and then a triangle. Henderson escaped trouble, but Cerrone went for a second guillotine when Henderson gave a thumbs up signal to the audience and referee indicating he wasn’t in trouble. Henderson won the last three minutes of the round, using his wrestling skill to get takedowns, and standing up to avoid the quickness in Cerrone’s hips in being able to attack from the bottom. Henderson, in standing, stayed far away and out of trouble and was able to score well late in the round.

In the second round, Cerrone looked strong in the early minutes. Even though he was on his back, he was doing more damage, including a wicked punch that hurt Henderson. But the last few minutes saw Henderson come back, keep a standing position while Cerrone was on his back, and dropped down with punches, similar to the ending of the first round.

Henderson’s best round was the third, controlling it with his wrestling, with four takedowns and never being in danger. Cerrone was able to get up every time from his back, but before he could do any damage standing, he was taken down again.

The tide turned in the fourth round when Cerrone had a tight guillotine and held it for nearly 90 seconds at the start of the round. Henderson escaped, but Henderson was then unable to take Cerrone down. With Henderson on his back after a missed takedown, Cerrone kicked at Henderson’s legs late in the round. Just as the round was ending, Cerrone connected with a wicked low kick that put Henderson on his back.

The fifth round was mostly on the ground with Cerrone dominating the grappling phase, attempting triangles, an armbar, a shoulder lock and various forms of uma platas. It was a shoulder lock that looked the most dangerous, but once again, as it appeared Cerrone was ripping the shoulder joint, Henderson signaled to the crowd and referee that he wasn’t really hurt.

In the end, the judges’ decision on round one came down to advantage time going to Henderson, who connected with more blows, but Cerrone easily came the closest to finishing.

“First and foremost, I want to thank The Lab in Glendale, Ariz., they got me prepared for what we expected, which was a five-round war with Donald Cerrone,” said Henderson (10-1), who will face lightweight champion Varner (16-2, 2 no-contests) at some point in the next few months.

“I’m really excited for the opportunity to face Jamie Varner,” Henderson said. “I know Jamie well, as I helped Jamie get ready for his fight with Marcus Hicks. I’m looking forward to getting healed up,and unifying these belts with him.” Varner, who was ringside at the match, was heavily booed every time the cameras were on him. At every WEC show he’s appeared at this year, he’s been jeered because of the perception, whether fair or not, that he take the easy way out of his fight with Cerrone. Varner saying he couldn’t see midway through the fifth round after being hit with a Cerrone running knee while Varner had one knee on the mat.

Because the fight was stopped with a few minutes left, they went to the cards, and Varner got a split decision. Since then, since Varner’s hand has been slow in healing, Cerrone had questioned whether Varner would ever face him, leading to some bad blood between the two.

“Donald, I don’t like you, but you’re one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever seen or met,” said Varner after the fight. “Ben, let’s do it in December.”

For his part, Cerrone accepted the decision and said he wants to work his way back up. “I hope I get a third shot at the world title some time in the future, but definitely want a few fights before that.”

Dave Meltzer covers mixed martial arts for Yahoo! Sports. Send Dave a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Sunday, Oct 11, 2009