GLENDALE, Ariz. – Chris Cariaso was on his knees in his locker room, about 10 minutes before he'd have to walk to the cage to face Renan Barao in the opening fight Thursday of WEC 53 at Jobing.com Arena.
Cariaso appeared to be in prayer when World Extreme Cagefighting cofounder Reed Harris entered his locker room for a final pep talk.
"I need you to set the tone," Harris said. "You know what we're looking for. I know you can do it."
They slapped hands and Harris wheeled out of the locker room. Minutes earlier, he'd visited Barao's locker room and urged him "to come up big."
WEC general manager Reed Harris conducted his final WEC postfight news conference on Thursday.
(Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
As much as he tried to downplay it, it was clearly a special night for Harris, who founded the WEC in 2001 with his long-time friend and business partner, Scott Adams. On Thursday, the WEC was going to put on one last show before fading into history, being folded into the larger, more established Ultimate Fighting Championship.
The WEC had developed something of a cult following among mixed martial arts fans. Show after show it delivered, putting on one sensational fight after another.
Part of it is that the WEC features the lighter-weight fighters – at the end, it had only three classes, at bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight – and the lighter fighters are more athletic.
"The smaller guys can pull off things that the bigger guys physically just can't do," WEC matchmaker Sean Shelby said.
But a lot of it comes from the tone that Harris and Adams set from the very first show, on June 30, 2001, at the Tachi Palace casino in Lemoore, Calif. Harris had come up with the idea to create the WEC in 1999, but it took nearly two full years for it to come to fruition.
MMA wasn't as remotely popular a decade ago as it is now and it was still battling stereotypes. It wasn't regulated in more states than it was in states where it was regulated.
The challenges were many and Harris and Adams knew they had to deliver exciting fights. They weren't going to tolerate one guy pinning another down and holding him there for long stretches. If you were going to make a living in the WEC, you were going to have to scrap.
"We were never going to put two wrestlers in there against each other," Harris said. "From the start, we always wanted to make sure that when we told someone guys were going to fight, they actually came and would fight."
Thursday's show epitomized the type of card they sought. It was one of the most sensational shows in the history of the company, with fight after fight ending in jaw-dropping finishes.
Of the 11 fights on the card, five ended in the first round, including the first four, and another ended in the second.
Barao opened the night by submitting Cariaso with a rear naked choke at 3:47 of the first. In the second bout, a huge right hand by Yuri Alcantara knocked out Ricardo Lamas at 3:26 of the first.
Will Kerr had the better of Danny Castillo for most of the 85 seconds they fought. Kerr was working several submissions and seemed to be en route to the third first-round finish in a row when he got a heel hook on Castillo. But Castillo came down from the top with several thunderous right hands, knocking Kerr out at 1:25.
The fourth knockout was the most sensational but also scary. Ken Stone jumped guard on former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland, who carried Stone across the ring. Wineland viciously slammed Stone, who was out cold upon impact. He was put onto a stretcher and taken to a local hospital, where he was treated, released and given the all clear.
"I put one on his chin and he felt my power and didn't like it," Wineland said. "He jumped guard and tried to guillotine me. I carried him to the corner and all I saw was 'Rampage' in my eyes."
Former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton "Rampage" Jackson was known for slamming foes into unconsciousness during his days as one of the top attractions in PRIDE. Wineland's knockout brought the crowd to life, but Harris wasn't thrilled at first.
A look of concern creased his face and he dashed into the cage to check on Stone.
"Safety is so important and when you see something like that, obviously, there are some concerns," Harris said. "When I started this thing, I remember telling my wife [Laura] that I was going to do it. And I just got this look back. But later, she told me, 'Make sure no one ever gets seriously injured.' And I told her I would make sure of that."
He did, though there were plenty of cuts and broken noses and bumps and bruises along the way.
The WEC fighters seemed to embrace the notion of putting on mind-blowing shows. There was little stalling and fighters were seemingly playing a game of "Can you top this?" It's what set the WEC apart from all other promotions.
"The content was so good, night after night," said Urijah Faber, the former WEC featherweight champion and the promotion's biggest star. "You got the best fights, from top to bottom, every single time. You don't get excitement like that anywhere else. It's going to be nice for us as former WEC fighters to be added to the UFC and bring that excitement over there.
"Lighter-weight guys don't have all the same opportunities that bigger guys do in professional sport, but fighting is one where we can stand out."
Anthony Pettis (right) took the lightweight title from Ben Henderson in the final fight.
(Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
After Anthony Pettis wrested the WEC lightweight title from Ben Henderson in Thursday's final fight, climbing the cage and unleashing a "Where did that come from?"-type of kick to Henderson's head to decide it, there was a lot of talk about sadness.
Neither Harris nor Adams, though, were sad. Adams, who left the WEC to form a company, "Showdown Fights," returned to watch the final show. He called it a great night in the promotion's history.
"It's incredible to be here for the last night of the WEC," Adams said. "This is a company I helped put together and start. I see a lot of the talent that I helped anoint and it's an incredible feeling for me to see this. I just love what the WEC has stood for and I look to see these guys go on in the UFC and do big things."
As Harris, who will remain with Zuffa and work for the UFC in a yet-to-be-determined capacity, patrolled the hallway outside the fighters' locker room Thursday, he spoke of some of the WEC's high points.
He raved about great fights – he could barely stop talking about a slugfest at WEC 9 on Jan. 16, 2004, when Olaf Alfonso and John Polakowski battled. There was the first – and only – pay-per-view card, at WEC 48 earlier this year, which did more than double internal projections.
On and on he went. Surprisingly, there wasn't a touch of sadness or melancholy in his voice.
"The UFC bought PRIDE and the WFA [World Fighting Alliance], too, but we're the only one they allowed to put on fight cards," Harris said. "I like to think it's because we did things the right way. It's great, because now we go forward and our guys get to be part of the biggest show in the world. They fought their way to get into this position and it's a credit to all of these guys who fought for us. I'm happy to see this day come, because it's like a celebration of [the history of] the WEC."