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WEC champs feel weight of final event

Ben Henderson has his lightweight title on the line in WEC's final event

Champions Ben Henderson and Dominick Cruz are headed for a sentimental evening Thursday night in Glendale, Ariz. The champs co-headline the final event staged by the company that put their names on the mixed martial arts map, World Extreme Cagefighting.

Both men also have ties to the area. Lightweight champion Henderson currently lives in Glendale, having moved there from Denver three years ago. Bantamweight champ Cruz grew up nearby in Tucson, and had his first six fights in the area before relocating to San Diego in 2006.

But that the most important fights in each man's career have been on "home turf" is a series of coincidences.

Months back, the WEC did a television and on-line promotion where fans could vote for the location of the December show on Versus. At the time, there was no clue it also would be the its final show before being absorbed into the UFC.

"It's the fans who had to go online and vote to finally get a super event in Phoenix," said Henderson. "And they did it. They talked about it for a long time … A lot of people will just talk about things, but the hardcore MMA fans here in Phoenix went out and did something about it. They voted online and they got it down here."

Henderson (12-1) defends his title against Anthony Pettis (11-1). The winner will retire the championship, and later in 2011 will get a UFC title shot against the winner of the Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard title fight on Jan. 1.

With a victory, Henderson would go down as the undisputed top lightweight in WEC history. For most of 2009, Henderson, along with Jamie Varner and "Cowboy" Donald Cerrone, who both fight on Thursday's undercard, were locked in a three-way race at the top of the division. But in the past year, Henderson has emerged as the undisputed king.

He first beat Cerrone to become interim champion in a close decision on Oct. 10, 2009, which will go down as one of WEC's best fights in history. He then won the undisputed title from champion Varner, who missed much of 2009 with injuries, with a guillotine in the third round. Henderson came back and caught Cerrone with a guillotine in just 1:57 in his last fight in WEC's only pay-per-view show, on April 24 in Sacramento.

Henderson started as a wrestler, a two-time All-American at Dana College in Blair, Neb., but has since expanded his game to striking and, even more impressive, his jiu-jitsu under John Crouch. This has led to an 11-fight win streak, six of those wins via forms of chokes.

But even more impressive has been his ability to avoid tapping while on the wrong end of a dozen different submissions that looked dangerous in recent fights, including several in the first Cerrone fight where he looked finished.

"It's the jiu-jitsu," he noted. "You learn escapes and counters. Most people go from 'A' to 'B' to 'C.' But we train to go to 'D' to 'E' to 'F' every day. I credit my jiu-jitsu coach, John Crouch, my good training, John Crouch jiu-jitsu all the way. He's very knowledgeable in jiu-jitsu inside and out. My flexibility is another thing that always helps."

He'll need all of that. Pettis, 23, has looked outstanding on the ground, with three wins via triangle choke in his five WEC fights, to go along with a strong kickboxing game. He's trained under famed kickboxer Duke Roufas in his native Milwaukee, and to make things even scarier, in his last fight, a win over Shane Roller, a three-time All-American wrestler from Oklahoma State, it was Pettis who dominated the wrestling aspect.

"I think he's a dangerous striker," said Henderson."He has good submissions and a very improving wrestling takedown defense game. His striking, one thing I think is good about him for sure, is his unpredictability. He throws some wild stuff, not quite sure what he's going to do at any given moment. It might be a flying knee or some springing back flip move I've never seen before." Henderson is ranked in most reputable lightweight top-10 lists, but skeptics have said the competition in WEC was not high enough to warrant such a ranking. Most notably, Strikeforce's Josh Thomson went off on the rankings after one of his fights, specifically mentioning that he thought it was a joke that Henderson was ranked in the top 10.

"I get that question all the time – I know people say I don't belong in the top 10," he said. "The only thing I can say is that next year [in UFC], I can prove it."

Cruz (16-1), meanwhile, faces Scott Jorgensen (11-3) in a match where the winner will retire the WEC belt and become the first UFC champion in the 135-lbs. weight class.

With every fight, he's strengthened his style, which consists of keeping the fight standing along with constant movement. His strength is his defensive game. It's a style comparable statistically to two other lighter weight champions, Edgar and Jose Aldo Jr. Cruz has avoided 79.8 percent of his opponents' significant strikes. That's the same percentage as Aldo Jr. and even better than Edgar's 75.5 percentage. The number is even more impressive when you realize two of his last three fights were against Joseph Benavidez, one of the quickest, most aggressive and well-conditioned fighters in the game. In addition, he's blocked 90 percent of his opponents' takedown attempts, second in WEC history to Aldo Jr.'s 96.3 percent.

Jorgensen also comes from a strong wrestling background, as a former multi-time Pac-10 champion at Boise State. But as a fighter, he's known for his conditioning and fast-paced striking style, which led to two fight-of-the-night bonuses over the past year in wins over Takeya Mizugaki and Brad Pickett.

"He's got a real in-your-face style," said Cruz. "He's just in your face with pressure, with good steady boxing, and his hands have gotten a lot quicker. That's one thing I've noticed. The best way to explain Jorgensen is probably like a grimy fighter. He's the kind of guy that when you hit him, he kind of gets more into the fight. And as each round goes on, he starts to feel more and more comfortable in the cage.

"I'm very similar to that, I see this fight very similar in a lot of ways, in the sense that we're both getting stronger as the fight goes on, and we both go in there and put our noses down right to throw down."

Unlike Henderson, Cruz's move to UFC comes with additional exposure and better financial opportunities, and is not about proving something to critics who say he's overrated, given that the UFC didn't have pre-existing featherweight and bantamweight divisions.

"I was already fighting the best in the world in my weight class in the WEC," he noted.

But as soon as he heard the news about the WEC being absorbed into UFC, he thought about the historical significance. With a win on Thursday, Cruz will forever be the first-ever UFC bantamweight champion. But right now, the prospective of a possible title defense on a UFC show, perhaps a high-profile rematch with Faber, is not on his mind.

"I've got a fight coming up, and I've got tunnel vision right now," he said. "I can't think about anything else."