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GLENDALE, Ariz. – One of the most sensational mixed martial arts fight cards ever concluded Thursday with a mind-blowing move by Anthony Pettis that earned him a championship in the final bout of the storied history of World Extreme Cagefighting.
Locked in a taut, tense battle with reigning WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson at Jobing.com Arena, the 22-year-old Pettis leaped up, quickly climbed the cage, spun off it and delivered a shocking kick to the side of Henderson's head.
The force of the strike, delivered late in the fifth and final round, sent Henderson thudding backward. Though Henderson said he was alert the entire time, the powerful blow that Pettis dubbed "The Showtime Kick," was the difference in the fight. Pettis won a unanimous decision, by scores of 48-47, 49-46 and 48-47, to earn the WEC title.
The card was the final in the WEC's nine-plus year history, as it will merge with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, and ended with a series of sensational fights. In addition to Pettis' win, which earned him a bout against the winner of the UFC lightweight title match at UFC 125 on Jan. 1 in Las Vegas between champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, Dominick Cruz retained his WEC bantamweight title by throttling Scott Jorgensen and winning a unanimous decision. That made Cruz, who is rated sixth in the current Yahoo! Sports rankings, the first UFC bantamweight champion.
On a night of wild finishes, though, Pettis' Spiderman-like move off the cage to wrap up the title was the capper.
When Pettis returned to his corner after the fourth round, he didn't realize what round it was. When he was told the final round was upcoming, he wanted to do something dramatic to lay claim to the championship.
"I thought we were going into the fourth round," Pettis said. "I asked my corner, 'We have two more rounds?' And they said, 'No, this is the last one.' I was like, 'Man, I got to give it everything I've got in this last one.' I came with some crazy stuff and it paid off."
Henderson, who had survived a Kimura attempt earlier in the round, barely knew what had happened. It's not a move one usually works on learning how to defend in practice.
"I saw it in Mortal Kombat once," Henderson said, jokingly, in reference to the popular video game.
This, though, was mortal combat at the highest level and it was so very real. The bout, which earned each man a $10,000 bonus for putting on Fight of the Night, was a back-and-forth affair from the start.
Henderson's wrestling gave him the first round, but Pettis' quickness led to him capturing the second and third rounds.
"He was quicker to the punch than me," Henderson said disconsolately.
He still had an opportunity to retain his belt after 24 minutes. He had survived a Kimura attempt that left referee Herb Dean, a former fighter himself, shaking his head. Pettis pushed Henderson's arm up so far on his back, Dean was anticipating the finish.
Henderson is so flexible, though, he was able to withstand the pain and Pettis moved on, releasing the hold.
"I'll just tell you this, that if someone put my arm in that position, I would have been in the hospital," Dean said.
That led to "The Showtime Kick," that Pettis learned at Duke Roufus' gym in Milwaukee, Wisc. Roufus said it's "an old school Muay Thai move." He said fighters are taught in "battlefield Muay Thai" to climb an opponent's leg and then kick.
"We have a cage and I thought, 'You know, why not use it?' You have to be creative and adapt," Roufus said. "We work on that a lot and Anthony pulled it off at the right time."
Cruz needed no such dramatics in his bout with top contender Jorgensen, improving his record to 17-1 after putting on a clinic that was reminiscent of many of UFC welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre's recent efforts.
Jorgensen was a high-level collegiate wrestler at Boise State, but Cruz repeatedly took him down, several times using the knee-tap takedown. Cruz's striking was precise and his movement befuddled Jorgensen and seemed to freeze him at times.
All in all, it was a performance worthy of his lofty pound-for-pound ranking.
"I put in a 10-week training camp and everything I do is just balls to the wall," Cruz said. "I put my heart and soul into every training session I've got. When I'm in camp, I train, then go home and sleep. The reason why I'm sleeping is so that in my second practice, I can give 110 percent of myself to every single training session I have for 10 weeks. I eat, sleep, drink, breathe nothing but MMA for my entire camp so that when I go in there, I'm not missing anything."
He wasn't missing much on Thursday as he outclassed Jorgensen. He's now a UFC champion and, if he has his way, he'll make the first defense of his belt in Sacramento, Calif., against the only man to have beaten him, former WEC featherweight champion Urijah Faber.
Faber defeated Cruz at WEC 25 on March 24, 2007, and Cruz hasn't forgotten about it. He's vastly improved since that time and wants the opportunity to prove that to the world. Whether it's coaching opposite Faber in the upcoming season of "The Ultimate Fighter," or taking a fight in Sacramento, Faber's home town, Cruz has taken dead aim on "The California Kid."
"It's a different fight, completely," Cruz said. "I have no excuses. He beat me fair and square. He was a better fighter than me that day. But it's been more than three years and that was my very first training camp I'd had with my coach, Eric Del Fierro. I was still working a full-time job.
"Now, I can devote every ounce of energy into fighting to become the best fighter I can. I just know I'm a completely different fighter than I was then. My ground game's better. My wrestler's better. My stand-up's better. I have weapons everywhere. I just know I'm on another level than him."