When the UFC brought an event to Japan for the first time in over a decade, it was supposed to make us wistful for PRIDE, the Japanese promotion that had a short but eventful 10-year life span before being snuffed out by a yakuza scandal. It may or may not have accomplished that, but what also came along with it, unexpectedly, was nostalgic feelings for the WEC.
That promotion has only been defunct for a little over one year, but UFC 144's two biggest stars were distinguished alumni. On Sunday morning in Saitama, Ben Henderson captured the lightweight championship, and Anthony Pettis may have staked his claim as No. 1 contender with a crushing first-round knockout of Joe Lauzon.
That two of the WEC's former 155-pound champs beat UFC stars didn't come as a huge surprise, but it might have served to once and for all, kill past beliefs that the promotion's lightweight division was a second-tier unit.
Ironically, Henderson and Pettis pulled down the curtain on the WEC's history with a bout that many considered the best fight of 2010, one that may have led to an immediate rematch had the organization continued on. We didn't get it then, but 14 months later, what's old is new again, and Henderson vs. Pettis II may well be the direction of the new UFC's champs career arc.
Henderson stands at the top of the lightweight division after a unanimous decision win over Edgar. The tide seemed to turn in the second round with the upkick that probably broke Edgar's nose and led to swelling around his left eye. Henderson won the final four rounds on two of the judges' scorecards, and three on the other. Afterward, UFC president Dana White suggested he'd draw Pettis next, though it didn't seem to be a sure thing. After he looks over the division, he'll see that other top contenders like Nate Diaz and Jim Miller are locked into a May fight, and waiting for them would leave Henderson on the sidelines too long. That leaves Pettis as the best option.
Prediction: Bendo vs. Showtime II
Another courageous effort from Edgar, but this one fell short. If you read my column on Sunday, you'd know that Dana White's talk of a fight with featherweight champ Jose Aldo were a not-so-subtle offer. I don't think Edgar will get an immediate rematch, so instead of trying to rebuild himself as a lightweight contender, he'll realize that it's best to take the golden opportunity when it's presented.
Predicton: He faces Jose Aldo
Quinton "Rampage" Jackson
Rampage campaigned to fight in Japan but his performance didn't meet expectations, as he couldn't keep Ryan Bader from out-pointing him on the feet and smothering him on the ground. He said afterward that he'd suffered a knee injury in training, but offering that up as an excuse won't placate many of his critics, who fear he's not as interested in fighting as he once was. Jackson, though, said he would fight on, hoping to snap the first two-fight losing streak of his career. If he won, I think he would have been lined up to fight Dan Henderson. Though it's still a rematch that may interest Hendo, I'm not sure it still happens.
Prediction: He faces Mauricio "Shogun" Rua
By beating Jackson, Bader should probably get the Henderson fight, but I'm not sure if they'll offer it to him. Jackson did say he was injured, and he should probably take a bit of time to heal. If Bader came out unscathed, he's much more likely to be ready to fight first. So he's the one who should get the offer to fight Henderson. Whether or not Henderson will accept the fight or wait for the Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans winner is another story.
Prediction: Bader faces Lyoto Machida
Don't look now, but Hunt is knocking on the door of the UFC's top 10 heavyweights after three straight wins, a surprising development given the fact that a couple years ago, the UFC wanted to pay him to walk away from his deal. The talent pool will lead to more challenging matchups now for Hunt, who in his career has excelled against strikers but struggled with grapplers. For his next fight, he gets the latter.
Prediction: He faces Mike Russow
Shields' win over Yoshihiro Akiyama wasn't a masterpiece but after rough 2011 in which he had a two-fight losing streak and lost his father getting back to the winners' circle had to feel great for him. When Nick Diaz lost to Carlos Condit at UFC 143, I predicted he'd fight Jon Fitch, but with Diaz preparing to appeal his suspension, he won't be fighting anytime soon, so his Team Cesar Gracie would be a nice replacement in a fight that may turn into a grappler's delight.
Prediction: He faces Jon Fitch
As unlikely as Hunt's rise through the ranks is that of Tim Boetsch, who was dominated in the first two rounds of his fight with Yushin Okami before mounting a ferocious comeback. That makes Boetsch 3-0 as a middleweight and sets him up for another quality opponent. Someone like Mark Munoz would make sense but with Munoz still recovering from elbow surgery, we'll have to look elsewhere.
Prediction: He faces Michael Bisping
Prior to the event, I wrote a column about Hioki's title hopes, and how a win over Bart Palaszewski could help him reach Jose Aldo. Well, Hioki won impressively, but afterward said he would like to fight once more before facing Aldo. Anyway, UFC president Dana White didn't seem sold on Hioki as a No. 1 contender, declining to even pronounce him to be "in the mix," a usual catch-all for anyone within yelling distance of a title shot.
Prediction: He faces the winner of April's Diego Nunes vs. Dennis Siver bout
It looks like Pettis and Henderson are meant to be linked together, two of the most energetic and likable young 155-pounders moving up to the UFC and proving they were always among the best.
Prediction: As stated above, he faces Henderson