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WEC 53 Lightweight Title Breakdown: Ben Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis

At Thursday night's WEC 53, lightweight champion Ben Henderson and challenger Anthony Pettis will have the enviable task of closing out the lights on the WEC, a promotion that never seemed to fail to deliver high-octane fights filled with skill, heart, and most importantly to many fans, finishes.

Fittingly, a tangle between the duo promises at best, a fight with a conclusive finish, and at worst, an exciting scrap between two men fighting for a chance to be the final WEC lightweight champion as well as the next UFC championship contender.

For a WEC fight, the stakes have never been higher.




What makes it such a promising fight is the fact that Henderson and Pettis are both winners and finishers. The champ Henderson is 12-1, with 10 of his wins by stoppage (two TKOs, eight submissions). In his last fight, a rematch of his 2009 Fight of the Year against Donald Cerrone which went the full five rounds, Henderson shocked Cerrone with a submission win in just 1:57. It marked the 10th consecutive victory of his career.

Henderson has a well-rounded game based on his wrestling. He was an NAIA collegiate All-American, and transitions well from striking to takedowns.

His jiu-jitsu game has been excellent during his WEC run. Offensively, his go-to move is his guillotine choke, which he's used for three of his five WEC victories. Defensively, the BJJ brown belt has earned the nickname "Bendo" for his ability to escape from seemingly impossible submission angles.

Henderson is also excellent in scrambles, and is comfortable creating moments of chaos, trusting his ability to earn an advantageous position out of the situation.

His striking game is swiftly catching up with the rest of his skill-set. Henderson fights as a southpaw and frequently peppers kicks into his combinations, mixing it up by going to the legs, body and head. He throws a straight power left down the pipe, and though he has yet to flash overwhelming knockout power, the punch serves its purpose in keeping opponents honest.

Having full confidence in his wrestling, Henderson often keys on his opponents' offensive moves to launch into takedowns.

This may come into play in this fight, as Pettis (11-1) boasts a full array of kicks that he never hesitates to unleash upon his opponents. Those kicks have directly led to finishes in the past, but could put Pettis in danger of being taken down by Henderson. So the question is, Will he use them or holster them?

Adding to his decision is the fact that both men come from taekwondo backgrounds. Pettis is one of few MMA fighters who has successfully adapted taekwondo kicks into an MMA arsenal. Because they're rarely seen, they've been effective in many spots for him, but Henderson has a black belt in the combat art form, and he feels he'll be well prepared for Pettis' unique style.

That said, Pettis is the more dynamic and dangerous striker of the two. In addition to his kicks, he throws combinations learned under the tutelage of kickboxing great Duke Roufus.

Pettis' biggest challenge will be to stay on his feet, and he's showed improving wrestling over his last few fights. In his last bout against former three-time collegiate All-American Shane Roller, he made a leap forward with his defense, frustrating Roller repeatedly on takedown attempts. Though Roller took Pettis down twice in the three-round bout, he was never able to hold him down long enough to mount any damage, and Pettis also turned the tables, taking Roller down once.

If the fight does go to the ground, Pettis is no fish out of water, with six of his wins coming via tapout. Notably, three of his WEC victories have come via triangle choke, including each of his last two. Certainly, with the possibility of Henderson taking him down and ending up in Pettis' guard, the threat of the triangle will be on Henderson's mind, perhaps slowing down his usually blistering pace.

Conditioning could be a factor, though Henderson's already proven he can go five rounds and Pettis has looked strong deep into the third when he's gone that far.

The dynamics of the matchup make it quite difficult to predict a winner. If Pettis can keep it standing, he has the ability to hurt Henderson with his power. If Henderson can bring it to the ground, he's got ground-and-pound, and the knack of closing out the show.

Henderson-Pettis has all the makings of a fascinating back-and-forth, particularly with so much at stake. Based on Pettis' ability to prepare for and stop Roller's takedowns, I'm going to guess that he's able to keep the fight standing long enough to show his striking advantage and win rounds. I think this fight will somewhat resemble the first Henderson-Cerrone fight in 2009, but Pettis will upset Henderson in a close decision win in one of the best fights of 2010.