In a world where column inches and front page space are thrown at matches like Wanderlei Silva versus Chael Sonnen and media attention is specifically focused on who is not going to fight whom, it is interesting to see that perhaps the most exciting rematch of the year is being almost overlooked.
The first meeting of Pettis and Henderson took place on World Extreme Cagefighting's final card and, as the headliner, was the last fight to ever take place under the promotion's banner. It was also widely considered to be the greatest fight which took place under the banner and one of the best in recent MMA history.
Through four rounds of back and forth battling in the clinch, on the ground and on the feet, both men took the lead. Pettis dropped Henderson, Henderson dropped Pettis. Pettis met Henderson grip for grip in his grappling, and Henderson struck admirably with Pettis on the feet. What many fans believe decided the bout, which was largely even entering the fifth round, was the introduction (and so far only notable use) of the now infamous "Showtime Kick."
This move in itself was so beautiful and out of the ordinary that even in a regional promotion, full of kung fu and tae kwon do representatives, it would raise eyebrows. The fact that it happened in a title fight and the final fight in the WEC's history inevitably led to rumors of a fix among those fans who watched from underneath tin foil hats.
Slow motion replay is a wonderful tool for the analyst and the fan alike. We can view the exact moment that Anderson Silva reacted to Chris Weidman's wild backfist as if it were the left hook that he expected, or the accuracy with which Machida snapped the ball of his right foot underneath Randy Couture's chin. It does, however, feed the many conspiracy theorists who swarm around combat sports.
Henderson's touching of the fence with his rear foot as if to perform a super man punch off of it (just as Jose Aldo recently did against Frankie Edgar) before thinking better of it and circling away only to receive the rebounding cage kick which followed, was interpreted by some as a signal and that the result was choreographed. The exact same thing happened when Vitor Belfort caught Luke Rockhold with a wheel kick and when Anderson Silva got knocked out.
Of course, anyone who has watched a few movie fight scenes or a little pro wrestling will know just how bad folks who are paid to fake fights all the time look when faking impacts. The idea that a professional fighter could easily dupe the world, or would willingly take a full impact of this sort for money is just ludicrous.
Until the incredible final round the story of the fight had been in the evenly matched grappling and in Henderson's kicking game and Pettis' counter game.
I have said it a few times now, but Anthony Pettis' hands are severely under-rated. He doesn't move his head around a lot or throw hundreds of jabs a bout, but his movement, strategy and set-ups are excellent. Against Henderson he came out in a wide, heavy stance and seemed to be waiting for Henderson to kick.
When he wasn't trying to catch Henderson with punches off Henderson's kicks, Pettis was working to back Henderson to the cage. Pettis' ring craft is easily some of the best in MMA, and it is no coincidence that he keeps doing razzle dazzle moves off of the fence as he moves his opponent to the fence so often.
Pettis would pressure or even push kick Henderson to the fence and then wait. This is something you don't see enough in MMA or even boxing any more. When a fighter is on the ropes or fence, the onus is on him to make his situation better. If the fighter facing the fence rushes the fighter against the fence, the former has sacrificed his dominant position for a hasty bum rush.
What Pettis does so well is fight intelligently even when he gets his opponent to the fence. Something which Pettis has done against many wrestlers is to back them to the fence, then fake a rush, to which the wrestler inevitably responds with a shot at Pettis' hips. Pettis would then bring up his knee to counter and look for a knockout.
Pettis would get Henderson to the fence then wait for him to work his way off. One instance came as Henderson tried to superman punch his way away from the fence. Pettis jumped back and countered with a good straight. Counterpunching works best when you are assured aggression from the opponent. At no time is the opponent more likely to commit to an attack than when he feels his back is against the wall.
For Benson Henderson's part, his success came in his low kicking game. Henderson's kicking game has long been a staple of his offence, but I feel some were surprised with how effective it was against Pettis, himself a highly touted kicker. Pettis' love of moving his feet to evade strikes or remaining flat footed to stand and counter kicks leaves much room for an effective low kicking game.
Every time Henderson punched, Pettis would give ground. Each time Henderson kicked, Pettis would try to stand and counter. Henderson's successes on the feet came as he moved to punch, Pettis backed up and his trailing lead leg was open for a punting. It is the old Shogun vs. Machida scenario. If a fighter is intent on using movement, one leg will always be the last thing to leave range, and if it is targeted it will rapidly make the runner's life miserable.
This time around, as Pettis and Henderson rematch at UFC 164, the fight offers just as much promise as the first but with a few differences which up the stakes. Firstly, when their first bout took place, many publications did not even place Pettis and Henderson in the top 10 fighters at lightweight—now they are considered the top fighters in the division. The lightweight division is easily the deepest division in MMA right now. Not only is the UFC stacked with talent but there is also plenty of world-class talent outside the UFC, which most divisions lack.
A second consideration is that, when the two met for the first time they were fighting for a title, but at that point the belt was entirely academic. WEC was closing shop and Pettis vs. Henderson was the last fight on the last card. The two men had places in the UFC, and the belt effectively meant nothing except another phrase for Bruce Buffer to read out when the winner made his Octagon debut.
Pettis also holds the only win over Henderson in his recent career. Henderson has also faced criticism in the media over the close decisions in his last three bouts. If anything is likely to fire up the 155-pound champion it is a chance to avenge his only recent loss and impress in the process.
A final consideration is that the two men might not be able to fight the same way in this bout. The WEC was known for its wickedly fast lighter weight action, and a big part of this might well have been the much smaller cage which they used. Just 25 feet in diameter, the WEC cage is credited with forcing engagements more frequently by some. The 30-foot diameter Octagon is seen by many fans as too large for the lower weightclasses as it absolutely dwarfs anyone under welterweight.
As Pettis' offensive ringcraft was so important to the original meeting, it seems like the increase in cage diameter could certainly change the appearance of the bout.
The truly exciting factor about this fight is that the stakes are so much higher. Both men have got the recognition they deserve and now have the chance to amend or enforce the result of the first bout. Pettis has taken Henderson's belt before, yet Pettis faltered against Clay Guida while Henderson's star continued to ascend. Pettis is once again the challenger in terms of fighting for the belt, but in considering the result of their previous meeting, one could consider that Henderson has just as much to prove.
Both men have a point to make and a legacy to cement, and I am sure we will all delight in watching their efforts at UFC 164.
Pick up Jack's ebooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.