Usually after a pay-per-view show that features a plethora of ranked fighters and a championship change hands, most of the post-match thought revolves around what happens to the winners, usually the bigger stars, and where they go next.
But at Saturday’s UFC 164, there may be more questions revolving around the losers, because Benson Henderson, Frank Mir, Clay Guida and Brandon Vera are four men with long histories in UFC. And in every case but Henderson, the losses ask a lot of questions about their futures.
It goes without saying the star of Saturday night’s show was Anthony Pettis. There may have been only 9,178 fans in the Bradley Center in Milwaukee, and no doubt a large percentage of them came from outside the market. But over the course of his lifetime, Pettis is likely to meet triple that number in his hometown who will tell him that they were there cheering him on the night he won the title.
No matter where his career takes him, it’s almost impossible to believe when he’s old and gray in his hometown, people won’t still talk about his snatching Benson Henderson’s arm and taking the title at the Bradley Center. It’s a great story. A young man whose father was killed in a burglary when he was 16, Pettis was discovered by WEC matchmaker Sean Shelby as a 20-year-old fighting on small shows in his hometown. From his debut in Sacramento, given his age and skill level, he seemed to have a future date with a championship.
Eventually he got there. In the final match in WEC history, and in perhaps the single most replayed highlight moment in U.S. MMA history, the 23-year-old Pettis beat Henderson for the title in a match that will go down in the sport’s history.
When the WEC shut down and merged into the UFC, Pettis, its final champion, was promised the next title shot at the winner of the Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard fight two weeks later. That fight ended in a draw. At first, it was announced Pettis would face Edgar, the champion who retained. But an hour later, that shot was taken away and given to Maynard. Not willing to sit out and take his guaranteed shot, Pettis faced Clay Guida, and got outwrestled to a decision.
He was very lucky to get a decision in a close fight with Jeremy Stephens next. Stephens was a more than respectable fighter but hardly someone mentioned as a championship contender. At that point, it looked like his rival, Henderson, was championship level, but somehow Pettis wasn’t all that when faced with the tougher UFC competition.
But two straight early first-round finishes against Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone earned him that elusive title shot. He made a bold move next.
Instead of taking his shot with Henderson, he asked for a shot at Jose Aldo, the featherweight champion. Pettis felt he could make the weight, outright said he wanted both titles, and that felt Aldo would be the tougher of the two, so wanted him first. Then he suffered a knee injury and was out of his second announced title match.
Pettis began campaigning for the shot at Henderson. As luck would have it, the Henderson vs. T.J. Grant fight was in Milwaukee. But he was turned down. Dana White said Pettis’ knee wouldn’t allow him to fight by Aug. 31. And Grant was already announced as the contender. Grant suffered a concussion, pulled out, and the rest was history.
Looking back at Saturday, let’s take a lot of how fortunes changed for five different well-known stars on the show.
Anthony Pettis — At 26, Pettis not only became the UFC lightweight champion, but became only the second champion in company history to win it via finish. The only prior title change that didn’t go to the cards was B.J. Penn’s win over Joe Stevenson for the vacant title in 2008, after champion Sean Sherk was stripped of the title due to a positive steroid test.
With 14 finishes in 17 wins, Pettis may end the era of the lightweight title with champions Frankie Edgar and Henderson where nearly every fight went five rounds. The story of the title wasn’t memorable finishes, but debates of who should be champion, due to how close many of those title fights were.
Pettis has a number of challenges going forward. The first is getting past the left knee injury suffered checking a kick. The knee swelled up badly after the fight. That put any kind of estimate for his return to the cage in question.
The second is whether he can elevate the championship back to the level where it’s one of the big pay-per-view drawing belts. That hasn’t been the case since Penn lost the title. He is a finisher, and that helps. His fights are generally exciting, but the same could be said for both Edgar and Henderson, who never captured the public’s imagination like Penn did.
Penn had a superstar aura the other lightweight champions lacked, as well as high-profile matches with opponents like Matt Hughes and Georges St-Pierre that put him in the spotlight. Pettis has a long list of potential opponents, but needs that level of opponent and rivalry to break through the glass ceiling.
But as far as worthy contenders, at this point it looks like he’ll never run out of them.
Grant already earned his shot before going down with an injury. Gilbert Melendez still frustrated about his close decision loss to Henderson in a fight that could have gone either way, could get a shot with a win in his next fight with Diego Sanchez on Oct. 19. Josh Thomson, still frustrated by his decision loss to Melendez that would have given him a title shot already, is clearly a top contender after dismantling Nate Diaz. Henderson, although having lost twice to Pettis, has proven himself a worthy contender. And Rafael dos Anjos and unbeaten Khabib Nurmagomedov are gaining ground.
Still, the most intriguing fight is Aldo. The bad side is it puts two divisions with several worthy contenders on hold. While it’s not giant box office, it’s the biggest fight either could have at this moment. And the good side is after years of teasing a superfight, this is one that both fighters had already agreed to, and really isn’t the almost unfair size mismatch many of the others would be.
Benson Henderson — The man who had talked about breaking Anderson Silva’s record for most consecutive title defenses, found out the hard way how impressive that record really is.
In a game of not even inches, but probably a fraction of a centimeter, Pettis switched angles as Henderson thought he had blocked the armbar, and it was checkmate. Henderson, with a reputation of joints made of rubber for his ability to get out of one submission after another, proved, like it was proven when Frank Mir submitted Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and when Josh Burkman choked out Jon Fitch, that no matter how many times we see someone appear to be immune to submissions, they are all human in the end.
At 29, Henderson is likely to have a long career ahead of him. He suffered a damaged right wing from the armbar, so his timetable for a return is in question. Still, Pettis figures he hasn’t seen the last of the man he has both of his championship wins against.
“I see it as two of the best in the world,” Pettis said. “He was the champ, and I feel I’m one of the best in the world, and I’m sure we’ll see each other again.”
Frank Mir — Mir’s first round loss to Josh Barnett was his third straight loss. For a normal fighter, that would be, “Hasta la vista, baby.”
But the 34-year-old Mir is a UFC heavyweight fixture. Since 2001, he’s fought nowhere else. His submission skills make him a threat to anyone he can get to the ground. He claimed he was in the best shape of his life, training at Greg Jackson’s gym. Everyone says that, but his body at 248 pounds, did lend credibility to that statement.
Perhaps the fight was stopped early, but things weren’t looking good for him lasting much longer under any circumstances. Still, with a similar ref, he easily could have lost his second fight with Nogueira and first fight with Brock Lesnar, both of which he came back to win.
He’s a former world and an interim title holder. He headlined the biggest show in UFC history. He’s one of the best in the company’s history at building up a fight. But for the first time since his first fight with Lesnar, Mir does find himself with his back against the wall.
Clay Guida — For a few years, Guida, with his trademark long hair, endless energy, and ability to take punishment, was the most popular mid-level fighter in the company.
Today, his popularity isn’t what it once was. Although scoring some big wins against some of the best in the lightweight division, Pettis, Dos Anjos, Nate Diaz and Thomson, he stalled short of the top at lightweight, and moved to featherweight.
Facing Chad Mendes looked tough on paper, since Mendes was the better wrestler, Guida’s specialty, and the better striker. He’s now lost three out of four, although those losses were to Henderson, Mendes and Gray Maynard.
But for the first time in a 44-fight career, Guida was stopped by strikes. In a sea of interchangeable undercard fighters who often don’t stand out, Guida is one of those guys that almost everyone knows, and has a legacy of being in some of the most exciting fights in company history. A well-known fighter on the roster since 2006, he’s another who no longer appears to be any kind of a contender, and desperately needs a win his next time out.
Brandon Vera — A UFC regular since 2006, Vera came into the UFC with three straight first-round stoppages and looked to be the next heavyweight star. But he never found that form again. A small enough heavyweight that he wasn’t even large at light heavyweight, he dropped down after losses to bigger men.
Because of that hot start, he was a guy that most fans knew, and often headlined. But he seemed to disappoint more often than not, because he’s only had one finish win since 2006, and now has a 7-7 UFC record with one no-contest.
It was at heavyweight where he had his initial success, and at nearly 36, moved back up. He looked like a different person, as the tall, lithe Muay Thai fighter looked like a thick powerlifter at 241 pounds. Ben Rothwell made for a good test, a big heavyweight who is tough, can take a punch, but in no way should be able to match Vera’s speed.
Vera was doing well, winning the first two rounds, but even when landing solidly didn’t have the power to move Rothwell back. With Rothwell needing a finish, he delivered. Rothwell came out swinging away in the third and Vera was stopped.
Vera had already been cut after losing to Thiago Silva in 2011. But when Silva failed a drug test and the loss was overturned, UFC did the right thing and brought him back.
Like Mir and Guida, Vera has a recognizable name, far more than most on the UFC roster. As late as last summer, Vera was put in a FOX main event with the story of him getting his one last chance to live up to what was expected. But he lost that one to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a competitive battle.
UFC may give Vera one last shot at glory. In 2014, the company is planning on running its first show in the Philippines. UFC has had strong television in that market dating back years, and Vera, part Filipino, was its biggest star in the market. But his legacy looks to end up being, ‘what happened to that guy in those first three UFC fights?’.