Anthony Pettis said it before he ever fought; it was his destiny to be here on this night, in this city, against this rival, for this belt. How else can you explain the synchronicity of the moment? Just a few months ago, he was locked into a different fight at a different weight class in a different country. And then he got hurt. And then the top lightweight contender got hurt. And then it turned out that Pettis’ injury wasn’t as bad as originally expected, allowing him to slip into a golden opportunity.
It was all fate, leading to a homecoming, then a coronation. As he did almost three years ago, Pettis beat Henderson, this time at UFC 164, this time bypassing the drama of their first bout by forcing the champ to verbally submit to an armbar at 4:31 of the first round.
“I’ve visualized this a lot,” Pettis said after winning. “I went through this in my mind a lot. I saw myself getting my hand raised. I saw the belt going around my waist, so I tried to really keep them nerves aside. Focus on the game plan, focus on what I had to do to win this belt, and I went out there and did very well.”
In the first fight between the rivals, which took place in Dec. 2010 and closed the curtain on the WEC, Pettis won with arguably the flashiest move the sport had ever seen, a running, jumping, launching-himself-off-the-cage “Showtime Kick.” In the sequel, he showed his wide-ranging skill set with a technically masterful submission against one of the best defenders in the sport. Prior to verbally submitting after hearing his elbow pop, Henderson had successfully defended 32 sub tries against him, the most in UFC/WEC combined history. He also denied Henderson a UFC record for most lightweight title defenses.
The finish set off a raucous celebration at the Bradley Center for Pettis, who frequented the arena as a youth to watch his beloved Milwaukee Bucks, often sitting in the nosebleed seats. All of these years later, he pointed back to the section as the UFC lightweight champion.
Henderson (19-3) came out with a game plan meant to keep Pettis backpedaling and on the defensive, as three times, he put the challenger against the cage. But Pettis denied all of his takedown tries and when he found space, landed from distance, including a series of stinging body kicks shortly before the finish.
Pettis’ fight-ending submission came right after his only mistake. He went for a cartwheel kick and Henderson stepped in, caught him and they fell to the ground with Henderson on top. He never even had a chance to start his offense though as Pettis quickly pivoted his hips to hunt the armbar.
Henderson, who was informally nicknamed “Bendo” for his ability to escape submissions throughout his career, hadn’t been submitted since his third pro fight, back in 2007, but Pettis (17-2) had it sunk and when he went belly-down, Henderson’s arm popped and he surrendered. Afterward, he walked out with it dangling by his side.
“It’s killing me,” he said.
Even before the fight, Pettis said he would go for submissions, and in executing, it turned out to be a showcase for “Showtime.”
Unfortunately, as poetic as the evening was for Pettis, there may have been one downside for him, as he left the arena with pain in his left knee, a problem caused when he checked a Henderson kick. He said he felt the knee lock up as the fight went on, and plans to schedule an MRI to check for damage.
Despite no information on it, Pettis made sure to set up a potential blockbuster fight, reminding everyone he has unfinished business with featherweight champ Jose Aldo. UFC president Dana White couldn’t say what was next for Pettis, turning his focus to the charismatic new champion’s health.
“It’s a f—ing nightmare,” White said. “I’m tired of this s—. It drives you crazy. Kid comes out looking like a superstar, and his knee hurts. It’s the sport though. It’s contact sports. It’s the way it is. It drives me crazy. It bums me out. I was literally floating through the hall saying, ‘Holy s—, that was great,’ and then the doctor sees me and goes, ‘Yeah, he popped his knee.’ It took all the wind out of my sail.”
For now though, nothing could wipe the smile off Pettis’ face. Not after this, the night of Showtime’s showcase.
The night belonged to Pettis, though others hand shining moments as well. Chief among them was No. 1 featherweight contender Chad Mendes, who continued his push for a rematch with champion Jose Aldo, becoming the first man ever to knockout Clay Guida, finishing him 50 seconds into the third round.
Mendes floored Guida with a big right hook, but took his time to pick his strikes, and when Guida got back to his feet, dropped him again with another right. This time, Guida couldn’t get back to his feet and Mendes jumped on him with ground strikes until ref Yves Lavigne pulled him off.
It was the fourth straight knockout for Mendes (15-1) since losing to Aldo.
"That was a goal of mine in this fight,” he said afterward. “That’s what I wanted to do. I needed to make a statement. I want Jose Aldo, I want that tile shot. I want the belt."
The long-awaited grudge match between stud heavyweight grapplers Josh Barnett and Frank Mir, however, didn’t live up to expectation, although it was partially out of their control. The official ruling was Barnett via TKO at 1:56 of the first round after a crushing right knee against the cage. However, as soon as ref Rob Hinds pulled Barnett away, Mir was back to his feet and clear-eyed, complaining about a premature stoppage.
“Obviously I thought it was a bad stoppage,” Mir said afterward, pointing out some of his previous comebacks from early trouble.
Despite some pre-fight animosity, Barnett (33-6) took the high road when asked about the controversy.
“I know I didn’t want to stop, I’ll tell you that much,” he said. “Me and Frank, we’re the type we’d rather die than quit. I’m sure he’d prefer if I kill him right there, and I’d want him to kill me if it’d been reversed.”
Even before the stoppage, Barnett looked strong, manhandling Mir against the cage and landing 26 significant strikes to Mir’s nine in a bout spent entirely in standup.
The win marked Barnett’s first in the UFC since beating Randy Couture on March 22, 2002, a span of 4,181 days.
The loss was the third straight for Mir (16-8), following defeats to Daniel Cormier and Junior dos Santos. White not speculate about his future.
The featherweight battle between top 10 fighters Dustin Poirier and Erik Koch lived up to its billing. Both prospects faced and survived danger to make it to the final bell, but it was Poirier who emerged with the pivotal win, taking it by unanimous decisions.
The first round was an absolute see-saw of a round. Less than midway through, No. 10 ranked Koch locked in a deep triangle and it seemed that it would be a short night, but sixth-ranked Poirier (14-3) somehow fought it off after an eternity and then got back to his feet where he floored Koch with a right hook. That was the beginning of a great sequence as he dominated the rest of the round and nearly finished him with strikes.
After Poirier also took the second, Koch (13-3) rallied back with a last-ditch effort, controlling the mount and hunting a rear naked choke to no avail.
In the night’s other main card bout, heavyweight Ben Rothwell knocked out Brandon Vera in the third round, and then called out contender Travis Browne.
The two were engaged in a fairly close fight with Rothwell constantly chasing Vera around the cage until he suddenly tired of that, openly mocked him and then caught him in the corner with some heavy uppercuts, followed with a knee that put Vera down, and landed some ground strikes for the finish. It was the second win in his last three fights for Rothwell (33-9) while Vera, who was making his return to the heavyweight division, is now just 1-4 with 1 no contest in his last six bouts.
Anthony Pettis def. Benson Henderson via armbar submission, Rd. 1 (4:31)
Josh Barnett def. Frank Mir via TKO, Rd. 1 (1:56)
Chad Mendes def. Clay Guida via TKO, Rd. 3 (0:30)
Ben Rothwell def. Brandon Vera via TKO, Rd. 3 (1:54)
Dustin Poirier def. Erik Koch via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-27, 29-27)
Gleison Tibau def. Jamie Varner via split decision (29-28, 29-28, 27-29)
Tim Elliott def. Louis Gaudinot via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-26, 30-26)
Hyun Gyu Lim def. Pascal Krauss via TKO, Rd. 1 (3:58)
Chico Camus def. Kyung Ho Kang via unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 30-27)
Soa Palelei def. Nikita Krylov via TKO, Rd. 3 (1:34)
Al Iaquinta def. Ryan Couture via unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 30-27)
Mangus Cedenblad def. Jared Hamman via mounted guillotine choke, Rd. 1 (0:57)
Awards ($50,000 each)
Fight of the Night: Pascal Kraus vs. Hyun Gyu Lim
Submission of the Night: Anthony Pettis
Knockout of the Night: Chad Mendes