Thursday's official announcement that Strikeforce's January card will be its last on Showtime is certain to fuel plenty of speculation over the weeks ahead.
Chief amongst it will be which Strikeforce fighters have punched tickets to the UFC, provided the promotion is indeed shuttering and not merely ending its broadcast deal.
It has long been presumed that Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez is the world's best non-UFC lightweight. But before Strikeforce came into the Zuffa fold, there was World Extreme Cagefighting. And Anthony Pettis, the final 155-pound champ in WEC history, knows a thing or two about not having three awfully big letters in front of your name.
Pettis came to the UFC after the merger with the WEC, which came after WEC 53 in December 2010. At that event, he beat Benson Henderson – the current UFC champ with two title defenses already on his resume – to win the final WEC belt. He was the promotion's most highly touted lightweight, not that guys like Henderson, Donald Cerrone, Danny Castillo, Anthony Njokuani were any slouches.
The WEC lightweights had doubters, and lots of them. But they made their presence known in a big hurry, in particular the triumvirate of Henderson, Pettis and Cerrone. Those big three went a combined 8-2 in the UFC in 2011. In 2012, their success continued – going unbeaten at a combined 6-0.
The two losses came when Pettis was outwrestled by Clay Guida at the TUF 13 Finale, though Pettis worked throughout the fight from his back at submission attempts that never quite came close enough, and when Cerrone tried to go a basically unheard of 5-0 in a UFC calendar year and was outboxed by Nate Diaz at UFC 141 a year ago.
Their success, though, even caught one of the WEC's firmest believers a little off guard.
"It surprised me how good the WEC guys did (in the UFC)," Pettis told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com
) earlier this month. "I mean, we're at the top of the top. Everybody doubted the WEC – our skills weren't good enough. And we proved everybody wrong. Henderson's at the top, I'm right there, me and Cerrone are about to fight for the No. 1 contender. We're all very well-skilled – the WEC had the best 155ers in the world, and now we're fighting to be at the top again."
And indeed, that's what Pettis (15-2 MMA, 2-1 UFC) and Cerrone (19-4 MMA, 6-1 UFC) are set for – a fight to be at the top. The two never got a chance to fight in the WEC – though had that promotion not been folded into the UFC, it would have been likely that Pettis' first title defense would have come against Cerrone, who lost a pair of title bouts to Henderson.
Pettis and Cerrone meet on the main card of UFC on FOX 6, which takes place Jan. 26 at United Center in Chicago. The main card airs live on FOX following prelims on FX and Facebook.
It's a fight years in the making, and despite falling below a flyweight title fight and the return of Quinton "Rampage" Jackson on the bill, it's arguably the most anticipated fight on the card.
The winner, as Pettis said, could very well be the next challenger for Henderson, who is coming off a dismantling of Nate Diaz earlier this month at UFC on FOX 5. Of course, if Melendez comes into the fold, as Strikeforce champion he may jump to the front of the line. And that's something Pettis is no stranger to.
When he came to the UFC, he was expected to meet the winner of then-champ Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 125. That fight, of course, resulted in a draw, and the two didn't rematch until October 2011 at UFC 136.
In the meantime, Pettis took the fight with Guida, lost a decision, dropped back in the title picture and picked up a few detractors. His next fight was a cautious split-decision win over Jeremy Stephens at UFC 136. But he followed that with a head-kick knockout of Joe Lauzon in February, his most recent fight before going on the shelf with surgery.
Before the Lauzon fight, it had been a peculiar and quick fall from glory for the Milwaukee-based fighter whose "Showtime Kick" off the cage against Henderson was seen around the world, made him an instant star and guaranteed him a spot in highlight reels for eternity.
"When you're coming off a loss like the Guida fight, you kind of have to play it safe," Pettis explained. "You can't have two losses in a row in the UFC. I was trying to find my bearings. In the Joe Lauzon fight, it all came together. I ended that fight quickly with a dangerous opponent. Lauzon is a dangerous, dangerous guy.
"I'm finding my own in the UFC now and I'm putting everything in the past behind. I'm not letting that WEC stuff get to my head, the 'Showtime Kick,' none of that stuff. I'm just going to keep remaking a name for myself with this fight."
Cerrone has won back-to-back fights since his loss to Diaz, though his pace slowed considerably in 2012 with just the pair of fights after five UFC outings in 2011 – which gave him six fights in 379 days, a staggering frequency at the UFC level.
It's an opponent Pettis has had his eyes on since he signed with the WEC, just like anyone else in the weight class.
"I pay attention to all the guys in the 155-pound division," he said. "I've never had any of these guys as friends – eventually I'm going to be fighting these guys. Not that I hate them, but we're going to be fighting one day. So I pay attention to everybody."
And because he's paid attention, he knows a few things about "Cowboy," and it sounds like he believes it's a fairly even matchup. The oddsmakers agree, making Cerrone just a slight favorite at -125 over Pettis' -105, which may be due to what will be an 11-month layoff for Pettis as much as anything.
"He's dangerous everywhere. I really have a lot of respect for his skill set," Pettis said. "He's a good kickboxer, he's good off his back, he's got decent wrestling – he's as tough as they come. This is going to be a fight where someone's going to make a mistake, and we have to capitalize. I'm training for a tough, tough fight with someone who's good everywhere."
If a win over Cerrone puts Pettis back in a title fight with Henderson, one in which he is once again chasing Henderson's belt, that's fine. If he has to wait a little longer, he's used to it. And if someone else has Henderson's title in the meantime, that's fine, too.
Pettis knows why he's here, and it doesn't much matter who's staring across the octagon from him.
"I should've had a title shot two years ago, and here we are in 2013 and I still have to fight my way to the top," he said. "I'm not complaining about it, but there was a lot of stuff that didn't happen. Until it really happens, then I'll believe it.
"I don't really care (who I fight). I beat Henderson once already, so it's not for me to have a rematch. I don't really care who it is. I beat him once, and I want the belt, so if it's him and me, let's do it."