GLENDALE, Ariz. – As of today, the WEC is still their home. By Friday morning, it will just be a memory.
The WEC fighters and staff, they know this. At least, they know it in a hypothetical sense, the way you know that nothing lasts forever. But when the final fight is over at WEC 53 and the little blue cage is taken apart and packed away for the last time, that's when it's going to get real.
Even with as much as they've thought about this day over the past couple months, nobody can be sure exactly how that moment will feel when it arrives.
"I think it's going to be kind of bittersweet," said WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson. "It's already bittersweet to me now. I try not to think about it too much, but it's already pretty bittersweet to me. It's been great. It's been a great ride."
Only now the ride is over. For guys like Henderson, that's much more good news than bad. Win or lose against challenger Anthony Pettis on Thursday night, it's all but certain that he'll get a chance to prove himself in the UFC's lightweight division once the WEC is dissolved. With the big show comes bigger paychecks, more exposure, and tougher competition.
Again, more good than bad. But not every fighter on Thursday night's final WEC card is in Henderson's position.
Take Donald Cerrone and Chris Horodecki, for instance. Both are hoping for a spot in the UFC's crowded lightweight division, but as Cerrone said on Tuesday, the loser of their fight could easily find himself on the chopping block. Even once they're officially on the UFC roster, it doesn't necessarily mean their jobs will be any more secure.
"It's like going to a new school in a way," said Cerrone. "We're going to be the guys who get picked on until we make our mark."
But for men like Reed Harris, who co-founded the WEC nine and a half years ago, it's not so simple. Back when they put on the WEC's first event at the Tachi Palace Casino in 2001, they weren't at all sure there would be a WEC 2, much less a WEC 53.
"It was like throwing a party," said Harris. "Literally, it was like throwing a party. We thought, we'll do this show, we'll kind of step back afterwards, and we'll see if the casino likes it. Our first show, we were supposed to have Chuck Liddell fight. Then the UFC signed Chuck Liddell and they sent me a cease and desist letter, which is how I met [UFC president] Dana [White]."
Then, even more so than now, starting an MMA organization was a great way to lose a lot of money in a hurry. That Harris managed to keep it going for so long is a minor miracle in itself. That he managed to do so without alienating his wife, he pointed out, is a major one.
"I was a real estate developer that came home one day and said, 'Look, I want to do fights. We have ring girls and there's a lot of drinking going on at the shows and then these guys are going to beat the sh-t out of each other, but don't worry it won't affect our home life,'" Harris laughed. "And it did, obviously. I've been gone a lot, but she supported me a lot."
In part because the WEC has been the smaller, less heralded MMA organization under the Zuffa banner in recent years, it's fostered a unique family atmosphere among its employees.
For instance, ask any WEC fighter what he'll miss once the organization is gone and he's likely to say something about how much he's enjoyed busting the chops of Dave Sholler, the WEC's good-humored PR
But it's more than just that.
"I'm going to miss the fans," said Pettis. "The WEC fans are hardcore. They come to all the shows. I'm going to miss fighting in the blue gloves, too. But it's one of those things we get asked in all the interviews, is how we stack up against the UFC guys. Now we get to show them."
After years of hearing how they're not up to the level of competition in the UFC, it's a sentiment shared by most of the WEC's lightweights, including the champ.
"I don't think we're getting a whole lot of respect from those [UFC] 155-pounders," said Henderson. "I think they're writing us off out of hand. 'Oh yeah, the WEC guys are coming up, they're going to be weeded out pretty quickly, yada yada yada.' That's fine. That's their opinion. I don't think they're really paying attention to us. Which is fine. Don't pay attention to me. You will in a little bit."
At least for this week, the spotlight is still firmly on them. As Cerrone pointed out, if the beginning of their UFC careers is like going to a new school, then Thursday night is like the last day before summer break.
"This is the day we have fun," he grinned.
And as for the blue cage, even when it's disassembled for the last time at the Jobing.com Arena, it will still live on somewhere, according to the man who was first responsible for putting it up.
"I've actually got a place in California and I'm thinking of putting it on my tennis court," said Harris. "So if they want, they can just come by there and see it. There's room, and I don't play tennis."