Kyte: Long way around to Henderson-Pettis II

Anthony Pettis rocks Benson Henderson with a kick to the face in their December 2010 bout.
July 15, 2013, 11:22 AM

At the end of next month, UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson will defend his title against the last man to beat him, Anthony (Showtime) Pettis, in the main event of UFC 164.

In a little bit of promotional kismet, this card just so happens to take place in Pettis’s hometown of Milwaukee, so you can be sure that the Bradley Center is going to be packed to the rafters and louder than ever when their native son takes to the cage.

Henderson-Pettis II is an exciting rematch two years in the making, one that will feature a marketing campaign and promotional push built around repeated replays of the single coolest move we’ve seen executed in the cage to date, “The Showtime Kick.” You can’t help but get excited when you see Pettis run up the side of the WEC cage, propelling himself forward and landing a Matrix-like kick, except maybe if you’re Henderson, who was on the receiving end of the awe-inspiring move.

As much as I’m gutted for Canadian TJ Grant, whose concussion opened the door for Pettis to step into this title shot, this is a rematch many — myself very much included — have been looking forward to since Pettis got back in the win column back at UFC 144, and even more once he dispatched Donald Cerrone on the January FOX event in Chicago.

This is, without a doubt, the most compelling and intriguing championship matchup available in the lightweight division, and stands to be one of the best fights of the year, just like their initial meeting was in December 2010.

Makes you wonder why the UFC didn’t just book this bout right out of the gate.

At some point between now and UFC 164, someone will ask Dana White about the decision to align Pettis with Jose Aldo in a featherweight title fight when a rematch with Henderson — a fight he had been talking about in the media sporadically since UFC 144 — was potentially on the table.

The UFC president will smirk, give some roundabout explanation and end with something along the lines of “You’re getting the fight, aren’t you? It’s happening, and it’s going to be awesome!” as if the curious matchmaking choices that preceded this pairing suddenly cease to exist.

But they don’t.

Ricardo Lamas is still waiting patiently on the sidelines, bumped from a potential showdown with Aldo in favour of Pettis, and then passed over when Pettis was forced out with an injury, replaced by the man he was supposed to fight at UFC 162 (The Korean Zombie) Chan Sung Jung.

The UFC still has championship bouts at the top of each of their August pay-per-view shows, and the latter of the two is now a more enticing buy. While that is what matters most for the company, they can’t overlook the fact that they needed a chain reaction of events to transpire in order to make this bout happen simply because they were trying too hard to make too much happen earlier in the year.

Had they just made the fights that made the most sense initially, Lamas would be fighting Aldo in three weeks, Pettis would have been booked against Henderson, and no one would be questioning the validity of TJ Grant’s concussion.

There is no need to forcibly create championship bouts out of thin air, promoting the biggest name over the fighter who has done more to earn the opportunity. We got a tremendous reminder of that just a couple weekends ago, and it has now spawned one of the most anticipated rematches of all time.

This time last year, not many people wanted to see Chris Weidman fight Anderson Silva; he hadn’t done enough and wasn’t a big enough name. Back in January, the UFC was still keeping their options open, looking to shoehorn Michael Bisping into a title shot if he got past Vitor Belfort in Brazil.

In some ways, the UFC 162 main event was a consolation prize, the only real option that remained when it came to getting the greatest fighter in the sport into the cage. Now here we are 10 days later with a new middleweight champion, the date for the rematch circled on our calendars, and people still talking about what transpired.

Part of the beauty of this sport is that crazy, unexpected things happen organically all the time. Unsung fighters upset legends, and athletes run up the side of the cage to land ridiculous kicks in championship bouts.

Weidman may not have been the most well known contender in the middleweight division heading into UFC 162, but he’s a bona fide star now, and everyone can’t wait to see him square off with Silva again. We wouldn’t be in this position if the UFC had simply decided, “You know what? Bisping is a bigger name; let’s give him the title fight instead.”

As much as they’ve arrived at the best destination possible for the lightweight division, there is no good explanation for the circuitous route they took to get there. If anything, they missed out on early opportunities to promote this fight by going in a different direction initially.

Having Pettis stand face-to-face with Henderson in the cage on FOX following his win over Gilbert Melendez could have set the stage (and unveiled the backstory) for the largest audience possible. You have Joe Rogan run back their rivalry, throw to a highlight of “The Showtime Kick,” and get people excited about what should be a great fight well in advance.

It’s engaging television, and free promotion on the biggest platform possible. Instead, the UFC stumbled onto a great fight through dumb luck; the fight business equivalent of finding a million-dollar lottery ticket lying on the ground, complete with the words “Winning Ticket” written in black Sharpie for all to see.

The really ironic thing about the outstanding six-month main event schedule the UFC rolled out earlier this month is that the majority of those fights are championship pairings that make sense, bouts that came together through results, not name recognition.

Outside of the two contests where injuries have already forced changes, the challengers all worked their way up the rankings, building their names along the way, to arrive standing opposite the champion.

That is the way it should always be.

Hopefully the UFC realizes that now.

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