SACRAMENTO – Benson Henderson, one-time sparring partner of Jamie Varner, is now the undisputed WEC lightweight champion: Can I get an amen?
Varner had said before the fight that he considered himself in a league above Henderson, but a flying guillotine choke that caused him to tap out at 2 minutes 41 seconds of round three suggested otherwise.
Through two rounds, the fight seemed even, with Varner slamming Henderson during a fairly conservative opening stanza and spending more time in the top position.
In the second round, Henderson landed a leg kick and Varner smiled back at him. Seconds later Varner returned the favor with a leg kick of his own.
“How you like that?” he taunted Henderson.
Both fighters played it safe, trading leg kicks and high kicks, though it was Henderson who seemed busier and able to land with greater frequency, repeatedly whacking Varner with kicks to the rib area. The second round was close, and could have been scored for either man.
In the third round, Henderson emerged as the aggressor and scored with another hard kick to the rib area, followed by a knee to midsection, and a high kick that was blocked. The pivotal sequence happened midway through the frame, when Varner attempted a takedown and Henderson locked in that fateful choke that would catapult him from simply having the “Interim Champion” label to being the full-fledged champion (Henderson had defeated Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone last year for the interim WEC lightweight belt while Varner was still recovering from injuries and hand surgery).
After the biggest win of his career, Henderson conceded that he had plenty of doubts coming into this fight.
“Jamie Varner is a tough scary dude,” he said. “I was a little intimidated at first, like, ‘Oh, he wants to hurt me.’”
Varner’s disappointment was evident afterward.
“I came to fight, Ben was the better man and he caught me with the guillotine,” he said. “I knew coming in that he had that guillotine … I was winning that fight. He didn’t want to box. I came to fight, Ben came to grapple, two different things.”
Faber vs. Assuncao
Joining “Smooth” Henderson in the winner’s circle on this night was Urijah Faber, who kicked off his comeback tour Sunday night with a convincing victory over highly-regarded Raphael Assuncao. Now The California Kid is taking aim at another Brazilian, WEC featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
After submitting Assuncao with a rear naked choke in the third round, and setting off pandemonium in the packed house at ARCO Arena, Faber took the mic and vowed, “I’m going to get that belt. We have a great champion right now who is a phenom … I’d love to get in there and get that belt. I just gotta’ bring my ‘A’ game. Like I said, he’s a tough guy, but in my mind that’s my belt.”
Aldo happened to be in the cage as well, and didn’t mince words about a possible challenge from Faber.
“I respect you Urijah,” Aldo said, “but no one will take my belt.”
Against Assuncao, widely regarded as a Top 10 featherweight, Faber served notice that he is still a top contender. The first round was close and conservative, with lots of clinches, and one could argue Assuncao (14-2) landed the better punching combinations and kicks. But Faber upped the ante in the second stanza, scoring a takedown and landing elbows on top. The former champ trapped Assuncao in a guillotine, but the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt escaped. Faber cinched the momentum for good when he dropped Assuncao with a thunderous overhand right.
In round three, Faber faked a punch and scored yet another takedown. Assuncao got back to his feet, only to hit the deck again after a punch from Faber, setting into motion the ground scramble that culminated in the fight-ending choke at 3:49 of the round.
In other action Sunday night:
Kamal Shalorus vs. Dave Jansen
Over the course of 15 grueling minutes, Jansen attempted numerous takedowns on Shalorus, but never came close to getting the former Olympic wrestler on the mat. Jansen’s face was covered in blood from the litany of power punches Shalorus had landed in what was predominately a boxing match between two wrestlers. Game throughout, Jansen absorbed heavy damage and occasionally tagged Shalorus in retaliation, but the Team Quest fighter’s valor and grit could not change his fortunes. Shalorus’s standup was too much, earning him a unanimous decision win (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) that pushed his record to 6-0-1.
“I’m a world-class wrestler. I’m a world champion,” Shalorus said afterward. “That’s what I tried to prove. Nobody can take me down.”
Nicknamed “The Prince of Persia” because he was born in Iran, Shalorus was a captive audience to chants of “U-S-A! U-S-A!” from some in the crowd, which only seemed to provoke him to inflict more damage on Jansen. While Jansen had vowed to prove himself the better wrestler, it was Shalorus who scored several takedowns (doing little damage on top, however).
Jansen, who was coming off a thrilling victory over Rich Crunkilton, fell to 11-1 in his pro career.
Mike Brown vs. Anthony “Cheesesteak” Morrison
Determined to exorcise the demons of losing the WEC featherweight championship, Brown took a major gamble by agreeing to return to action relatively soon against the explosive Morrison (15-7). Based on his chiseled physique and six-pack abs, it was apparent Brown (23-5) had taken this fight seriously and once in the cage he made swift work of the Philadelphian, taking him down and sinking in a rear naked choke for the tap at 1:54 of round one.
The former champ, who was mercilessly booed here last summer after beating Urijah Faber for a second time, was rewarded with a rousing ovation from the Sacramento crowd.
“I just needed a win. I just wanted to win so badly. It’s very important that you don’t lose two in a row. Maybe I’ll get a shot in the future.”
Deividas Taurosevicius vs. Mackens Semerzier
Semerzier emerged from his corner in round three, likely assuming that he was trailing on the judges’ scorecards and would need to pull off something dramatic to preserve his 7-0 record.
With less than two minutes remaining, Semerzier turned up the heat, cracking his tiring Lithuania-born foe with hard ground and pound shots, even drawing blood from Taurosevicius’ head. In a race against the clock, with less than 20 seconds remaining, Semerzier locked in a guillotine choke and squeezed with everything he had. The suspense ended seconds later when Taurosevicius popped his head out, enabling him to escape with a unanimous decision victory by scores of 29-28 across the board.
Taurosevicius executed his strategy early on, pushing for a takedown in the opening seconds and then securing one. The Lithuanian, who now lives in Long Island, New York, inflicted no damage on top and Semerzier was back on his feet midway into the stanza.
Taurosevicius again pressed the action, slamming the unbeaten Virginian for a second time. Again, nothing going on the ground, prompting a referee standup. The grinding round came to a halt in what seemed to be a Taurosevicius round.
In round two of main card, Semerzier came out scoring with kicks, but again Taurosevicius took him down. On the ground, Semerzier hunted for his favorite technique, a triangle choke – the same move that carried him to victory over Wagnney Fabiano in November – but Taurosevicius astutely defended, trapped his opponent against the cage and scored with ground and pound shots on top.
In defeat, Semerzier fell to 7-1; Taurosevicius improved to 12-3.
Akitoshi Tamura vs. Charlie Valencia
Valencia, a crowd favorite who has trained in the past with Urijah Faber’s team, survived a scare in the second round to eke out a split decision victory over Tamura.
Valencia landed the crisper punches on their feet in the opening round and topped it off with a solid high kick, causing his Japanese adversary to essentially pull guard. Tamura trapped Valencia in a rubber guard variation, which Valencia eventually slammed his way out of, then rained down some heavy ground and pound shots.
In round two, the tide turned, with Tamura jumping on the Californian’s back early in the round and trapping him in a body lock. To the crowd’s dismay, an extraordinarily long stalemate ensued, with Valencia wisely remained standing for several minutes and fighting off a rear naked choke. The round ended on the mat, with Valencia still defending the choke.
By round three, Valencia’s leg kicks on Akitoshi’s lead leg produced visible bruising. Valencia came out swinging. He dropped Tamura with a right hand, then scored with ground and pound blows. Tamura quickly regained his wits and managed to get back to his feet, but never threatened from there, as Valencia boxed and scored with a digging right hand to the body and overhand rights.
When it was all said and done, Valencia got the nod by scores of 29-28, 28-29 and 29-28.
Wagnney Fabiano vs. Clint Godfrey
In a battle of southpaws, Godfrey was trying to become the second straight unknown to make a name for himself against Fabiano, formerly the No. 3 ranked featherweight in the world. But the underdog magic that propelled Mackens Semerzier to victory over Fabiano, and prompted the Brazilian to drop a weight class, was nowhere to be found for Godfrey as Fabiano triumphed by unanimous decision in a predominately grappling-based performance that was effective but not particularly exciting. Simply put, Fabiano dominated the takedowns and controlled on top – occasionally scoring with ground and pound shots.
Fabiano (13-2) had mounted the South Dakotan (11-2) on two occasions, but was unable to put him away.
Bryan Caraway vs. Mark Hominick
Memo to all future opponents of Mark Hominick: Don’t sleep on the Canadian’s submission skills. Better known as a standup stud, the Shawn Tompkins prodigy showed some nifty jiu-jitsu moves and transitioned from a slick triangle choke to an armbar that finished former college wrestler Caraway at 3 minutes 48 seconds of round one. Caraway had scored a double leg takedown early in the fight but was unable to do any damage on top.
With the win, Hominick, who recently married, improved to 17-8. Caraway fell to 14-4.
George Roop vs. Eddie Wineland
Wineland could do no wrong in this one, outclassing Roop in a boxing match that saw the former WEC bantamweight champion floor his 6’1 foe with a right hand and wobble him with another. A former 155-pounder who dropped two weight classes, Roop seemed more affected by Wineland’s speed than by the dramatic weight cut. Despite having a considerable reach advantage, Roop rarely made contact with Wineland’s grill, while the latter seemed to land hard overhand rights any time of his choosing. By round three, with Roop bleeding in the mouth and nose area – and clearly needing a finish to win – you had to wonder if Roop was going to employ Plan B and perhaps try to test Wineland on the mat. But Roop, who had never been knocked out in his career, seemed content to settle matters on their feet. He was effective at times with front kicks and leg kicks, but was never able to land the crisp combinations necessary to dig out of the deep hole he had dug himself.
Roop survived the bout, but Wineland emerged with a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27 across the board.
Will Campuzano vs. Coty “Ox” Wheeler
Many fans were in their seats for this bout, which kicked off at about 3:50 p.m., and produced wildly entertaining theater that kept Wheeler’s cutman busy. More to the point, Campuzano simply bloodied and bashed Wheeler for most of the 15 minutes. By fight’s end, Wheeler’s face was covered in blood, with a huge welt under his right eye and another over his left eye.
Campuzano continually pounded Wheeler in the standup game with punches, kicks and knees – and when Wheeler attempted kneebars and foot locks on the mat, Campuzano escaped and again made him pay with punches and hammer fists. Wheeler somehow survived the carnage, losing a unanimous decision by scores of 30-27 across the board.
With the win, Campuzano improved to 7-1; Wheeler fell to 10-3.