Little did Reed Harris know when he started World Extreme Cagefighting back in 2001, that less than 10 years later they’d be just one event away from being absorbed into the UFC, the biggest mixed martial arts promotion in the world.
From day one, the WEC was a top-notch organization that attracted talent from all over the world, many who graduated to fight in the UFC, Strikeforce, and other major promotions. Many of the fighters that competed on those early WEC cards are still at the top of the ranks now, headlining cards and involved in some of the biggest bouts in the sport.
Originally based out of Lemoore, Calif., the WEC brought in young talent, veterans, and everything in between to fill out the roster. From the classic bouts fought between John Polakowski and Olaf Alfonso, to the light heavyweight tournament that saw the careers of fighters like Scott Smith, Tim McKenzie, and Justin Levens launched.
On the same night as that tournament, future UFC heavyweight champion Shane Carwin made his professional MMA debut. The list of names that fought in the WEC over the years is staggering. From Gilbert Melendez to Yves Edwards to Chris Lytle to James Irvin, some of the best fighters in the world competed in the WEC at one time or another.
MMAWeekly.com founder Ryan Bennett even worked as commentator for the WEC for many shows, and covered them while the fledgling promotion started to get its wings.
Now, on the eve of the final WEC show ever, many of the fighters competing on Thursday night’s show in Phoenix admit that they will carry a heavy heart with them into the cage as they say goodbye to one of the best promotions MMA has ever known.
Heading up the card, WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson pays credit to the promotion for taking a chance on him, giving him an avenue to build a career.
“I’ll always have a special place in my heart for the WEC,” Henderson told MMAWeekly.com. “They’re the ones who kind of gave me a shot, got my national and international attention while with the WEC, and just with all that, it’s kind of a bittersweet moment to see the WEC go, but excited for the move on.”
Fellow champion Dominick Cruz has been with the WEC for the past few years and rising from a title fight in his debut bout, he will go out the same way with a gold belt on the line.
“I started with them, I think they had one show (under Zuffa) before I came on with them, so I’ve been with them for a little over three years,” Cruz commented. “It doesn’t seem that long, it flew by, so I’ve been with the WEC pretty much since the beginning when they got their TV deal. It’s been a heck of a ride, and I’ve learned so, so much by fighting with the WEC. I’ve learned a lot about myself, I’ve learned a lot about this business.”
The sentiment is felt across the board by the fighters. With only five fights under his belt when he made his debut in the WEC, Danny Castillo has spent more time with the promotion than he has outside of it. It’s the opportunity that Castillo will never forget.
“I’m kind of sad cause I pretty much started my career there,” said Castillo. “I was only at seven months of training, and I got the call on short notice, like five days notice to take the fight against Donald Cerrone. I took the fight, so I don’t really know anything else. I see some of the guys in the gym talking about their hardships of finding opponents, and an opponent pulling out, or the promoter not getting them money, but I’ve been in the WEC almost more than half of my career, so I’ve been kind of spoiled.
“Sean Shelby and Reed Harris they took the chance on me and I went through a rough patch where I dropped two straight, and MMA’s a tough business, a competitive business, and they had the power to rip up my contract if they wanted to. I feel like they believed in my abilities and I feel like I owe them a huge, exciting fight.”
Former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland is a fighter who first appeared in the promotion back in 2006. It was before Zuffa purchased the promotion, but he stuck around and will close out the WEC as one of the last fighters to perform for them.
“Without the WEC, who’s Eddie Wineland? That’s kind of what got me my name and got me where I am, and that’s helped me pave the road that I’ve been driving down,” Wineland said.
For his sixth fight in the WEC, Anthony Pettis will be going for the lightweight title and a chance to battle for the UFC championship on Thursday night. While he may not have spent as much time there as some others, Pettis will always appreciate what the WEC has meant to him.
“The WEC for me was a home and it made me who I am today,” said Pettis. “I’m just so thankful that the WEC gave me a chance to show my skills on a huge level like that.”
The staff of the WEC will transition over to new jobs with the UFC, and the fighters will switch the colors and logos on their gloves, but the promotion will live on in those who fought there, bled there, and built their careers there.
WEC General Manager and founder Reed Harris looks back with fond memories of the promotion he helped start, and will say goodbye Thursday night with nothing but positive experiences that led the way.
“We never anticipated or even thought it would grow to the way it has grown,” Harris told MMAWeekly.com. “It’s a testament to everyone that worked hard on it. There were a lot of people that worked hard on the WEC and including Ryan (Bennett), who helped us out a lot when we were growing.”
The WEC may say goodbye on Thursday night, but the legacy of the little promotion that could will live on in every fan that experienced their special brand of MMA over the years. That can never be forgotten.