by Damon Martin – MMAWeekly.com
When Zuffa purchased World Extreme Cagefighting in late 2006, the promotion was already a mainstay among most MMA circles, but with the parent company of the UFC on board the company was set for a boost in exposure and popularity. What followed was the WEC making a move to the Versus Network for numerous live shows throughout the year and several specials that air on the station regularly.
In 2008, the WEC had a banner year, crowning new champions and becoming the official home for lighter weight class fighters to get recognized.
This is the 2008 WEC year in review.
WEC REMOVES MIDDLEWEIGHT AND LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT CLASSES
Probably one of the biggest stories of all 2008 was the decision by the WEC to do away with their 185-pound and 205-pound divisions to focus on lighter weight classes. The promotion had long supported the idea of staying fresh and new, and by dissolving the two higher weight classes, it gave the company more room to expand the featherweight and bantamweight divisions.
“With every fight, the WEC has proven itself to be a powerful and growing presence in sports, both with our live events and our programming on Versus,” said Peter Dropick, WEC Vice President of Operations and Production. “Exciting matchups like Torres vs. Tapia on Dec. 3 and the incredible fights we have planned for 2009 under this new structure will no doubt establish WEC as the home of the best lighter weight fighters in the world.”
This decision forced some fighters to move over to the UFC to stay under the same company umbrella. Former WEC 205-pound division champion Steve Cantwell already debuted and won his first fight in the UFC and others like Brian Stann, Chael Sonnen, and Jake Rosholt are expected to make their Octagon debuts soon.
One fighter left out of that mix was former 185-pound king Paulo Filho. After failing to make weight for his last title defense, he put on a lackluster performance in his fight against Chael Sonnen and was released from his contract shortly thereafter.
The move to focus on the lighter weight classes allowed the organization to make bigger stars out of fighters like Miguel Torres and other bantamweights and featherweights, but are considered among the best pound for pound fighters in the world.
MIGUEL TORRES ESTABLISHED AS ONE OF THE POUND FOR POUND BEST
When Miguel Angel Torres made his WEC debut by submitting Jeff Bedard in September 2007, it was obvious that a star was on the rise. In his next fight, Torres submitted Chase Beebe and became the promotion’s new 135-pound divisional champion.
In 2008, Torres cemented his place among the very best in the world with one dominant victory over a top-notch competitor and another battle that could be considered as a “Fight of the Year” candidate.
His first official title defense came against Japanese bantamweight Yoshiro Maeda on June 1. In the end, the champion was able to hold onto his title, but not without going to war first. A back and forth stand-up fight, mixed with scrambles at every turn, Torres was able to punish his opponent and get a stoppage after round three.
The fight proved not only that Torres was a great champion, but able to endure adversity in a fight and battle through his own cuts and injuries to get the win. His next fight was against Top 10 ranked fighter Manny Tapia in December.
While most felt that Torres would have his biggest advantage on the ground, the bantamweight champion instead chose to stand against his heavy handed opponent. Torrest picked Tapia apart on the feet en route to a second round stoppage after tagging his opponent standing and then finishing the fight on the ground.
For Miguel Torres, 2008 proved to be a very successful year and in the coming year he may be the WEC’s most valuable commodity.
CHANGING OF THE GUARD AT 145 POUNDS
After Hurricane Ike pushed their fight back from September to November, featherweights Mike Brown and Urijah Faber battled it out in Florida for the WEC 145-pound divisional title. While Brown had all the credentials to be in the fight, it was Faber who seemed almost untouchable after an unbelievable run as champion and solidifying himself as the top dog in the weight class.
What unfolded was the exact opposite of what most thought would happen as Brown flattened the champion in the first round, landing a thunderous right hand that sent Faber crashing to the mat. A few more strikes followed and shortly thereafter, Mike Brown was crowned the new featherweight champion of the WEC.
While Faber never once said he was unbeatable, he just seemed that way with his resilience in fights and ability to get out of any bad situation and turn it to his advantage. The tables turned that night as Faber threw a back elbow strike and got caught with Brown’s right hand.
With Brown poised to defend his featherweight title in March against Leonard Garcia and Faber readying for a rematch against Jens Pulver, the promotion’s featherweight class got possibly the biggest shake-up of champions in 2008.
CARLOS CONDIT AND JAMIE VARNER WIN BIG
The bantamweights and featherweights got a lot of deserved attention this year in the WEC, but the accomplishments of 170-pound divisional champion Carlos Condit and 155-pound divisional titleholder Jamie Varner should not be overlooked.
Condit has long been established as a Top 10 fighter in the deep welterweight division, but in 2008 the New Mexico native avenged a previous loss and, much like Miguel Torres, proved himself in possibly one of his toughest tests to date.
Submitting Carlo Prater in front of his home state fans in February helped Condit avenge the first loss of his professional career. His other title defense, a win over super tough fighter Hiromitsu Miura, gave the champion a lot of respect from doubting critics who wondered if his previous wins were just too easy for him.
Jamie Varner proved that he sat among the elite lightweights with his dismantling of former champion “Razor” Rob McCullough, to win the title in February. Many people wanted to pigeonhole Varner as a wrestler with good submission skills, but instead of taking McCullough to the ground, he simply out struck the striker.
Varner took McCullough out of his game and eventually finished him off in the third round to capture the WEC lightweight championship. He then took out former undefeated lightweight Marcus Hicks in his first title defense to keep the belt around his waist as he moved into the New Year.
Both Condit and Varner are sure to be tested in 2009, but the champions of the WEC’s 170 and 155-pound divisions deserve to be mentioned along with any of the top fighters in either of those weight classes after their performances in 2008.
WEC – BEST PROMOTION OF 2008?
Not to discount any of the other great events that took place in numerous other promotions in 2008, but the WEC may have stolen the crown this year as the organization had a number of outstanding shows from the live fights to the production during the televised broadcasts, down to the commentating in the booth.
It’s hard to argue with WEC 34, which took place in Sacramento earlier this year, as possibly the best show of 2008. Two “Fight of the Year” candidates headlined the event. Urijah Faber performed in front of his hometown crowd defeating Jens Pulver in an exciting five-round decision, while Miguel Torres took out Yoshiro Maeda in a back and forth war for the bantamweight championship.
WEC 35 also had a number of crowd-pleasing fights including Carlos Condit defending his belt against Hiromitsu Miura, Jamie Varner defending his lightweight strap from Marcus Hicks, and Steve Cantwell exacting his revenge against Brian Stann in their second fight, recapturing the light heavyweight title.
Overall, the promotion seemed to hit on all cylinders when it really counted. The WEC puts on less shows over the course of a year than many other promotions, but when they put on a show, they seem to know exactly the formula to follow. UFC interim heavyweight champion Frank Mir has become an expert as a color commentator in the broadcast booth, and the production staff puts together a strong televised product as well.
The WEC will kick off 2009 in late January with a lot to look forward to. The promotion plans to finally hit pay-per-view in 2009, launch a reality series, and quite possibly make a move into Mexico. But first, the WEC can celebrate 2008 as a big success in its first full year under the Zuffa regime.