WEC Exit Stage Left
Olaf Alfonso’s crooked nose pointed farther east, and it was still leaking blood. Minutes before, the Mexican lightweight had gone three frenetic rounds with John Polakowski in front of HDNet cameras and several thousand locals on a 15-fight MMA card in remote Lemoore, Calif.
Dana White flew commercial and rented a car to get there. He was out of his seat cheering by the end of the fight, which Alfonso eked out with a split decision. It was Jan. 16, 2004.
Broadcaster Ron Kruck semi-bluffed his way into a gig as a ring reporter for the show. Sure, he told his producers that he knew about this cage fighting thing. He’d seen UFC 1, and he’d covered boxing. Now, here was Olaf bleeding, a stunned crowd before him, and his job was to wrap the carnage into a bow. Olaf had told him earlier that he’d broken his nose nine times in fighting. That sounded good.
He asked Olaf if tonight was number 10.“Oh, it’s not broken,” the fighter shot back.
“You might want to get that checked out,” Kruck deadpanned. In his earpiece, cage-side commentators Ryan Bennett, Stephen Quadros, and Jeff Blatnick were in hysterics.
Six years and 43 events later, World Extreme Cagefighting would have many more plasma donors and a library’s worth of good fights. It would play to sold-out arenas, turn many of its fighters into stars, and catapult them onto the sport’s biggest stages. But back then, it was a lot less about the business and a lot more about proving that you were one tough guy.
Leonard Garcia was a floater in the shipping department of a Lubbock, Texas, Walmart when he stepped in the cage. Rob McCullough was a personal trainer and a veteran of the California Muay Thai circuit. Gilbert Melendez was a student and a waiter. Brian Stann was a Marine on duty in Iraq. Urijah Faber was the rare full-time fighter.
They all remember how pure and often innocent things were back then. As innocent as you can get for this cage fighting thing.
“I was nervous,” says Garcia, who fought at WEC 1. “It was the biggest event I had ever fought in. It seemed like a huge step for me.”
“I was a guy who maybe knew how to throw four or five punches and three or four kicks,” says Stann, who made his debut at WEC 21. “I remember thinking, ‘I’d better win this fight, or it’s really going to look bad on the Marine Corps. I may catch some shit from my commanding officer and not be allowed to do this anymore.’”
“I was just doing it for fun,” McCullough says. “If I sold a few tickets, all the better.”
Of course, the show took off quickly after HDNet aired WEC 9. Scott Adams’ phone began ringing off the hook with fighters looking for work. He’d started the WEC with real estate developer Reed Harris three years prior, after telling Harris that his Tae Kwon Do was no good at the SLO kickboxing gym that Harris owned with Chuck Liddell. Now, the two had a TV deal. They were running with the big boys.
As it turned out, White and brothers Lorenzo and Frank Fertitta of Zuffa, LLC were watching, and they saw a chance to build a valuable addition to the UFC brand. Soon, the WEC was on the Versus channel with a new broadcast team and was reaching more homes than ever.
That close-up forced young fighters to grow up fast. McCullough won the WEC Lightweight Championship in the first show under Zuffa management, and the chao sensued. Media wanted interviews. New fighters hung around. Sponsors dogged him for after-parties.
“After a while, I started thinking the belt was going to be the demise of me,” he says. “I just wanted to be in the gym.”
Garcia returned to the WEC after cresting in the UFC. He found himself signing autographs first and training second.
“For a little while, it started to hurt me, because not only was I believing what people were saying about me, I was showing it in the gym,” he says. “I would come to the gym and train half of what I used to.”
Stann came back from a second tour in Iraq to a full-court press on his military background.
“I wasn’t ready for all that,” he says. “I hadn’t put a glove on in eight or nine months. I still had sand in my ears from Iraq.”
Only Urijah Faber understood at the time just how big the WEC was going to be and how much attention the fighters were going to get. Faber, who became the face of the new Zuffa-owned promotion as its Featherweight Champion, says the spotlight forced him to focus. He realized, too, that there was a lot more than vanity at stake when White and the Fertittas gave him his first discretionary bonus backstage after his debuts how with the new owners.
“I had the same mentality as I have now,” Faber says. “You’re risking a lot of things when you step in the cage: Your pride, your health, and you’re financial status. It’s a big deal, and I put my all into it. That was not the norm at that point, but it made me stand out.”
Now, the kids are off to college. The WEC held its last show—WEC 53 in December—and one month later folded its talent into the UFC. The veterans of the lighter-weighted promotion had their day: Faber lost his belt to phenom Jose Aldo; Stann migrated to the UFC when the WEC shed its 205-pound division; Garcia made it back to the UFC; Melendez became a champion in Strikeforce and recently won his belt back after losing it in 2008; McCullough was released after a string of losses and recently returned to his Lemoore fighting roots a humbled man.
But it’s Olaf’s crooked-ass nose that started it all. While the players have moved
REMEMBER THE TITANS
There is no shortage of highlight finishes in the WEC’s video library. Here are six of the best battles in its nine-year history.
John Polakowski vs. Olaf Alfonso I
WEC 9: 1/16/04
Spurred by the cage-side presence of Dana White, these two unheralded fighters left ounces of sweat and blood in the wake of a three-round war that yielded two broken noses and a lot of dropped jaws in the audience. You have to do some digging to watch it now, but it’s worth the effort.
Rob McCullough vs. Donald Cerrone
WEC 36: 11/5/08
Some genius relegated this meeting of Muay Thai maulers to the un-televised preliminary card at WEC 36, but the fight was so undeniably good that it aired one month later on WEC Best of 2008. Cerrone cemented his status as a lightweight threat by dropping the former champion on several occasions and refusing to wilt when the favor was returned.
Miguel Torres vs. Takeya Mizugaki
WEC 40: 4/5/09
Bantamweight Champion Torres’ third title defense was the most taxing of his career at that time. Before a hometown crowd in WEC40’s main event, he took on Japanese newcomer Mizugaki and found himself on the defense right off the bat. Mizugaki refused to back down over five rounds of action and often sent the champ scrambling to get the fight to the ground. It took Torres a lot of grit and more than a few shots to the dome to win the decision.
Ben Henderson vs. Donald Cerrone I
WEC 43: 10/10/09
These two friends vied for the promotion’s interim 155-pound title at WEC 43 and served up an instant classic. Cerrone nearly ended the fight in the first round with a slick guillotine-to-triangle sequence, but Henderson pushed back on the mat and delivered some fearsome ground-n-pound. “Cowboy” never gave up and attempted just about every submission in the book, but Bendo squeaked out the decision victory.
Leonard Garcia vs. Chan Sung Jung
WEC 48: 4/24/10
The granddaddy of all WEC slugfests, and in many fans’ eyes, a contender to the historic Griffin/Bonnar I. In a flurry of fists, knees, and kicks, the two battered each other to the point of exhaustion in the WEC 48 preliminary bout and somehow managed to keep going. The action sent 14,000-plus into a frenzy and drew scores of fans watching at home on Spike TV to the event’s pay-per-view card. It was a bolt of lightning caught on tape.
Anthony Pettis vs. Ben Henderson
WEC 53: 12/16/10
It was only fitting that the final bout of the WEC’s nine-year history was an epic battle. With the Lightweight Championship on the line, Pettis and Henderson slugged, grappled, and kicked their way though a five-round war. In a move that will forever be remembered in the annals of MMA, Pettis landed a cage-walking kick that floored Henderson in the final seconds and secured him the unanimous decision.