For the second time in just four days, the UFC is bringing another huge rematch to the cage, only this one is for a title. On Saturday night, live from the BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, UFC 164 showcases lightweight champion Benson “Smooth” Henderson in the biggest grudge match of his career.

In December 2010, headlining the final WEC event before the UFC merger, then-WEC lightweight champion Henderson faced off against Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. Pettis was quietly climbing the ranks, finishing all but two of his opponents along the way. At 23:57 into the fight, with barely over a minute left, Pettis jumped off the cage with his right foot, using the momentum as a spring to crack the champ right across his face with what would basically be described as a flying roundhouse kick, knocking his opponent to the mat, where Henderson managed to hang on until the final bell. The move has since been dubbed the “Showtime kick,” and it was the final straw in a match that Pettis had already won on all three judges’ scorecards. Pettis became the champ, and the WEC was instantly no more.

For years, Henderson’s camp has maintained that the kick was a “fluke,” but none of that really matters when the judges ruled unanimously in Pettis’s favor. Although it may have earned him a round, it was hardly a fluke considering that it was one of many dazzling kicks that Pettis and his training partners had practiced at the Roufusport camp in Milwaukee. Regardless of the details of their last match-up, Henderson once again holds a strap, and while he’s determined to prove he’s the better fighter, Pettis would love to bring Henderson’s worst nightmare to life once again.

Henderson and Pettis bring a match-up that is sure to excite fans. Henderson hasn’t finished anyone in over three years, and two of his recent title fights were closely contested—and somewhat controversial—split decisions. Outside of his decision loss to Clay Guida in his UFC debut, Pettis had a split decision win in his next fight, followed by first-round knockouts of lightweight contenders Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone. The fight with Cerrone was a grudge match, and Pettis finished him off with one of the nastiest body kicks in UFC history.

Needless to say, fans cannot miss this fight. Just like their first meeting, the UFC 164 main event will be sure to dazzle.

Let’s take a deeper look at the match-up. And as a reminder, this is a side-by-side comparison of how the fighters’ skills match up against one another using similar scoring to the unified rules.

Striking: Henderson – 9, Pettis – 10

It would be easy to start this off by saying that the “Showtime kick” proves Pettis is the better striker. However, Pettis has done a lot more than one crazy kick to prove he’s dominant at this aspect of the game.

In his 16 career wins, Pettis has knocked out seven guys with either punches or kicks, including Danny Castillo, Cerrone and Lauzon. Pettis holds a third-degree black belt in taekwondo, trains under famed kickboxer Duke Roufus, has previous training in capoeira and boxing, and has a background in professional kickboxing. In their first meeting, Pettis showed much better stand-up and landed 42 percent of his significant strikes to Henderson’s 34 percent. Pettis also landed more overall strikes.

Henderson’s biggest advantage in the striking game is simply the fact that he has never been knocked out. Hard-hitting strikers like Jamie Varner, Cerrone, Guida and Frankie Edgar couldn’t do it, and neither did Pettis, even after the famous kick. Henderson has a solid chin and never really looks stunned. He is a black belt in taekwondo too, but not at the same level as Pettis. Henderson has crisp striking and appears to be longer, even though he really has a two-inch disadvantage in reach. As for power, there’s a reason he only has two TKOs in 19 wins, with no clean KOs. The power is just not there.

In the striking department, Pettis may not be able to knock the champ out, but he will dominate the striking game, landing more significant strikes for the second time in the saga.

Wrestling: Henderson – 9, Pettis – 10

It would be easy to look at their respective backgrounds and just assume that Henderson is the better wrestler, because he wrestled in high school and was a two-time NAIA All-American out of Dana College in Blair, Neb. However, with MMA takedowns being more wrestling-oriented than BJJ-oriented, takedown success is a good indicator of wrestling prowess. Another big indicator is clinch work. Unfortunately for the champ, the challenger is better at both.

Pettis is much more successful with his takedown attempts—50 percent better—and both fighters are equal in takedown defense. This surely isn’t a fluke, as one of Pettis’ training partners and head wrestling coach at Roufusport is Ben Askren, who is arguably one of the top two wrestlers in all of MMA.

In their first bout, Henderson, in an attempt to negate Pettis’s striking, attempted 10 takedowns, but only finished three. Pettis went for two and got them both. Pettis had more calculated attempts with better set-ups, whereas Henderson does it more from a reactionary standpoint. In the clinch, Pettis has more of a pressing style, versus Henderson, who spends a lot of clinch time playing active defense. On the ground, Henderson has never been able to pin down squirrelly opponents like Pettis, and there is no reason to think that has changed much in less than three years.

The champ may be the more formally educated wrestler, but the challenger dominates the wrestling as it translates into MMA.

Submission Grappling: Henderson – 10, Pettis – 9

With Pettis having a clear advantage in the striking and wrestling games, Henderson’s only real chance of winning this fight is from guard. With a black belt in BJJ and the craziest flexibility in MMA, the champ may need to score a submission to retain his title, and that could certainly happen come Saturday night.

Henderson trains under BJJ professor John Crouch at The MMA Lab in Glendale, Ariz. The champ has been in precarious positions on the ground more times than any fighter would be comfortable with, yet he always seems to get out. Cerrone had a nasty kimura locked in, twice, and couldn’t finish him. Henderson answered by escaping and eventually winning the fight. The guy’s neck seems to be made out of rubber. His two most recent finishes were guillotine chokes of Varner and Cerrone under the WEC banner, and he was able to pass the guard of BJJ-heavy fighter Jim Miller six times in one bout.

However, Pettis is no slouch on the ground. He has a purple belt in BJJ, six submission wins of his own, and has never been tapped out. The Wisconsin native has amazing submission defense and is hard to keep on the ground for long enough to really get anything done. If anyone can do it, though, Henderson can.

Henderson has the advantage, albeit a close one, in submission grappling.

Speed: Henderson – 9, Pettis – 10

Speed in strikes, speed in takedowns and speed in recovery are all attributes that lie heavily in the challenger’s favor. Henderson has speed and snappiness in his own right, but nothing that compares to Pettis. The champ would have been wise to train on increasing his speed since their last bout, but in 175 minutes of Octagon time since then, he hasn’t shown any real improvement in that department. Pettis has two first-round knockouts. Enough said. The challenger isn’t wasting any time.

Stamina: Henderson – 10, Pettis – 10

Pettis and Henderson have deep gas tanks. For the most part, they are freakishly deep. Guys like Cerrone, Varner, Guida and even Edgar, all of whom are no strangers to going the distance, have at least appeared gassed at one point in their respective careers. In the fifth round of their previous battle, both the champ and the challenger looked like they could’ve gone three more rounds. Either of these guys can go five rounds with no problem, and that could easily happen again on Saturday night.


The biggest x-factor, as in all of Henderson’s fights, is the champ’s superhuman flexibility. The flexibility at hand is not just muscle flexibility, and it’s not just mental flexibility. However the quality is described, it’s a holistic property that no other fighter really mimics. Neither Cerrone’s kimura attempts nor Pettis’s kick were able to stop this guy. He can take shots to the head, joint locks, chokes or body shots and just keep bouncing back. Whatever it is about Henderson, it works, and Pettis is going to have a hard time stopping him once again.

Total: Henderson – 47, Pettis – 49

Verdict: In their first match-up, Pettis dominated Henderson for most of the fight and threw caution to the wind with his exclamation-point kick at the end of the fifth round to win the title. Since then, Henderson has barely skated by with split decisions over Edgar and Gilbert Melendez, and went to unanimous decisions in his other five fights. He just can’t seem to crack the code for earning a dominant finish in the UFC. Pettis had spectacular first-round knockouts in two of his last three fights, but will have trouble finishing Henderson on Saturday night. Pettis will again use his calculated wrestling, effective cage work and creative striking to earn the points he needs to swipe a second belt away from Henderson in just three years.

Photo: Anthony Pettis (Esther Lin/MMA Fighting)

About The Author

Dan Kuhl
Interview Coordinator