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Varner Retains Lightweight Crown but leaves door open for Cerrone Rematch

Frank Curreri, WEC - A thrilling title bout between Jamie Varner and Donald Cerrone produced an anti-climatic ending Sunday when an unintentional but illegal knee helped Varner retain his belt but forced him to endure boos from scores of fans at the San Diego Sports Arena.

By Frank Curreri

SAN DIEGO – A thrilling title bout between Jamie Varner and Donald Cerrone produced an anti-climatic ending Sunday when an unintentional but illegal knee helped Varner retain his belt but forced him to endure boos from scores of fans at the San Diego Sports Arena.

Because Varner was on his knees when Cerrone kneed him in the head early in the fifth round – and the commission deemed the blow was inadvertent – the bout was halted and went prematurely to the judges’ score cards. Two judges scored it for Varner, 49-46. A third judge ruled in favor of Cerrone, 48-47.

Varner, whose courage has never been questioned by anyone in MMA, repeatedly kept apologizing to a demanding crowd that thought he should have taken a few minutes to recuperate and continued fighting. He took several minutes to get to his feet and seemed woozy while standing.

“I’m better than that guys,” he said to the crowd during the post-fight interview, hoping fans would give him the benefit of the doubt. “I’m really sorry. I broke my hand in the second or third round …I’m really sorry. Boo me. You’ve seen me fight and I’m better than that.”

Despite the fans’ reaction, Varner was impressive throughout much of the bout, stunning Cerrone on several occasions with hard combinations, and even dropping the No. 1 contender to the canvas.

Cerrone’s face bore proof of Varner’s assault – a golf-sized lump on his forehead, a knot under his right eye and a cut under his left eye.

“He caught me with a punch in my eye so I saw double in the second or third round,” said Cerrone, who fell to 9-1, 1 NC and suffered his first defeat as a professional MMA fighter.

Make no mistake, Cerrone definitely had his moments in the bout, landing a steady number of leg and body kicks and tagging Varner with his left jab. Cerrone very well might be the new champion were he not on the wrong side of the fight clock in round two. Renowned for his very tricky submissions from his guard, Cerrone cinched in a very tight triangle choke. It looked like huge trouble for Varner until he was saved by the horn at the conclusion of the round.

One thing that gave Cerrone trouble all night were Varner’s takedowns, which the former collegiate wrestler seemed to secure at will. While Varner seemed close to finishing the fight in the third round, and whacked Cerrone with a crisp high kick in the fourth round, Cerrone started coming on very aggressively in the fourth and fifth as Varner seemed to slow down and become hesitant. Even with the bout halted prematurely, Cerrone was gracious.

“My hat’s off to him, he did a great job,” Cerrone said. “Hopefully he’ll give me another shot at the belt.”
Varner, who is now 16-2 with two No Contests, promised Cerrone they will do it again.

“We’re going to do this again, as soon as I get cleared again from the athletic commission,” Varner said. “And I will not disappoint.”

In other WEC action on Sunday:

Jens Pulver vs. Urijah Faber
Different fight, different strategies, same result. Pulver, content to engage in a boxing match during his first meeting with Faber, tried to do more roughhousing in the clinch this time around. While that brutish blueprint worked for Mike Thomas Brown months ago against Faber, it did not work for Pulver. Lil’ Evil threw Faber to the canvas seconds into the affair, but Faber immediately popped to his feet and came up swinging and throwing high kicks. As the fighters met in the center, Faber landed a wicked left hook to the body that stunned and stopped Pulver dead in his tracks. With Pulver hunched over and then dropping to his knees in pain, Faber let loose a hail of punches. But rather than keep free-swinging away – and perhaps risk reinjuring the right hand that he hurt last time around against Pulver – Faber simply seized the opportunity to slap on a guillotine choke, forcing Pulver to tap at 1:43 of round one.

Faber, who was showered with the loudest cheers of the evening by his fellow Californians, pronounced himself fit to rematch Brown for the WEC featherweight title – assuming Brown can survive his March matchup with Leonard Garcia.

“I think I made a statement,” Faber said, well aware that Brown was sitting cageside. “There’s no secret I ‘m going to try to get that rematch. I want that belt, man. Give me my belt!”

Then, in a very classy move, Faber reiterated his respect and admiration for Pulver, who endured dramatic changes and adversity while training for this fight – including the death of good friend Justin Eilers, the birth of a son and a move out west to train with another camp.

Pulver was emotional afterward and the MMA legend, who has now lost five of his past six fights, addressed his future plans.

“I’m starting to wonder that myself,” Pulver said. “It hurts… Right now I’m just feeling like a really old 34 years old. But I’m not done.”

Mike Campbell vs. Danillo Villefort
This fight only lasted 3 minutes and 53 seconds, but pretty much every damn second of that time was thrilling. Both fighters had their moments standing, with Villefort landing some effective leg kicks and a solid right hand and Campbell knocking Villefort down twice with punches. Each time, Campbell would follow Villefort to the canvas, where Villefort secured guard and quickly sought to exploit Campbell on the ground. Campbell escaped a deep kneebar and an armbar but later in the round Villefort took his back, sunk in both hooks and wailed away on his head, forcing a referee stoppage at 3:53 of round one.

Rolando Perez vs. Jose Aldo
He has said he wants to be better than Anderson Silva someday. And no one has been able to make a liar of Jose Aldo so far. The dynamic, ultra-aggressive Brazilian served notice in San Diego that he is ready for the cream of the crop in the featherweight division after finishing yet another opponent in impressive fashion. Rolando Perez took this fight on short notice as a replacement for multiple-time Mundials champion Fredson Paixao and, as a San Diegan, had the amped-up home crowd behind him. But Perez and the energy of the crowd were no match for Aldo’s brutal leg kicks – which pound-for-pound may be among the hardest such kicks in all of MMA. In the bout’s first four minutes, Aldo unleashed nine kicks to Perez’s lead left leg – nearly all of them damaging. You could see red marks and bruises already starting to form and any sensible fighter had to think twice about stepping fully into his punches after being kicked so hard by a former semi-professional soccer player from Brazil.

With Perez preoccupied and having to worry about leg kicks, the speedy Aldo went upstairs with one-two combinations, opening a cut on the bridge of Perez’ nose. Blood across his face, Perez gamely threw a left hand at Aldo, who answered with a flying knee to the face that rocked Perez and sent him to the canvas. Aldo jumped on top of him, delivered three clean shots and the ref had seen enough at 4:15 of round one.

But Aldo’s theatrics didn’t stop there. With Perez still lying on the canvas trying to regain his wits, Aldo immediately ran out of the cage and deep into the stands. He found a few fans and leaned up against them as the cameras kept rolling.

“I’m just trying to make the crowd happy,” Aldo explained afterward.

Who do you want next?

“I’ll fight anyone,” he said.

Anthony Njokuani vs. Ben “Smooth” Henderson
Coming into this bout, the last thing that Njokuani – an unbeaten kickboxer – wanted was for a grappling war with Henderson to break out. But that is exactly the predicament Njokuani found himself in early in round one when Henderson, a Troy Polamalu look-alike, took him down and then hunted for a rear naked choke from his back. To the surprise of many, Njokuani escaped from the rear naked choke position on three different occasions in round one and even secured an armbar that threatened to end the fight. Henderson escaped the armbar and continued his ground assault, taking Njokuani down and never allowing the Nigerian to return to the center of the cage and get the kind of distance needed to be effective with his strikes.

At the start of round two, Njokuani fired a right hand and a kick – and Henderson took advantage of his opponent being on one foot to score a single-leg trip takedown. With Njokuani on his back, Henderson punched away on top. When Njokuani attempted to explode free, Henderson exploited him in the ensuing scramble by locking in a tight guillotine choke, winning the tap at 42 seconds of round two.

Edgar Garcia vs. Hiromitsu Miura
How do you make a name for yourself in the fight business? Do what Edgar Garcia did Sunday: Knock out a top contender. Garcia, a relatively little-known product of Yuma, Ariz., pulled the evening’s biggest upset on the strength of a booming left hook counter that dropped Miura seconds into the bout. The Japanese fighter needed a few seconds to clear his head; Garcia did not afford him that recovery time and instead pounced on the fallen fighter and unloaded some big right hands that only further disoriented Miura. Unable to trap Garcia in his guard, to buy some precious recovery time, Miura made a last-ditch effort at a kneebar. Garcia slipped out with ease and kept firing heavy-handed bombs, forcing a referee stoppage at 1:18 of round one.

“I told everybody I was going to come in and go for the knockout and hopefully that’s knockout of the night,” said Garcia, an unbeaten training partner of The Ultimate Fighter season 8 winner Efrain Escudero. “I’m going to keep striking, that’s my thing, the striking. People think it’s wrestling … I’m ready to go. Anybody else (wants some), come on, I’m ready.”

Ian McCall vs. Dominick Cruz
Cruz put a certified beating on McCall in this one, cracking him with left hooks, stunning him with high kicks, battering him with 1-2 combinations – and McCall simply and inexplicably kept coming back for more. In the span of 15 minutes, Cruz absolutely annihilated McCall with the MMA equivalent of “death by a thousand cuts.” A lesser man would have probably not survived Cruz’ non-stop assault, though McCall will surely be feeling the effects of Sunday’s thrashing for days to come. Cruz, who was born in San Diego and was cheered wildly by the locals, took advantage of his lankier, taller frame by abusing McCall from the outside and then playing matador whenever McCall tried to fire back.

What is there to say about the rounds? In round one Cruz seemed to land at will with one, two and three-punch combinations. McCall’s best moment of the round came with a takedown, but Cruz immediately popped to his feet and resumed his domination. In round two it was more of the same, with McCall bleeding from his left eye and absorbing four left high kicks to the head.

By round three, after failing to get a takedown and then getting whacked with a right hand, McCall let his frustration show by yelling an expletive in the center of the cage. Anyone watching had to admire McCall’s gameness, but in the end the judges awarded a unanimous decision to Cruz, who is now 12-1, with his only loss coming to former featherweight champion Urijah Faber.

Frank Gomez vs. Scott Jorgensen
Jorgensen jumped on Gomez early, scoring a takedown in the opening seconds and then headhunting for a guillotine choke. Eventually, in a scramble, Jorgensen locked in the choke and Gomez tapped out at 1:04 of the opening stanza. With the win Jorgensen, a teammate of Urijah Faber’s, pushed his record to 6-2 (2-1 in the WEC).

Jesse Lennox vs. Blas Avena
It was clear, from the moment each fighter stepped into the cage, that there was bad blood simmering beneath the surface. The welterweights produced the evening’s most intense and prolonged staredown in the cage and wasted no time mixing it up once the bout commenced. Avena struck first, scoring a trip takedown from the clinch and immediately securing side control. It was optimal position for Avena, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt who possesses a wicked guillotine choke, but Lennox managed to reverse the position and put Avena on his back. Lennox transitioned to side control, occasionally landing punches, and then achieved mount position with about one minute left in the round. Lennox landed some decent shots on top, and then transitioned to an armbar. Avena escaped, jumped to his feet and started raining down punches on Lennox (most of them missing their mark, however). At the conclusion of the round, both men seemed to be breathing hard – but it was Lennox who recovered quickly. Sensing Avena was battling fatigue, Lennox jumped on him with combinations, snapping Avena’s head back in the process. A double dose of hard left hands wobbled Avena, who tried to retreat against the cage. With Avena reeling and covering up, Lennox fired away with one powerful right hand after another until the referee halted the action only 41 seconds into the round, declaring Lennox the winner by TKO.

“Welcome to the WEC!” Lennox exalted as he jumped around in the cage.

“I knew I had it,” Lennox said during the post-fight interview. “You can just look into somebody’s eyes and know. I knew.”

Seth Dikun vs. Charlie Valencia
Valencia came into this fight having lost three of his past four and he desperately needed a win. His performance against Dikun showed why no one should write the nine-year veteran off just yet. Valencia dominated for most of the fight with a diverse attack. He took Dikun down several times – including on one occasion in the first round when he seemed to do his best Matt Hughes impersonation – hoisting Dikun up with a double-leg takedown and then walking him about the cage, building suspense until he finally slammed Dikun to the ground.

Valencia repeatedly hit Dikun with thumping leg kicks and an occasional high kick that didn’t land clean but scored with the judges. Valencia also landed the harder punches, and Dikun just didn’t seem to have all that much pop on his blows, at least not enough to faze Valencia.

In round two it was more of the same as Valencia again scored a double-leg takedown. Dikun showed some craftiness with his closed guard, fishing for an oma plata, a triangle and a heel hook – though Valencia ably defended each attack and never seemed in serious danger. In the last 45 seconds of the round Dikun had his best opportunity of the bout. After a scramble Valencia stood up and Dikun followed him up, taking his back with one hook in. But again Valencia slipped out and clearly won the round with superior punching, kicking and Octagon control.

In the final stanza, a Valencia kick to the rib area produced a loud “whack” and he soon followed it up with a hard right – his best punch of the night. Dikun was game until Valencia delivered another kick to his rib area, causing Dikun to double over in pain. Dikun retreated as Valencia stormed toward him and began throwing punches in bunches. Valencia could not land a big shot so he again took Dikun down with a double leg. The match ended with Valencia mounted on top of Dikun, dropping three hard elbows. In the end, the judges awarded Valencia a unanimous 30-27 decision.