With WEC 53 -- the first major MMA event to be held in Glendale, Arizona -- only six days away, the organization's major players are starting to make their descent down into the desert. On Thursday morning, WEC Lightweight Champion and Glendale resident Benson Henderson, and WEC Founder and General Manager Reed Harris, visited with the players of the Phoenix Coyotes. Captain Shane Doan and enforcer Paul Bissonnette presented the pair with their own official team jerseys. In return, the Coyotes twosome was given a set of UFC mixed marital arts gloves, sweatshirts, and other miscellaneous merchandise.
It was a light-hearted affair, yet as one should expect when the toughest athletes in all of sport get together, somehow both Doaner and Biz ended up receiving personal demonstrations of Henderson's trademark guillotine submission. If Bissonnette ends up putting someone to sleep on the ice, we know the culprit.
Hockey and MMA may seem like an odd pairing, but in hearing Harris discuss his affinity and respect for the sport, one starts to understand the correlation.
"I'm not going to mess with them. Every time we go to a city that's got a hockey team, I want to meet these guys." He continued, "Listen, hockey players are some of the toughest dudes in the world, believe me, I know that. I'd say of all the [sports] other than MMA, hockey's probably number two [in toughness]."
Henderson echoed Harris' sentiments.
"Those boys are big, and fast, and mean, and violent, and I like it a lot. It's awesome to actually be able to meet them."
While Jobing.com Arena may be used to the bright lights and attention that the Phoenix Coyotes provide, next Thursday will bring entirely different world to Westgate.
The WEC (World Extreme Cagefighting) is a mixed martial arts organization that has served as the little brother to the UFC for years. Owned by the same corporation -- Zuffa LLC -- the WEC has long provided an outlet for the organization's lower weight classes to be showcased.
Earlier in the year, the WEC combined with Amp Energy to create the Hometown Takedown Contest. Fans were given a choice between 30 cities, and were asked to vote for the city they would most like to hold the next major WEC event. Arizona has always held an extremely prevalent hardcore MMA base, and the Phoenix-faithful did their duty.
"Phoenix, Glendale won the contest, so that's why we're here at Jobing. We couldn't be happier. We got a huge response from the fans. We're hoping to have a really good turnout at the event" said Harris.
For hometown hero Benson Henderson, being given the opportunity to defend his belt in front of his friends and family is the chance of a lifetime.
"I'm super stoked to be honest. Zuffa didn't give Phoenix a WEC event. Zuffa didn't give us a UFC event. We went out there and we earned it. All the Phoenix fans, they went out there and they voted. They earned it." He continued, "I think it's awesome. Dana White has gone on record saying, if we sell this one out, we do a good job, we're going to bring down a UFC event.
"So it's a huge opportunity for Phoenix." Henderson finished, "I'm excited for the city of Phoenix. I'm excited for myself. It's great fighting in front of my hometown crowd. Having people cheer for you is always nice, instead of booing you."
This factor alone would be enough to provide a strong sense of urgency to the fights. However, in late October, news of a game-changer broke though the MMA world.
It was announced that the two Zuffa owned organizations -- UFC and WEC -- would be merging in early 2011. The stakes were raised for WEC 53 immediately. Already the last event of the year, WEC 53 would now become the final WEC event in the organization's history.
Reed Harris explained the details.
"This is our last event. We are, after this point, merging with the UFC. Ben Henderson is fighting Anthony Pettis on Thursday night. The winner of that fight will then go to the UFC and fight the winner of the Gray Maynard/Frankie Edgar fight for the World Championship of the UFC."
With the fight now holding such far-reaching implications, it would be easy to assume that Henderson has somehow lost himself in the hype. However, the always level-headed Phoenician is confident it will not be an issue.
"Every fight is a big deal fight. Every fight is even more pressure than the fight before that one. So this is just the next stage, the next fight," the MMA Lab product said.
Despite his normally reserved demeanor, focus burned in the eyes of Henderson as he discussed his plans for Thursday night.
"I'm going to go out there and get my hand raised. Whatever it takes. Whatever that entails. If it's going out there and fighting 25 minutes, hard - that's awesome. If it's going out there and knocking him out - that's awesome too. If it's going out there and he slips on a banana peel, I'll take that also. It doesn't matter." He concluded, "I'm going to go out there and get my hand raised by whatever means necessary."
WEC 53 takes place December 16th, at Jobing.com Arena. Also featured on the card is a title bout between Scott Jorgensen and Dominick Cruz for the first ever UFC Bantamweight Championship, and a lightweight tilt between the Chris Horodecki and Donald Cerrone.