Celebrating the WEC and the bittersweet end of an era

WEC logo from the pre-Zuffa days

Thursday night’s World Extreme Cagefighting 53 event represents the culmination of a lot of hard work by co-founder and General Manager Reed Harris and company.

Since its purchase by Zuffa — parent company of the UFC — in late 2006, the organization has produced a slew of great shows and memorable fights and, perhaps most importantly, given featherweights and bantamweights a place to really shine for the first time on U.S. soil. But the WEC’s place in MMA history goes well beyond helping the likes of Urijah Faber, Miguel Torres, Jose Aldo, and others become stars in the sport.

Ever since the first WEC show on June 30, 2001, the promotion has played a critical role in helping build up some of MMA’s best and giving those that once reached the pinnacle a chance to work their way back up to the top. That first event saw young prospects like Seth Petruzelli and Leonard Garcia pay their dues before moving up to compete in the UFC, while giving fans another chance to see MMA pioneer and UFC legend Dan Severn continue his career.

From there, the WEC continued to grow and give dedicated fans a place to enjoy quality MMA action at a time when few would come near it, still wary of the “human cockfighting” label that persisted from the detractors of the first UFC shows. During a recent episode of Inside MMA on HDNet, Harris was quick to credit the Tachi Palace Hotel and Casino for giving them a home to run their shows. MMA wasn’t legal in California at the time, so the WEC made due on a sovereign Native American land.

Alex Stiebling (L) defeated Jason Guida (R) at WEC 22: The Hitman, a tribue to MMAWeekly's Ryan Bennett. (Photo courtesy of Sherdog.com)

It would be impossible to list all of the big name fighters that appeared in the WEC, with veterans of the UFC, Strikeforce, PRIDE, and any promotion in between stepping into their cage at some point. Faber, Nick and Nate Diaz, Mike Swick, Frank Shamrock, Chris Lytle, Hermes Franca, the late Justin Eilers, Rich Crunkilton, Rob McCullough, Shonie Carter, Scott Smith, Mike Pyle, Jeff Curran … and that’s just a few.

I won’t claim to have followed MMA from day one. Yeah, I’d heard of it, but it wasn’t until I picked up the UFC 40 DVD expecting that WWE guy Ken Shamrock to beat up some dude named Tito Ortiz that I really jumped in head first. How little I knew back then. Of course, following MMA then wasn’t anywhere as easy as it is now. Like many fans before me, I relied on the Internet.

But the UFC only held a pay-per-view event every other month or so, and between that and PRIDE, there was a gap that the WEC helped to fill. I’ll never forget that the WEC gave me a chance to read about the exploits of Lytle, one of my favorite fighters, when he wasn’t busy fighting the likes of Robbie Lawler or Karo Parisyan in the UFC.

And, of course, I’ll remember listening to MMAWeekly Radio with then-host Ryan Bennett, doing his show on location at the WEC and interviewing some of the fighters. Without Bennett’s tireless dedication to covering MMA, I doubt I’d be the fan I am today, and the WEC paid a fitting tribute to the guy known as “The Hitman” with WEC 22 in July 2006, an event for Bennett’s memorial fund after he perished in a tragic car accident.

It’s been great to see the WEC grow since the Zuffa purchase, gaining national television exposure and giving the smaller weight classes the credit they deserve, and Tachi Palace Fights has helped keep the tradition of great fights in Lemoore, Calif., alive and well. And when WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson defends his belt against Anthony Pettis and bantamweight titleholder Dominick Cruz takes on Scott Jorgensen, they’ll show why they deserve to fight under the UFC banner. Nevertheless, the WEC’s left an important mark on the sport over the entire decade, and for that, we as fans would like to say, “Thank you.”

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