Still a Score to Settle

WEC rematch between bantamweights Cruz, Benavidez has a tough act to follow

World Extreme Cagefighting has stood in the shadow of the Ultimate Fighting Championship since Zuffa, which owns the UFC, purchased the WEC in 2006. But the WEC has started to stand out on its own this year, and the organization, which focuses on lighter weight classes, will look to further grow its reputation at WEC 50. The Aug. 18 card in the Pearl at the Palms will be headlined by a rematch between Joseph Benavidez and newly crowned bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz.

Cruz and Benavidez met at WEC 42 last August in an action-packed fight that ended with Cruz handing Benavidez his first loss and the bout receiving the Fight of the Night award. The rematch features higher stakes as Cruz will defend the bantamweight title for the first time since defeating Brian Bowles on March 6. And what better opponent than one who wants to avenge his lone loss?

“I’m very excited to have my first title shot be against the guy who gave me my only loss,” Benavidez says. “The fact that I get to do both in one night is a dream come true.”

Since the defeat, Benavidez (12-1) refocused his training and scored two resounding victories: a technical knockout of Rani Yahya on Dec. 19 and a dominating performance against former bantamweight champion Miguel Torres, who was choked out in the second round on the same night when Cruz won his title.

“I had a much different philosophy about training [before losing],” Benavidez says. “I wouldn’t study any tape and thought I could just beat people with my instincts.” The 26-year-old now prepares specifically for each opponent and looks for weaknesses to exploit. “I’m doing everything different now,” he says. “You can see the difference in my last two fights, which I feel were my most impressive. I became a different fighter.”

Cruz, 24, knows that Benavidez will come into the cage well prepared for their rematch.

“What I see this time around is Benavidez not underestimating me,” Cruz says. “When we first fought he assumed I couldn’t wrestle at his caliber and I wasn’t as athletic as him. It was kind of foolish and I think that’s why I won the fight. I’m sure he will be more than ready for me this time.”

Cruz (15-1) began his mixed martial arts career by winning nine consecutive fights before dropping his WEC debut against Urijah Faber in a featherweight bout in March 2007. Realizing that 145 pounds wasn’t a comfortable fit for him, Cruz dropped to the 135-pound division and has reeled off six straight wins while showcasing his hyperactive style, which combines sound footwork with solid wrestling skills.

“I kind of pieced [my style] together,” Cruz says. “I didn’t start out boxing or kickboxing. My striking came from a wrestling base. You can’t call it anything but MMA fighting.”

Benavidez echoes the sentiments of many in the MMA world. “I can’t think too much about what Cruz may do,” the former high school wrestling champion says. “He’s already a confusing fighter. He’s a freaking jigsaw puzzle that moves around like nobody else.”

Although they differ on who will come out on top in the rematch, both fighters believe their bout will be the highlight of the card. “It will definitely be the fight of the night,” Benavidez says. “Neither of us have ever been in a boring fight, and we’ll be coming out with new tricks.”

Says Cruz: “If it goes five rounds there’s just no way we won’t win the award; I can almost guarantee it. The fans are in for a treat whether the fight ends early or goes the distance.”

WEC 50 also will have three Las Vegas-based fighters: Shane Roller, Anthony Njokuani and Fredson Paixao. Njokuani (13-3) will face WEC newcomer Maciej Jewtuszko in a lightweight bout; Paixao (9-3) will face Bryan Caraway (14-4) in a featherweight bout, and Roller (8-2) will be featured in the main undercard event against fellow lightweight Anthony Pettis (9-1).