Saturday, Oct. 10, 2009 | 10:15 p.m.
With Donald Cerrone twisting his arm into contortions that surely had mixed martial arts fans across the country covering their eyes, Ben Henderson looked directly at referee Kerry Hatley and gave him a simple gesture to let him know he was doing fine.
He gave him a thumbs up.
Henderson escaped nearly every submission in the book Saturday night en route to a unanimous decision win over Cerrone in their WEC interim lightweight championship fight at the AT&:T Center in San Antonio.
While the former collegiate wrestler was able to neutralize his opponent’s striking by continually taking him down throughout the fight, Cerrone was a busy fighter from the bottom position, catching Henderson in chokes, knee locks and kimuras.
Somehow, Henderson escaped each time.
“My hat’s off to him. He’s a great, great guy,” Henderson said. “That was an absolute war, it was exactly what I wanted to coming in to this fight.
“Now I never want to do it again.”
The fight had been originally scheduled for Oct. 2 in Youngstown, Ohio, but had to be postponed due to an injury Henderson suffered in training camp. After watching him escape one compromising position after another, it’s hard to believe the well-conditioned fighter is even capable of being injured.
Henderson was able to score points by exposing Cerrone’s takedown defense in the earlier rounds and applying pressure when he got him to the ground.
The most common sight during the five rounds was Cerrone lying with his back to the canvas with Henderson raining down strikes from a standing position.
It was those strikes that allowed Henderson to pull slightly ahead on the scorecards, as all three judges scored the contest 48-47.
The win puts Henderson in line to fight the currently injured lightweight champion, Jamie Varner. Varner has been sidelined since January after breaking his hand in a split decision win over Cerrone.
“Jamie Varner, we’ve got a date” Henderson said. “Phoenix, Arizona. Let’s do it.”
Henderson was a 3-to-1 underdog entering Saturday night and many fans were already anticipating a rematch between Cerrone and Varner.
The potential matchup already had a lot of hype surrounding it after the fighters’ first meeting ended early when Cerrone caught Varner with an illegal knee in the fourth round.
Also adding fuel to the fire remains the simple fact that the two have been very open on their dislike of one another.
Even when called in to the cage after Saturday’s fight to talk about Henderson, Varner couldn’t help himself from addressing Cerrone.
“Donald Cerrone once again proved he’s a tough dude,” Varner said. “Donald, I don’t like you. But you’re one of the toughest dudes I’ve ever seen, ever met. You’re a fighter’s fighter.”
Varner added that he’d be ready to face Henderson as early as December, which given the nasty black eye he suffered from a Cerrone kick and the rest of the wear-and-tear of Saturday night seems too soon.
Brett Okamoto can be reached at 948-7817 or [email protected].