In the final round of a grueling five-round bout, Cerrone grazed the right eye of a grounded Varner with an inadvertent illegal knee strike that left him unable to continue in the WEC 38 main event Sunday at the San Diego Sports Arena in San Diego, Calif. Under California State Athletic Commission rules, the judges were left to decide the winner, and they awarded Varner a split decision.
Two judges scored it 49-46 for Varner, the third 48-47 for Cerrone. Post-fight boos from unsatisfied fans greeted the champion.
“Go ahead. [Expletive] boo me,” Varner said. “I’m better than that. We’re going to do this again. I will not disappoint.”
For four full rounds and part of the fifth, Varner (16-2, 2 NC) and Cerrone went at one another with the kind of reckless abandon dedicated mixed martial arts fans crave. Varner relied on his boxing and wrestling skills; his challenger held his own standing and threatened often from his back.
The champion staked his claim to the bout early, as he clipped Cerrone (9-1, 1 NC) with a left hook in the opening period, pushed for a quick takedown and assaulted him with some brutal ground-and-pound. Cerrone, a product of the Jackson’s Submission Fighting camp, eventually scrambled to his feet and finished the round walking down Varner. That became a familiar sight as the battle progressed.
Cerrone asserted himself in the second round, as he nailed Varner’s exposed midsection with kicks. Varner scored with a pair of takedowns but wound up locked inside a triangle choke from the long-legged Cerrone as the period drew to a close. Had more time been left on the clock, the champion might have been in real trouble.
Rounds three and four were marked by punches and scrambles, as Varner opened a cut near Cerrone’s left eye with a blistering right hand in the third. Noticeably bothered by the cut and swelling to his other eye, Cerrone still came forward, almost robotic in his pursuit. Varner finished both rounds with strong takedowns.
A little less than two minutes into the fifth round, Cerrone’s knee brought an abrupt end to the featured attraction at WEC 38. Once Varner indicated to the ringside physician he could no longer see clearly, the bout was sent to the judges. Cerrone, his face marked by intense battle, was as disappointed as anyone with how the fight ended.
“I wish I could have gone harder,” he said. “My hat’s off to the guy. Hopefully, he’ll give me another shot. If not, I’ll go to the back [of the line] and work my way up. Maybe we can run it back someday.”
The two traded blows during the opening minute, but a Faber left hook to the body changed the tone of the bout instantly. Pulver winced in noticeable pain and backpedaled against the cage. Faber sensed the end was near and pounced on the wounded veteran, buzzing him with punches before he locked in a seated guillotine choke for the tapout. All told, the fight lasted 1:34.
“I worked on my left for six months straight,” Faber said, “and it paid off tonight.”
Faber (22-2) rebounded nicely from his technical knockout defeat to Mike Thomas Brown three months ago and positioned himself for another run at the 145-pound crown. Brown will defend the belt against Leonard Garcia in March; Faber, who has won 14 of 15 fights, figures to draw the victor.
“I think I made a statement,” Faber said. “There’s no secret that I’m going to try my best to get that rematch [with Brown]. I want that belt.”
The 34-year-old Pulver (22-11-1) -- donning a T-shirt dedicated to late friend Justin Eilers, who was the victim of a fatal shooting on Christmas Day -- was reduced to tears afterwards. The former UFC lightweight titleholder has lost three straight fights for the first time in his career, and questions have begun to swirl about his future in the sport.
“It meant the world to me to come out here and fight,” Pulver said. “I’m starting to wonder [if I’m still relevant] myself. It hurts. I love to fight. This is what I do. Right now, I’m feeling like a really old 34-year-old man. [Expletive] that. I’m not done.”
In a welterweight showdown pairing two WEC debutants, Danillo Villefort withstood the strength of retired power lifter Mike Campbell and took care of business once he pushed the fight to the ground.
Based out of American Top Team, Villefort (9-2) threw Campbell to his back with a hip toss, landed in side control and deftly moved to full mount. The previously undefeated Campbell (4-1) soon surrendered his back to the brash former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, and his fate was sealed. Villefort battered him with unanswered strikes from behind and forced the stoppage 3:53 into round one.
“I feel great,” Villefort said. “I’m not hear to [expletive] around. I came here to fight for the belt.”
World-ranked featherweight contender Jose Aldo showed off every weapon in his lethal stand-up arsenal, as he swarmed WEC rookie Rolando Perez with first-round strikes.
Aldo (13-1) controlled the match from the outset, as he belted Perez with everything from a spinning back kick and flying knee to stiff jabs and thudding leg kicks. The 24-year-old Perez (4-2-1) was resolute under the WEC’s bright lights, but he threw a lazy, lunging jab that led to the end of his night. Aldo countered with a wicked knee that put Perez on his rear end, and he finished him with punches on the ground 4:15 into the opening period.
Perhaps the WEC’s most promising young fighter, Aldo bolted out of the cage after the referee saved Perez from further punishment, scaled the stairs at the San Diego Sports Arena and joined surprised fans for an impromptu post-fight celebration.
“I was just trying to make the crowd happy,” Aldo said. “One forty five is one of the toughest divisions in the world. There are a lot of tough people. I’m ready to face anyone.”
Henderson subs Njokuani; Garcia gets quick win in prelim action
Benson Henderson improved to 8-1 with a guillotine choke submission of Anthony Njokuani 42 seconds into round two of their lightweight preliminary bout.
Fighting out of The Lab in Glendale, Ariz., Henderson took Njokuani’s back multiple times in the opening round but could not finish him. In the second, Henderson ducked a head kick and tripped his opponent to the mat. The finish came soon after, as Njokuani (9-2) reversed but got caught in the fight-ending choke.
Undefeated prospect Edgar Garcia did in roughly one minute what it took WEC welterweight champion Carlos Condit nearly four rounds to do in a title defense last August; he stopped Hiromitsu Miura.
The 24-year-old Garcia (7-0), of Yuma, Ariz., stunned Miura with a left hook and a glancing right. Miura (9-6) dropped, and Garcia continued the assault on the ground until referee Jason Herzog intervened at 1:18.
Dominic Cruz defeated a gusty Ian McCall via unanimous decision, 30-27 on all three cards.
The fight was all Cruz (12-1), whose only loss came at the hands of Faber in March 2007. He has now won three straight, and his victory over McCall featured an impressive stand-up game.
After drilling McCall (7-2) with a left hook, Cruz countered a flurry with a punch that spun around his opponent in the first period. More combinations followed throughout the fight, but a remarkably resilient McCall kept moving forward. Cruz kept landing, too.
The third round was closer, but with the punishment Cruz dealt out, there was no question about the decision.
In bantamweight action, Scott Jorgensen made short work of Frank Gomez. The 26-year-old from Boise, Idaho, locked up a guillotine choke, and Gomez (5-1) tapped out at 1:09 for the first loss of his career. Jorgensen (6-2) has rattled off back-to-back wins.
Miletich Martial Arts representative Jesse Lennox knocked out Blas Avena just 41 seconds into the second period.
A 26-year-old welterweight who has lost only once, Lennox (10-1) gave up a takedown in the first round but reversed and advanced to the mount. He lost the position when he missed an armbar attempt, but he still had the edge during the stanza.
In the second, he came out firing on Avena (5-3). A left hook-right knee combination from Lennox dropped Avena against the cage, and referee Josh Rosenthal intervened after Lennox followed up with a right hand.
In the night’s opening bout, Charlie Valencia outworked Seth Dikun to earn a unanimous decision, 30-27 on all three cards.
Valencia (10-5), 34, fighting out of Ontario, Calif., entered the bantamweight match having lost two straight. He got the better of the stand-up exchanges throughout and also scored multiple slams on the 28-year-old Dikun (6-3), who was debuting in the WEC.
After landing an overhand right in the third round, Valencia hurt Dikun with a pair of leg kicks and floored him with a body kick. Dikun survived, but Valencia closed out the period with ground-and-pound and sealed the win.
Greg Savage and Joe Hall contributed to this report.