WEC busting out of its cage

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Despite breaking both hands early in the fight,

Despite breaking both hands early in the fight, Urijah Faber, right, lasted five rounds but lost a unanimous decision to then-featherweight champion Mike Brown at WEC 41. (June 7, 2009) Photo Credit: WEC photo

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Mark La Monica Mark La Monica

Mark La Monica is the deputy sports editor for cross media at Newsday and writes about mixed martial

World Extreme Cagefighting has problems. Good problems. The types of problems a company wants to have one year after removing half of its employees from the payroll.

By employees, of course, we mean mixed martial artists.

Fewer fighters on the roster, but more marketable stars and not enough cards yet to showcase them all. We all should have such "problems."

Fourteen months after shutting down the heavier weight classes to focus on 155-pounders or lower, the WEC has transformed itself from the other fight promotion owned by Zuffa, parent company of UFC, to a league that can stand strongly and proudly on its own two legs.

"So now instead of the little sister, we're the hot sister that everybody wants to go out with," WEC general manager Reed Harris said.

Again, that's a good problem. Such as needing two hands to count the star-power fighters. Such as making the jump from free telecasts on Versus to $44.95 pay-per-view broadcasts.

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Those two "problems" were on display last night as people not at ARCO Arena in Sacramento finally had to shell out some bucks to watch a WEC fight. On the card were six of the promotion's biggest names, including featherweight champion Jose Aldo in his first title defense against former champ Urijah Faber. Ben Henderson defended his lightweight title against Donald Cerrone in a rematch of the 2009 fight of the year. Mike Brown battled Manny Gamburyan.

That we confidently printed these names without explanatory "Who are they?" phrases says enough about the WEC's growth in the past year. You can even make the case that they have supplanted Strikeforce as the No. 2 MMA promotion behind the undisputed kings - UFC.

"It went from being two stars, Miguel [Torres] and Faber" said Brown, a former featherweight champion. "Now there's eight or nine."

Faber was once the face of the WEC. Now he's a face in the WEC.

A year ago, it was Faber or nothing. Sort of like TV ratings when Tiger Woods is in contention on a Sunday compared with when he's not.

"People say that there's a little bit of chaos going on now, but I think it's a fantastic thing that's going on," WEC matchmaker Sean Shelby said. "We're in a great position. We could just have one guy, two guys maybe. We have probably six or seven guys that you can legitimately make an argument and throw into a championship fight."

This is the classic "less is more" principle. With just three divisions - lightweight (155 pounds), featherweight (145) and bantamweight (135) - WEC can develop stars quicker than other promotions. WEC has fewer shows per year than UFC or Strikeforce, so every bout matters.

WEC keeps growing its profile beyond the realm of hardcore MMA fans. That was Faber you saw this past week on the Hollywood tabloid show "Extra" putting Mario Lopez in a kimura. That was the Aldo-Faber prefight "Countdown" show you saw this past week on MTV2, a network that has no other connection to the fight league.

"We only really started focusing on the lightweight fighters just over a year ago, and look where we're at," Harris said. "We are the home of the best lightweight fighters in the world. We have eight or nine guys in the top 10 of some of these divisions in our company. If you look at that in terms of a business, the growth has been exponential for us."

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