Coming up through the Roufusport system in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis made his name as striker, jumping off cage walls and landing his shots.
One of MMA’s flashiest and most creative kickers, Pettis has always been known for his Taekwondo maneuvers and kickboxing acumen. But it’s been more than two years since “Showtime” has scored a knockout, and there’s no better occasion to amend that trend than Saturday, March 14, at UFC 185, when Pettis attempts his second title defense, this time against Rafael Dos Anjos.
For Pettis, the knockout was seemingly destined to be his calling card, and after a rocky start to his UFC career, he rattled off a pair of impressive KO finishes against Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone. Yet since the vicious liver kick he unleashed against Cerrone in January 2013, Pettis has been unable to land a knockout blow.
But it’s not as if he isn’t finishing fights…
Earning the UFC title in August 2013 with a first-round armbar of Benson Henderson, Pettis took 15 months off to recuperate from multiple injuries and surgeries, before submitting Gilbert Melendez in December 2014 with a second round guillotine choke. And while Pettis’ evolution into a ground fighter has led him to four-consecutive finishes, it is only out of necessity that Pettis has relied on his jiu jitsu and grappling.
Dating back to his UFC debut in June 2011, Pettis was touted as the next big thing in the Octagon. Having claimed the WEC title in the promotion’s final event, Pettis took an ill-advised fight with ground-and-pounder Clay Guida rather than wait for his guaranteed title shot during the Frankie Edgar/Gray Maynard re-match era.
Losing to Guida via unanimous decision, Pettis was lambasted for his lack of takedown defense. And suddenly, everyone in the lightweight division claimed to have Pettis’ game all figured out.
Rush in on “Showtime,” get in close, don’t allow him to get off his nasty kicks, and when his back is against the wall, take him down, and keep him there.
With his wrestling credentials questioned, Pettis climbed back up the lightweight rankings, first scoring a split decision over Jeremy Stephens, then taking out Joe Lauzon with a picture-perfect head kick. Then came the knockout of Cerrone, and after a featherweight matchup against Jose Aldo never materialized, combined with T.J. Grant’s concussion issues, Pettis secured a date for the belt against Henderson.
Relying on the blueprint from the Guida fight, Henderson did his best to close the distance during the brief affair. Henderson pushed Pettis up against the cage and kneed away at Pettis’ thighs. But with an improved takedown defense, Pettis thwarted Henderson’s initial rush and unloaded a trio of thunderous kicks to the body.
Weakened by the body blows, Henderson moved in close again, sending the fight to the ground; however, this time, Pettis let his jiu jitsu do the talking, transitioning into the armbar before Henderson verbally tapped out in the first round.
Next up was Melendez, a scrappy brawler with excellent wrestling credentials.
Convinced that he could succeed where Henderson failed, Melendez went right at Pettis at UFC 181. Moving in close, Melendez backed Pettis against the cage wall and softened the champ’s legs up with some knees to the thigh before landing a takedown. But Pettis demonstrated improved wrestling and an advantage in strength, returning to his feet to land to land a spinning back kick to Melendez’s midsection, along with a head kick.
Still, Melendez lasted through the first frame, and when the bell for the second round sounded, the challenger went right back to work against Pettis. But Pettis was able to use his range to keep distance and land a front kick to chin, before Melendez backed him up against the fence. Again, Melendez intended to implement the Guida strategy and put Pettis on his back, but during the scramble to take the fight to the mat, Melendez exposed his neck, allowing Pettis to sink in the guillotine choke.
So with two straight submissions, where have all of Anthony Pettis’ highlight reel knockouts gone?
Clearly opposition doesn’t intend to trade with Pettis. His striking is too dangerous. But now it’s become apparent that his submission game is equally sophisticated, so will Dos Anjos elect to keep the fight standing come Saturday? And will Pettis’ grappling skills open the door for more of his trademark kickery?
One can only hope. And, regardless if the UFC 185 main event finishes on the ground or on the feet, Pettis is hunting for his fifth straight stoppage, which would put him three behind Anderson Silva’s all-time mark.
Perhaps it’s still a bit too early to start talking about breaking records, but after the decision-heavy years when Edgar and Henderson wore the lightweight strap, the Pettis era has proven to be full of excitement and finishes, so it’s about time he collected his first knockout as champion.
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