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The Curious Case of Anthony Pettis

Fightland Blog

By Jake Hughes

Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Anthony “Showtime” Pettis’ lopsided decision loss to the frighteningly game Edson “Junior” Barboza may have been overshadowed by the return of newly-minted interim light heavyweight champion Jon Jones and the fantastic first-round KO win of reigning UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, but it’s as big a story as those two aforementioned championship wins.

It’s a story of a dramatic—if not unexpected—fall from grace. Pettis, the former UFC and WEC lightweight champion, is now facing a challenging time in his MMA career—enduring a three-fight losing streak since losing his belt against Rafael dos Anjos.

After his brief title reign had been abruptly cut short, Showtime lost to Eddie Alvarez, whose smothering grappling clinic handed the Milwaukee, Wisconsin, native the first consecutive losses in his formerly near-pristine career.

You would be forgiven for thinking Pettis’ title reign was lengthier than what I give it credit for. But, the truth of the matter is that Showtime only successfully defended his belt once before losing it—against former Strikeforce titleholder Gilbert Melendez. For the bulk of that time, little over a year and a half, Pettis was unfortunate to accumulate a number of long-term injuries which hampered his progress.

Photo by Christian Petersen/Zuffa LLC

Ironically, it was that time away from the Octagon that helped build Pettis’ star. A good-looking, exhilarating fighter of Hispanic descent was gold dust for the UFC marketing machine and Showtime’s importance to the promotion’s brand couldn’t be more evident. The Showtime Kick and a run of consecutive, exciting finishes of top talents Joe Lauzon, Donald Cerrone, Benson Henderson and Melendez added credence to Pettis’ push as a star.

In 2013 and 2014, before his sole title defence against Melendez, Pettis was awarded the Certificate of Achievement by Scott Walker, the Governor of Wisconsin. He also entered a lucrative sponsorship deal with Reebok well before the present days of UFC-wide “fight kits.” To top it all off, months before his fight against Melendez, Pettis was voted to become the first ever UFC champion to appear on the cover of the Wheaties cereal box. Pettis was one of the UFC’s biggest names at the time and rightfully so.

Pettis still remains a popular figure today. But, you fear it will be a long hard road on the way back to the level of fighting and stardom he once experienced at the very least.

Showtime’s aforementioned losses to Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez were largely down to two skilled grapplers who wished to nullify Pettis’ taekwondo attack. The Brazilian dos Anjos expertly executed a gameplan that incorporated heavy pressure, pinning Pettis against the cage with some ferocious strikes mixed in with well-timed takedowns. Alvarez, on the other hand, went for a much more wrestling-centric attack where he wore on Pettis, constantly threatening the takedown while smothering the former champion against the fence.

If you could point to any historic weaknesses in the career of Pettis, it would be his susceptibility in not being able to handle a high-energy grappler. Pettis’ UFC debut, entering the Octagon as the final ever WEC lightweight champion before that organisation’s amalgamation with the UFC, saw him succumb to a tiring unanimous decision loss against Clay Guida, who took Pettis down at will and largely suffocated him on the ground.

While it always a thrilling match-up anyway, Barboza was seen as the ideal opponent for Pettis to get back to winning ways. The Brazilian’s proficiency in Muay Thai meant the fight was expected to remain on the feet which is usually the realm Pettis dominates with consummate ease.

Some of those assertions were correct. The fight did indeed stay on the feet, but Junior had his way with Pettis.

Saturday night’s fight at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas, Nevada, encapsulates the notion that “MMA Math” is tantamount to precisely nothing in the Octagon. For example, Pettis beat Donald Cerrone with supreme ease with his array of kicking techniques—with “Cowboy” Cerrone ultimately folding like a deck chair after receiving a swift kick to the liver in the first round. Cerrone, however, handily dealt with the challenge posed by Barboza back in 2014—winning via rear naked choke in the first round having dominated the action while standing beforehand.

In addition, Pettis and Cerrone trained together ahead of Saturday night’s fight. All logic will tell you that Pettis would have Barboza’s number if he beat Cerrone with such ease. But, he didn’t even get a sniff against the Brazilian and this is why MMA is such a crazily unpredictable sport. In the past, Pettis decried his former conquerors’ gameplans and refusal to engage in a striking match against him, so he asked for a game fighter who would want to fight while on the feet. Barboza was more than game—he simply dominated proceedings.

Pensive and seemingly reluctant to engage, Pettis did not appear to be the fighter of old. Barboza lit up his opponent with an array of vicious techniques: shattering leg kicks, thundering kicks to the body and a series of swift left hooks. No one has ever dominated the striking exchanges against Pettis in such startling fashion. After fifteen minutes of perdition, Pettis lost a unanimous decision to his foe.

This means Pettis has now lost three fights in a row for the first time in a worrying trend for the 29-year-old. Losing fights to the likes of dos Anjos, Alvarez and Barboza is nothing to be ashamed of—the current landscape of the UFC lightweight division makes it one of the toughest weightclasses in MMA history. But, it’s the shark tank nature of the lightweight division which is a cause for discomfort should Pettis wish to return at the level he was competing at as little as 13 months ago.

Barboza, who was the underdog in his fight against Pettis, finally got over the hump which has seen him fail to beat the big names in the UFC lightweight division having walked through those in the middle tier. The Brazilian has long been on the cusp of being mentioned among the division’s title contenders, but always fell at the last hurdle. This win changes that. But, with Pettis ostensibly losing his mojo since dropping the title, who better for Barboza to end that drought?

Speaking in the post-fight press conference and beaming with confidence, Barboza appeared surprised at the lack of challenge posed by a man ranked third in the UFC lightweight rankings. “I didn’t imagine dominating him like I did. But, I’m very happy with my performance.

“Every time I go out there, I give it my best. I don’t have a game plan—my only game plan is to do my best every day in the gym. He’s definitely one of the best in the world—he’s number three in the rankings—I feel my time is now and I’m going to get the belt for sure.”

While Pettis may have been training with Cerrone to gain an insight on Barboza, the Brazilian was training alongside Pettis’ last opponent in Alvarez. Just from Barboza’s pre-fight comments alone, you could tell his camp based in New Jersey were well aware of Pettis’ disadvantages before the contest.

“Eddie Alvarez is back in our camp and we are so blessed to have him with us. He fought Pettis before and he’s coached me a lot on what to expect. We talk a lot about Pettis and that’s good information that I have to take with me into the ring.”

Like with Alvarez, Barboza’s pressure told on Pettis despite it coming in a wholly different form to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, native Alvarez’s wrestling-based attack. It would be surprising if the Brazilian’s camp wasn’t mostly focused on how to pressure an Anthony Pettis who is outwardly lacking in confidence.

Three consecutive losses does not signal the end to anyone’s MMA career, let alone the career of a 29-year-old fighter possessing the talent that of Pettis. But, it’s certainly an interesting and unexpected fall from grace from the former UFC lightweight champion.

With the lightweight picture looking more dangerous than ever before, it will certainly be a tough time rising back up the ranks should Showtime regain his form of old. If anyone can do it, though, it’s Pettis. Here’s hoping he can once again become the sport’s superstar his talent deserves.

 

Check out these related stories:

Jones, Johnson and Golovkin: Where Combat Sport Becomes Fighting Art

One to Watch: Anthony Pettis vs. Edson Barboza

 

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