Anthony Pettis is supposed to be fading. All you had to do to reach that conclusion was to look at his results; prior to Saturday’s UFC Nashville, he had lost six of his last nine fights. All you had to do was glance at the event betting odds; despite being a former UFC champion, he was the biggest underdog on the card. All you had to do was witness the shapelessness of his career path; Saturday marked his third weight class in his last six fights.
Many of the signs were present and clear, and they weren’t good. Pettis has been reeling, searching for the right division and the ability to rediscover his groove.
One round into his main-event fight with Stephen Thompson, things were not exactly looking up for him. Five minutes into the match, Pettis was leaking blood from the nose, showed swelling around his right eye, and saw his offense contained almost exclusively to leg kicks. Adding to the dilemma, Thompson was always going to be a difficult opponent for Pettis to out-point on the judges’ scorecards. Thompson historically lands more, has better defense, and in this fight, boasted a reach advantage that was already proving difficult for Pettis to penetrate. That meant that Pettis’ best chance would be a finish.
Up until Saturday, Thompson had competed in 58 kickboxing matches and 18 MMA fights. In those 76 fights, Thompson had never been stopped; he hadn’t suffered a single loss in kickboxing, while his three MMA losses had all come via decision. He’d been in the cage with power punchers and champions like Robert Whittaker and Johny Hendricks. Hell, he’d traded strikes over 10 tense rounds with Tyron Woodley. So what was the chance that Pettis, who was fighting at welterweight for the first time, would be the man to pull it off?
It was not good. Again, he was the biggest underdog on the card! So, of course, he did it. And of course he did it as only Pettis can, in brash, thrilling, “Showtime” style, a flying Superman hook while rebounding off the cage as the final moments of the second round ticked away.
Every time it seems like Pettis’ career is fading, he seems to pull himself back toward relevance through something incredible. Whether it’s a win over a submission machine like Charles Oliveira, a valiant loss in defeat to an indomitable champ like Tony Ferguson, or a highlight reel knockout, Pettis refuses to be pushed into history.
At 32, he is no longer the young phenom he was when he captured the WEC lightweight title from Benson Henderson, or when he won the UFC lightweight title, also from Henderson. He has grown up into an elder statesman of the UFC, yet he is still equally as capable of executing some of the most sensational offense in the sport. And that, at this stage of his career, is what he has now come to be known for. He may or may not ever truly contend for another championship, but a Pettis fight comes stamped with a guarantee: action-packed or your money back.
In four fights in a row, Pettis has won a nightly bonus for his work, against such varied opposition as Ferguson, Michael Chiesa and Dustin Poirier. All of those fights were thrillers, and though Pettis came out of them 2-2, he also somehow emerges with his stock rising. Pettis is now viable at both lightweight and welterweight, and though he has some clear shortcomings that have been exposed by pressure fighters, he also boasts a magnetic quality that makes him a valuable piece for UFC matchmakers.
A single win at welterweight isn’t going to be enough to vault Pettis into the divisional title picture, but the division does seem a little more interesting with his presence. Pettis vs. Robbie Lawler or Jorge Masvidal both sounds like a good time, for instance. Pettis vs. Conor McGregor? Seems unlikely, but we’d sign up for that, too. That alone is its own kind of success. Pettis has won championships, but he’s won hearts, too. It’s not easy to do either, let alone both.
Thirty-two-years-old and once struggling, Pettis evolved his approach to competition, shifting the focus from results to performance. In doing so, he may have simultaneously extended his UFC career while putting himself at additional risk. His fights, once artistic, now veer more toward blood-soaked, yet he seems to be smiling all along the way.
And why shouldn’t he? In the UFC, there’s always an anticipation for the next great moment, and as we were reminded again on Saturday, he’s nicknamed “Showtime” for a reason.