Anthony Pettis has spent the past several days on the downside of what has been three straight weeks of an emotional roller coaster.
The 23-year-old started at the top, becoming the final World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion by beating Ben Henderson on Dec. 16 in Henderson's hometown of Glendale, Ariz.
It was no ordinary title win. Pettis, largely known only to the most ardent mixed martial arts fans, gained instant fame because of the finish of the fight, a crazy right kick springing off the cage in the last minute of the fight.
The "Showtime kick," as Pettis nicknamed it, got a second life this past week, as SportsCenter listed it as its No. 8 play of the year, and Versus has been replaying the fight, which was among the best fights of 2010, several times per week in prime time since the live airing.
Pettis' life immediately changed.
"It definitely has," said Pettis (13-1). "It got me a lot of attention. I think my recognition went way up because of that kick."
As the final WEC champion, Pettis was promised the next shot at the UFC lightweight championship, as he would face the winner of the Jan. 1 match between champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. Pettis went to the show in Las Vegas to find out who he would be facing.
In the first round, as challenger Maynard was on the verge of finishing Edgar in a brutally one-sided round, Pettis thought he would be facing Maynard.
"I definitely thought he had it won," Pettis said he was thinking as he watched the first round. "Frankie was out on his feet, but he came back."
But by the end of the fight, when time ran out, he was convinced he was facing Edgar.
"I didn't think it was a draw. When it ended, I thought Edgar had won the fight," said Pettis. "Then a guy next to me said he thought Maynard had won the fight, so then I wasn't so sure. Then when it was announced a draw, I didn't know what that meant."
So he went to the postfight news conference, where UFC vice president Craig Borsari, sitting in for president Dana White, made the announcement that Pettis would face Edgar for the title. Relief set in, but that was short-lived.
"I was out at the after-party and [trainer] Duke [Roufus] sent me a text saying, 'Have you heard the bad news?' "
The bad news was that the decision was changed on the lightweight title shot, – Maynard would get a rematch – and Pettis was the odd man out. He was mad about it at the time, and days later, is still upset. Pettis returned home to Milwaukee and got the flu, forcing him to cancel a vacation in Mexico.
"I was kind of upset," said Pettid. "I went there to see my next opponent. The fight ended, then I didn't know what would happen, then I was told I had the fight, then I was told I didn't."
Pettis will be back in the gym as soon as his illness subsides. Right now he's just awaiting word of what is next. White indicated in a text message to Yahoo! Sports that they would look to put Pettis in a fight rather than have him sit and wait for the winner of Edgar vs. Maynard III, which is likely a few months down the line, maybe in the spring. If the winner of the rematch doesn't get any injuries, Pettis' best-case scenario for a title shot would be late summer or the fall. And he's going to have to win another fight, or he'll be out of the picture.
The draw between Edgar and Maynard doesn't just slow down Pettis, but every key contender in the division. Pettis is only 23, and barring injury, his best years are well in his future.
Australian George Sotiropoulos (14-2), was touted as the next in line before the WEC was merged into the UFC. At 33, he looks to be about a year away, in a best-case situation. If he beats Denis Siver on Feb. 27 in Sydney, it will mark his eighth win in a row, joining Royce Gracie, Georges St. Pierre, Maynard and Jon Fitch for No. 2 on the all-time UFC winning streak list behind Anderson Silva. If Sotiropoulos wins, it will mark the first time in UFC history a fighter will have garnered as many consecutive wins without then getting a title shot.
But because of the logjam at the top of the division, for Sotiropoulos to get a title shot, it's likely he's going to have to win at least two, and perhaps three more matches in a row to get there.
Even with his clock ticking at the other end, Sotiropoulos is actually less upset than Pettis, perhaps because he wasn't close enough to the title shot to actually taste it.
"Well, I'm in no rush, for starters," said Sotiropoulos. "That is my goal, to get there and fight for the title. But I'm happy to wait for my chance. The longer I wait, the more time I have to improve."
There had been talk months ago of Sotiropoulos possibly getting a title shot on UFC 127, in Sydney, where he was the local star of the first show in the country last year. It would have been a tough fit since the winner of the Aug. 28 bouts with Edgar vs. B.J. Penn and contenders Maynard vs. Kenny Florian were set as the next title shot, before the WEC champion appeared in the picture. But when Maynard vs. Edgar was signed for Jan. 1, that made a title match at UFC 127 impossible.
If Sotiropoulos could have his pick, he'd get the title fight in Melbourne, not far from Geelong, where he grew up. Melbourne is akin to Toronto, a city that UFC knows will do huge live business, but the problem is legalization.
MMA is currently not allowed in Melbourne, but with a recent change in sports ministers, both the UFC and Sotiropoulos are confident the ban will be overturned and UFC could debut there late this year or early next year. At the first Sydney show last year, some 440 miles from Melbourne, more than 40 percent of the tickets were purchased by fans living in and around Melbourne, the city where TV viewership and pay-per-view purchases of UFC are the highest in the country. Locals talk that a show in that city, if Sotiropoulos would challenge for the title, and perhaps even if not, would have to be held at Docklands Stadium, a domed stadium that holds more than 50,000 fans, after seeing how quickly the Sydney event sold out.
"It's a long way off right now," Sotiropoulos said. "I've got a dangerous opponent [Siver] and I can't think past that. I've been doing this for a long time. Either way, nothing is going to change. I'm still training three times a day, I'm still training and dieting year-round."
And UFC could make the decision for Pettis to face Sotiropoulos provided Sotiropoulos wins in Australia.
"I only want to face guys at the top – George Sotiropoulos, Clay Guida, Jim Miller, [Sean] Sherk, anybody that makes sense," said Pettis. "I don't want to fight someone who isn't high level. If I fight, I think I've earned fighting the best guys."
Besides those fighters, Sotiropoulos also talked of Evan Dunham and Florian (who is currently out with a knee injury) as potential foes this year, and also threw in B.J. Penn's name. Penn has moved to welterweight since he's lost twice to Edgar, but Penn is physically small at welterweight, and if Edgar loses, nobody would be surprised to see him back.
"I have no doubt B.J. will be back at lightweight eventually," said Sotiropoulos. "Siver's very dangerous. Florian, Sherk, Dunham, Jim Miller, there are a lot of guys. Take your pick. I'm thinking at some point I'm going to fight all of them and I hope I do."
- Anthony Pettis
- Frankie Edgar
- George Sotiropoulos
- Gray Maynard