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Anthony Pettis' coach: 'This must be what it was like to coach Michael Jordan'

Kevin Iole
Yahoo Sports
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Not long after Anthony Pettis had joined his fight team, Duke Roufus watched from a distance as Pettis went through the paces during practice at the Roufusport MMA Academy in Milwaukee, Wisc.

Pettis did things physically that few other mixed martial arts fighters were capable of doing. He didn't have a lot of experience and he had much to learn about the game, but as Roufus observed him making kicks that would have brought down the house had they occurred in front of a crowd, a thought came over the veteran coach.

"You know," Roufus thought to himself, "this must be what it was like to coach Michael Jordan."

Pettis was only 18 or 19 at the time, and he'd first walked through the doors at Roufus' gym in order to help prepare himself to teach students at his own taekwondo academy.

"I had a taekwondo background and I didn't know much about kickboxing or MMA," Pettis said. "I went to Duke's gym to learn some stuff so I could teach it back to my students."

The only way to really learn what he was doing was to spar, though, so Pettis began to spar with some of the gym's most accomplished fighters.

And to everyone's shock and amazement, Pettis came out on top more often than not.

He went back home to teach the kids at his own gym, but Pettis and Roufus were certain that he'd found a new career.

On Saturday at the Bradley Center in his hometown, Roufus believes Pettis will reach the peak of his career.

Pettis will challenge Benson Henderson for the lightweight title in the main event of UFC 164, a rematch of a fight that Pettis won nearly three years ago in the now-defunct World Extreme Cagefighting organization.

Plenty has changed since that match.

Pettis won the WEC lightweight belt that night in Glendale, Ariz., and earned a shot at the UFC belt. But Pettis made the now infamous decision to fight Clay Guida instead of waiting for a title shot against then-champ Frankie Edgar or Gray Maynard.

Pettis had an uninspired performance against Guida, losing a decision and with it, a crack at the UFC lightweight belt. The Milwaukee native has grown greatly as a fighter in the meantime, and the relationship between fighter and coach has developed as well.

Pettis' father, Eugene, was murdered in 2003, and hardly a day goes by that thoughts of his father don't waft through his mind. He was only 15 at the time, and was left without a real male authority figure in his life.

In many ways, Roufus has filled that role for him. Pettis said Roufus is his "big brother" that he goes to for advice and friendship.

The tentacles between the Pettis family and the Roufus family are now deeply intertwined.

"It's such an honor for me to coach Anthony, both because of his credentials as an athlete and his quality as a man," Roufus said. "Honestly, I get a little emotional when I talk about him. I have to hold back the emotions and the tears. It's tough, because he's become a big part of my life. He's the son I don't have.

"He's the godfather of my daughter, who just turned one. My wife and I helped him pick out his first house. We do a lot of things together outside the gym. We have done business together. I'm so, so close with him."

Roufus laughs. He was a quality kickboxer in his day and won a series of titles, but never became the big star in the sport that his older brother, kickboxing legend Rick "The Jet" Roufus, became.

Duke Roufus would make his mark on combat sports as a coach, and Anthony Pettis would become his prize pupil. Roufus said he could go on at great length recounting Pettis' amazing feats of athleticism, but one of the things he admires most about Pettis is his humility.

"Anthony," Roufus said, chuckling, "is the nicest famous guy I've ever met."

Pettis is a remarkably normal person, despite his success and despite the tragic loss he suffered when his father was murdered.

He credits his mother, Annette Garcia, with keeping him on track.

Roufus quickly noticed that the young kid from the wrong side of the tracks was no hoodlum.

"Anthony had a kind of a rough edge about him, but what struck me right away was that he was extremely respectful and courteous," Roufus said. "He was a polite, respectful man. You could tell he was brought up right.

"And as soon as I saw him train, I knew instantly he would be special."

Pettis said he learned to be a professional at Roufus' gym. He learned the value of work, and was encouraged to strive for greatness. He wasn't content with being arguably the most dynamic striker in MMA and just OK at everything else.

He wanted greatness in all areas.

"There's something inside of me that won't allow me to ever be satisfied, and that desire to get better is always there and always getting stronger," Pettis said. "People come up to me and say, 'Oh man, that fight was awesome. I can't believe you did this and you did that.' I thank them, because they're trying to be nice, but there are a lot of things I can do better, no matter how good I might look.

"I don't say this trying to [brag] or anything, but I want to be the best who ever did this. And to do that, I know that I always have to be looking to take it to the next level. I want to make my weaknesses strengths and take my strengths off the charts."

Pettis has a variety of highlight-reel moves that he can pull off, including the Showtime kick that helped cinch the WEC win over Henderson. He's got plenty of others, he said, that he can pull out if the time and situation call for them.

It's a challenge, though, coaching someone who is capable of such flashy moves, as Phil Jackson found out while coaching Jordan.

But Roufus said he learned from Jordan's career how to treat Pettis.

"He's gotten so much better, and more mature, and this guy really understands the process of how to train for fights and mentally prepare for fights," Roufus said. "The cool thing about watching Anthony is that it's like watching Michael Jordan in his prime. You saw him get it and you saw him go to the basket, but what you didn't know was how he was going to dunk the ball.

"One of the things we've spent a lot of time on to help his flashiness be more effective is to make his fundamentals be so strong. We work so hard on the fundamentals, and he's so good at them, that because he's got you so worried about that, it's where the flashiness comes in."

Roufus turned to another basketball analogy to finish his point.

"In basketball terms, he can do a crazy dunk that make the kids go crazy, but he's just about 100 percent at the free throw line," Roufus said. "I let him be 'Showtime,' because he's so good and so God-gifted that he can do that. But I drill the fundamentals with him repeatedly.

"He can't be 'Showtime,' without the fundamentals and he understands and accepts that. He's the best guy out there and I'll say no one works harder than he does. That's how you get to be the best guy."

Well, that and genes. Pettis clearly has the good genes.

UFC president Dana White raves about Pettis' strikes and says, "Nobody out there can do the things that he does. This kid is so talented, it's unbelievable. And he's just getting to his prime."

The pressure on him to perform in front of his hometown fans is enormous, but all the great ones thrive in such situations.

Pettis gets that and is soaking it all in.

"It's great to fight at home and all of that, and I appreciate the support, but it isn't going to distract me," he said. "Been through too much in my life. Way too much.

"This fight is all I am thinking about, because it's so important. This is the ultimate right here, the best of the best of the best. The WEC was like college, and winning [the belt] was like winning the NCAA title. The UFC is like the NBA, the NFL. This would mean the world to me. I'm not doing this for fame or attention, I'm doing it because I wanted to be the best on the planet and now I have my chance. It's finally my time."

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