Anthony Pettis justifies hype, gets storybook finish in front of hometown crowd

Kevin Iole
Yahoo! SportsSeptember 1, 2013
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MILWAUKEE – The thing that may one day make Anthony Pettis an MMA legend was on display as he was gingerly making his way to the locker room.

Only moments before, Pettis had captured the lightweight title with a dynamic performance against Benson Henderson, submitting him in the final minute of the first round with an arm bar in the main event of UFC 164 before 9,178 raucous fans.

Pettis, who injured his left knee when he was kicked on it, sidled over to coach Duke Roufus with a question.

"He asked me, 'Did I look OK?' " Roufus said. "He said that as we were walking down. He said, 'Did I look OK? Did I look professional out there?' That's the world of Anthony Pettis."

It was an incredible performance to cap what has been an amazing career thus far. Pettis is 26, and only beginning to scratch the surface of his potential.

In Henderson, he was facing a man who had tied the record for most consecutive title defenses at lightweight and who had the grinding wrestling style that could give him problems.

Pettis, though, stuffed all three of Henderson's takedown attempts, and then won the fight in dramatic fashion.

He'd raked Henderson to the body with a pair of kicks that made the champion wince.

"He caught me with two pretty good kicks I took note of," Henderson said. "I said, 'Let's make sure he doesn't do that again.' "

Pettis eventually tried a cartwheel kick that missed and he wound up on the floor on his back. No worry for Pettis, who quickly caught Henderson in the fight-deciding arm bar.

It was a vastly different type of win than he earned over Henderson at WEC 53 on Dec. 16, 2010, when he used the famous "Showtime Kick" to help him earn a decision victory and the WEC lightweight belt.

Pettis, though, was still learning his way in the sport at that point. He didn't turn pro until 2007 and he wasn't a fully developed fighter.

He still has a ways to go, but he's beginning to look a lot like UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones in one significant respect.

Pettis, like Jones, is willing to try risky, flashy maneuvers and is athletic enough to pull them off.

After the bout, he said he wanted to fight featherweight champion Jose Aldo in what figures to be a sensational fight.

"I'm just here to prove I'm the best in the world," Pettis said. "Anybody around my weight class who is contemplating coming to [155], even at [145], [I'll fight them]. His coach said I faked an injury, but I would never fake an injury. I'm not afraid to fight anybody and that's what that is all about."

As Pettis evolves, he'll become more and more difficult to beat because he throws punches and kicks from strange angles, he forces opponents to expect the unexpected and he is blazingly quick.

He can do that, though, because even though he's a world champion, he drills his fundamentals over and over. He does the extraordinary things ordinarily well and it puts him in the advantageous position of being able to try flashy moves without the risk that others face when trying them.

"Being as good at the fundamentals as he is allows him to be Showtime," Roufus said.

He conquered an outstanding fighter, one who had been on an incredible run of his own. Since last losing to Pettis, Henderson had gone 7-0 in the UFC against elite competition, won the belt and defended it successfully three times.

Henderson endured some pre-fight criticism for not finishing, but four of his seven UFC bouts were one-sided victories. While he did not get a finish in fights against Mark Bocek, Clay Guida, Jim Miller and Nate Diaz, there was little question about who the better fighter was or who would win the match.

Henderson clearly deserved his spot in the sport's mythical pound-for-pound top 10.

Yet Pettis totally shut down his offense on Saturday. The Milwaukee native was never in danger and Henderson did nothing noteworthy offensively.

That says a lot about the fighter Pettis has become.

The seeds of the championship that Pettis won on Saturday were sown two years ago in Las Vegas during a bitter defeat.

Pettis lost his UFC debut to Clay Guida on June 4, 2011, as Guida took him down and outwrestled him over three rounds.

Never again, he vowed. And every day after that, he thought of how disgusted, disappointed and heartbroken he was.

"I'm never going to let it go to the judges' again," Pettis said. "I learned that from Clay Guida. Clay Guida took me down, outwrestled me, stayed on top and I lost the fight. I wasn't in trouble ever, but there are rules and that's a way to win without finishing somebody.

"I'm not that guy. I'm going to finish everybody I fight."

That may be a difficult vow to keep, but Roufus won't put it past him.

"I want to help him become the champion who stays there for 10 years, and could have a huge title run," Roufus said.

Later, Roufus shook his head when thinking of Pettis.

"He's an outstanding fighter, but what you are seeing from him is only a glimpse of the fighter he is going to become," Roufus said. "There is nothing I would ever put past him in this sport. Nothing. He's that good. Anything there is to do in there, I think he's capable at some point of doing it."