Fueled by criticism, Anthony Pettis starting to realize massive potential

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LAS VEGAS — Most fighters pretend they never hear any criticism. As they tell it, they stay off Twitter, don't go to mixed martial arts websites, and don't even know message board forums exist.

Consider this one of the many ways Anthony Pettis isn't like most fighters.

The UFC lightweight champion was sidelined for the past 15 months. In part, this was because he spent several months filming the current season of "The Ultimate Fighter." But mostly, it was due to a knee injury, exacerbated in the Aug. 2013 fight in which he defeated Benson Henderson for the belt.

Pettis heard every last comment labeling him injury-prone and questioning whether he'd ever truly live up to his vast potential. Which made his second-round finish over former longtime Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez on Saturday night at UFC 181 all the more sweet.

"The best way is to prove them wrong," Pettis said at the post-fight news conference at the Mandalay Bay Events Center. "For me, I was injured, so I couldn't really prove myself or fight. I had to be quiet and just let them talk. Tonight, I was able to prove everybody wrong."

Anthony Pettis celebrates after submitting Gilbert Melendez on Saturday. (USAT)
Anthony Pettis celebrates after submitting Gilbert Melendez on Saturday. (USAT)

One of the sport's craftiest fighters, Melendez fashioned a smart gameplan against Pettis. He pushed forward to close space and neutralize Pettis' wide array of flashy kicks. He peppered Pettis with shots to the head and the body, then used his wrestling to stifle Pettis. He won the first round and got off to a solid start in the second.

And still, just like that, Pettis managed to finish the fight in the blink of an eye. Pettis tagged Melendez coming in, then sunk in a guillotine choke before anyone knew what happened. Melendez tapped at 1:13 of the second round.

"I feel like I had a great performance," Pettis said. "Gil's a tough guy. I was expecting a war out there, and he delivered. The first round, I tried to avoid the takedowns as best as possible. But I think once I got to striking range, I delivered. I hit him with some good shots. I hit him with some nice jabs. I think I did enough to prove that I deserve this belt."

It also continued what has turned into quite a run through the lightweight division, even if the fights have been spaced out enough that they're a bit hard to remember. Saturday's bout marked the first time Melendez lost via finish in a 26-fight career which dates back to 2002. His first-round submission of Henderson to claim the title at UFC 164 was Henderson's first loss via finish since 2005. And his TKO of Donald Cerrone in Jan. 2013 was his only finish loss in his past 17 fights.

"I feel amazing," Pettis said. "It was a long 15 months off; I'm back. I know how good I am, but a lot of people were questioning how good I am. This fight went a little bit longer, it went two rounds so you got to see a little more."

Few people, however, questioned whether Pettis was a skilled fighter. Dating back to his spectacular "Showtime Kick," which helped seal his WEC title victory over Henderson in their first bout back in 2010, fans have understood that Pettis has a transcendent skill set, with the ability to pull off moves that no one, save a prime Anderson Silva, could pull off.

There's a reason why Pettis was chosen as the first UFC fighter to appear on a Wheaties box.

But it was those long periods of inactivity — this wasn't the first time Pettis has been on the shelf, though it was the longest — which seemed to keep Pettis from transforming his exciting style into stardom along the lines of Silva.

Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez trade blows during their fight at UFC 181. (USAT)
Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez trade blows during their fight at UFC 181. (USAT)

A big win over one of the all-time great lightweights will be the starting point. Melendez, for his part, is willing to sign off.

"I wanted to test his chin and I really didn't get a chance," Melendez said. "I couldn't get my combos going. Hats off to Pettis tonight. He's extremely fast and a very tough opponent. … He's so fast, that's the first time I felt a little old out there."

Pettis appeared to come out of the fight unscathed. With any luck, he'll be able to use Saturday night's win as the springboard to a real run in 2015, the chance to put together a string of victories in a short period of time and finally build up the stardom to match his talents.

As for whom Pettis might face next, well, that's a bit of a toss-up. There are several interesting fights among lightweight contenders coming up. That includes Rafael dos Anjos who meets Nate Diaz next weekend and has won seven of his past eight fights; Cerrone, who has won five in a row and meets unbeaten Myles Jury on Jan. 3; and 22-0 Khabib Nurmagomedov, out with a knee injury, who crashed Saturday night's press conference to challenge Pettis.

However things turn out, Pettis will continue relying on his doubters to fuel his fire.

"My coach says it the best: 'The best revenge is massive success,'" Pettis said. "That's what I'm looking forward to doing."

Follow Dave Doyle on Twitter: @DaveDoyleMMA