CHICAGO – The question that UFC president Dana White gets most – What's next? – is the one he least likes to answer.
It's because there is almost never a good answer, the sad situation of former World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight champion Anthony Pettis being the perfect case in point.
Pettis pulled off perhaps the most spectacular move in mixed martial arts history when he landed the 'Showtime Kick' on Benson Henderson in the waning seconds of a WEC title fight with the outcome of the match hanging in the balance.
The kick led Pettis to a win, the title and a guaranteed – or so he thought – shot at the UFC lightweight belt.
Pettis defeated Henderson on Dec. 16, 2010, but he's no closer today to fighting for the UFC belt than he was in the euphoric moments after he landed that spectacular, unforgettable kick off the cage.
Pettis will fight Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone on Saturday at the United Center in a bout that will be televised nationally by Fox with significant implications in the talent-heavy lightweight division.
To some, it seems logical that the Pettis-Cerrone winner would meet the winner of the April 20 UFC title fight between Henderson and Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez later in 2013 for the title.
White, though, wouldn't commit.
"I don't know, man, I really don't," he said in an interview with Yahoo! Sports. "That's so hard. There are so many things that come up."
Nobody has had more things come up than Pettis, who had to make a difficult choice in 2011 of whether to fight or sit and wait for his title shot. He chose to fight and it turned out wrong when he lost. It was a decision that White conceded cost Pettis a significant amount of money, more than he'd care to think about.
Pettis' situation is one that numerous fighters have had to make over the years, and regardless of their decision, there is almost never a good answer.
Because fighting is such a different sport than football or baseball, fighters must make choices that their team sport counterparts would never have to consider.
Take the case of Pettis in the weeks after he defeated Henderson to supposedly earn the right to fight for the UFC lightweight title. Pettis was cageside at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas on New Year's Day 2011 when then-champion Frankie Edgar defended his belt against Gray Maynard at UFC 125.
The Edgar-Maynard bout was one of the great matches in recent UFC vintage, but was ruled a draw. As a result, they would have to meet again and Pettis was left with a decision.
He could sit and wait for the Edgar-Maynard title rematch and meet the winner. But he was 23 at the time and not only needed to fight to improve, but also to earn money to pay his bills.
He chose to take a summer 2011 fight with Clay Guida after both Edgar and Maynard were injured and their title rematch was pushed back until October.
At the time, it seemed like a smart choice. Had he waited for the Edgar-Maynard winner, chances were good he would have sat out the entire year in 2011. For a young fighter, that is almost like a death sentence.
"You got to be out there and stay active, and fight," White said.
But – there's always a but – doing so comes with consequences.
By agreeing to fight Guida, Pettis gave up the guarantee of a title shot. He knew he'd only get it if he won. Lose to Guida and he'd go back in the pack and have to fight his way to the top again.
And lose he did. That put him on a long journey that still hasn't gotten him back in the title picture. He rebounded from the Guida loss with wins over Jeremy Stephens and Joe Lauzon, but he injured a shoulder and hasn't fought since the spectacular win over Lauzon on Feb. 26, 2012.
Pettis, though, said facing the same situation, he'd make the same choice. He needed the fight with Guida, he said, to expose holes in his game.
"I don't regret it at all," Pettis said.
His coach, Duke Roufus, agreed that Pettis not only should have fought, he had to fight. Pettis wasn't training the way he needed to in order to be a champion at that time, Roufus said, and by losing to Guida, it brought that point crashing home.
Roufus said he believes that one day, Pettis will be a UFC star at the level of an Anderson Silva or a Georges St-Pierre. But he said when confronted with the choice to fight or to wait, the only answer Pettis realistically could make was to fight.
He had to fight, Roufus said, "because he had a little daughter coming and there were diapers to buy and mouths to feed." Beyond that, though, Pettis needed to learn what it took to be on the championship level.
"After [losing to Guida], Anthony put himself back in the lab and reinvented himself," Roufus said. "Anthony came to my school as a very gifted martial artist. He had a really great work ethic. The UFC has great fighters. Anthony was training great, but to be the best, you have to train extraordinary. Anthony trains extraordinary now. There isn't an I that isn't dotted or a T that isn't crossed.
"He eats, sleeps, drinks this. He wants it so bad. There is a difference. I've been around this thing my whole life. ... Anthony realized what he had to do to cement his legacy. There is no fame without practice. It's that extra special effort that makes you a champion. I know what it takes and he's got it."
Pettis will get the opportunity to make it all right Saturday by beating Cerrone. Should he do that, he'll be near, if not at, the top of the heap.
He said that given his lengthy absence following surgery, he's not thinking about the title or even willing to talk about it.
Pettis is focused on the present, not the choices of the past, and he realizes the enormity and the promise of the task at hand. It's called prize fighting, Roufus said, for a reason.
"There was a point in my life that I had $61 to my name and I had to live in the gym with my then-girlfriend, who is now my wife," Roufus said. "If you want to be great in this sport, if you want to be a champion, there are sacrifices you have to make. This isn't like the NFL or the NBA, where you can get a check for sitting the bench. There is no sitting the bench in fighting. If you sit the bench as a fighter, you don't get paid.
"Guys do extraordinary things to make it to the top. Why did [cyclist] Lance Armstrong take PEDs? He wanted to be a champion. Guys put up with the struggle because that's what they want. Anthony has learned that. He's three times the fighter now than he was, but he's had to struggle and put up with a lot to make it to where he is."
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