LAS VEGAS – The date rolls off his tongue smoothly, easily.
Nov. 12, 2003.
He repeats it calmly, bereft of emotion.
Nov. 12, 2003.
The date means so many things to Anthony Pettis, on so many different levels.
Nov. 12, 2003.
Pettis is a rising star in the World Extreme Cagefighting. He's a large lightweight with a powerful punch and a promising ground game. He'll face his biggest test on Saturday as part of WEC 45 when he meets veteran Bart Palaszewski at The Pearl at the Palms on a card televised nationally by Versus.
These are exciting times for Pettis, a 22-year-old from a hardscrabble section of Milwaukee, who aspires to become a mixed martial arts champion.
"I just love MMA and I love getting the crowd into it," Pettis said. "It's such a great feeling when you're in there going at it and the crowd is going wild."
He attributes his success, in many ways, to the events of Nov. 12, 2003.
That night, he was a high school junior trying to do things the right way despite being raised in one of the city's roughest areas. He had just returned from his part-time job at a fast food restaurant when he heard a knock on the door.
Two police officers were on the other side. Pettis and his older brother answered.
He was just 15, but already wise to the ways of the streets. The detectives began asking questions about his father, Eugene, who'd been in and out of trouble and had had issues with drugs.
He heard one of the detectives mention the word homicide.
"What did he get himself into now?" Pettis thought to himself.
But as the detectives peppered the brothers with questions, they stuck to the code. No relevant information was forthcoming.
"They were asking who he was with, when we'd last seen him, but we weren't giving up anything," Pettis said. "We know the drill."
They believed their father, who had numerous less-than-desirable acquaintances, had gotten himself mixed up in something again.
They did, that is, until one of the detectives reached into his coat and pulled out a Polaroid snapshot.
Pettis looked at it. And he looked again.
He knees were weak, his stomach queasy, his mouth dry.
He couldn't speak. He couldn't think. He didn't know what to believe.
The photograph was a picture of his father as police found him, dead of stab wounds to the chest.
"I'll never get the image of that picture out of my mind," he says, softly. "It was something you just never expect to see."
His father was murdered a block away from his home, the victim of a robbery at a friend's home gone wrong.
Nov. 12, 2003, would be the worst day of Anthony Pettis' young life.
But Pettis is as single-minded as anyone can be. He'd been involved in martial arts for many years, and remembered the advice and the encouragement his father offered him.
His mother, Annette, got him involved in martial arts while she was going to college, trying to support her children on her own. His father, however, was the one who shared with him the competitive streak and the desire to succeed.
And so 15-year-old Anthony Pettis decided that while he'd never forget the events of Nov. 12, 2003, he wouldn't allow them to ruin his life.
He decided to dedicate his life to becoming the best martial artist he could be to honor the memory of his father.
"That year, Thanksgiving and Christmas were the worst of my life," Pettis said. "Each year, it's been better, because I've decided to keep his memory alive and push for this goal as a way to honor him. I can feel his presence there.
"He was the type who would never be satisfied. He always thought I could do better and should keep pushing. And so that's how I've tried to be as a fighter. I don't want to be a one-dimensional guy and be labeled. I want to be the best mixed martial artist I can possibly be. If I do that, I better honor him."
He's 7-0 with six stoppages, three by knockout and three by submission. He trains in Milwaukee with Duke Roufus and Eric "Red" Schafer, driven to build a total game.
He had no jiu-jitsu training prior to joining Roufus' gym in late 2007, but began to learn quickly under Schafer's direction. He's at the point where he no longer feels his ground game is a liability.
"I don't want to be known as a striker or a wrestler or a jiu-jitsu guy or whatever," Pettis said. "Those are all pieces of our sport, but I'm a mixed martial artist and the sport I train in is mixed martial arts. I don't want somebody to say, 'Yeah, he's got power, but if the fight gets to the ground, it's over.' All the pieces of MMA, I want to be able to deal with them and do well wherever the fight goes."
In Palaszewski, he's facing a man who has 45 bouts and who was a professional while Pettis was just 14 years old and a sophomore in high school.
It's a big night for him, but he's not one to make more out of it than it is.
"Any fight I have right now is important to my career," Pettis said. "I'm a young fighter and I'm still making a name for myself. Any of my next fights coming up are going to be big for me. They're all crucial fights. They'll decide my tone in the WEC, where I'll stand at.
"Bart has been around for a long time. He has a lot of fights. It's a great fight for me to show what I can do. I'm excited by the opportunity to fight in the WEC against so many great fighters, because then I know where I stand. I still have a lot to prove."
He has a lot to prove, not only to himself, to his peers, to the fans, but also to his father.
"I go visit the grave and I tell him, 'I'm doing this for you,' " Pettis said. "I'm not in there myself. I know he's always with me and I want to make him proud of what I've done."