It hardly seems possible that it’s been nearly nine years since that magic moment in Glendale, Arizona, when Anthony Pettis jumped up against the cage, vaulted off and kicked Benson Henderson in the head in the waning seconds and won the World Extreme Cagefighting lightweight title.
That was the world outside of the MMA bubble’s introduction to “Showtime,” a fast, athletic, creative man who on that night had future superstar written all over him.
He’s 5-6 since that magical night, and hasn’t won two bouts in a row since 2014, but as former British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, “There are three kinds of lies: Lies, damned lies and statistics.”
And the statistics don’t do justice to the fighter that Pettis has become. There is no doubt he lost his mojo at some point — “I think I became too complacent,” he said — but it’s hardly a stretch to say that heading into his bout on Saturday against Nate Diaz in the co-main event of UFC 241 at the Honda Center in Anaheim, California, “Showtime” is back.
There is no love lost between Pettis and Diaz, but Diaz noted in an interview with ESPN’s Brett Okamoto that Pettis’ recent hot run is one of the reasons he’s ending a nearly three-year hiatus to take the fight.
Pettis is coming off a knockout victory of Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and before that lost to Tony Ferguson in an incredible fight that had to be stopped when Pettis broke his hand.
Diaz hasn’t fought since UFC 202 on Aug. 20, 2016, when he lost a narrow decision in a rematch to Conor McGregor. But watching Pettis stop Thompson motivated him to return, Diaz told Okamoto.
“I was like, ‘All right, you know what, Pettis is knocking out Thompson and doing all this cool [expletive] when he fights,’ and I’m like, ‘Man, that’s an eligible opponent, and I dig that,’” Diaz said.
That’s where the bit about statistics come in, because not all losses are the same. In his last three fights, he submitted Michael Chiesa, lost to Ferguson and then stopped Thompson. He was sensational in all three bouts, and may have won the Ferguson fight had he not broken his hand. His coach, Duke Roufus, said his left hand “was sort of banged up,” but that his right hand “was bad, really bad.”
Going back farther, he lost a Fight of the Night battle with Dustin Poirier and defeated Jim Miller, so while he’s 3-2 in the last five, he could under not-all-that different circumstances be 5-0.
The turnaround has certainly captured UFC president Dana White’s attention.
“I’m not sure why, but he got to a point where he started to fall off,” White said. “I’m not sure, maybe it was because he was getting older, but you see that happen in professional sports. Guys are up there and they’re at their peaks and then that decline starts and they’re not the same.
“But the Pettis we’ve seen in these last couple of fights, he’s back to the guy everyone was so excited about. That fight with Ferguson was an absolute war and it was a crazy fight. But he’s looking like that guy again.”
Roufus said he feels as if he’s watching the greatest comeback in MMA history unfold in front of his eyes on a daily basis.
Pettis’ decline, he said, began at UFC 185 on March 14, 2015, against Rafael dos Anjos. Roufus, who said Pettis “has his swag back now,” pointed to several different circumstances as reasons for Pettis’ fall from glory.
He was 18-2 going into the RDA fight and was regarded as one of the elite talents in the sport.
Roufus has long raved about Pettis’ attitude and how level-headed he is, but he admitted that not even Pettis is immune to all the glad-handers.
“You know how it is: You make some money, you get a bit of a name, and everyone is telling you how great you are,” Roufus said. “It crept in and crept in until it got him. I think it began in the dos Anjos fight. But the good thing is, he understands it and he owns it. Every mistake he’s made in his career, he owns it and he tells me and we discuss it and then we move on. This whole situation with Anthony has made me a better person and a better coach.
“We had a lot of talks, but I don’t like to harp on anything. But I’m glad you’re seeing it because I think it’s been a different Anthony since 2018. He reset his mind and he’s committed to getting the details right and being the best he can be.”
Diaz and Pettis clearly don’t like each other, and Diaz has a way of getting into his opponents’ heads and getting them off of their games.
Pettis, though, insisted he won’t make that mistake. Roufus said he’s been pointing to grudge matches from boxing history as a way to help Pettis understand. They’ve talked, he said, about Oscar De La Hoya keeping his cool and then going on to stop both Fernando Vargas and Ricardo Mayorga, as well as Sugar Ray Leonard in his rematch with Roberto Duran.
It sounds as if Pettis has been paying rapt attention.
“I don’t like the guy but I admit he’s an extremely tough guy and I have to give him my full attention,” Pettis said. “He can take it and he can dish it out, and that’s why I respect him. He’s so damn tough. I can’t make it personal and I won’t. I have to go in there and execute my plan and do what I need to do, and personal feelings don’t have anything to do with that.”
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