Four and a half years ago, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis was on top of the world. He had become the UFC lightweight champion after beating Benson Henderson for the belt. He followed up his title-winning performance by quickly submitting all-time-great lightweight Gilbert Melendez. Not only was Pettis the champion in the biggest organization in the world, but he had entered the discussion as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the world. There were talks of fights with all-time-great José Aldo and budding superstar Conor McGregor. There was the talk of crossover potential and Wheaties boxes. The question wasn’t if Pettis would be the best lightweight of all, but just how far he would outpace all previous lightweights before him.
Then, it happened.
In a fight Pettis was expected to win decisively, he was thoroughly outworked, outfought, outsmarted and outclassed by Rafael dos Anjos through five rounds on the way to a one-sided decision loss. In the two and a half years that followed, “Showtime’s” career was stuck in reverse. He worked himself from the top of the division all the way out of the division, even making a brief sojourn down to featherweight division to go 1-1 before moving back into the lightweight division and going 1-1 again. With a record of 2-4 through his last six fights, Pettis is now looking to once again right the ship in a crossroads fight with former The Ultimate Fighter winner Michael Chiesa.
Let’s take a look at Pettis and the five things that have contributed to his career derailment and overall regression as a fighter.
5. Pettis has no sense of urgency. As effective as he can be, a lot of his problems are a result of his unwillingness to push a pace when initiating offense or raise his aggression when looking for counters. Pettis also doesn’t react with the correct amount of apprehension when an opponent builds offensive momentum. This is in large part due to his talent, his dependency on it, and how that dependency has shaped his approach to fighting.
Pettis leans on his ability to turn a fight around or end a fight regardless of his opponent’s plan or how sharp his ability to execute. As Pettis said himself, “I just find these guys’ chins. I just find these submissions.” When you have made a career out of “finding” ways to win, then you never develop the proper amount of awareness, because you never had to figure it out or set it up. Pettis always just did something, and it always ended up being the right thing.
4. Much like UFC middleweight Luke Rockhold, Pettis is still learning how to develop a truly fluid and well-connected fight game. His physical tools are still elite and his overall game is still dynamic, but it lacks any sort of cohesion.
Pettis has too many gaps in his game. The footwork doesn’t line up with his wide-open striking game. The defense doesn’t line up with or work in coordination with his offense. The tactics don’t always line up with the situations Pettis is in.
In many cases, his durability, athleticism, power and creativity offensively fills the gaps Pettis has in the areas of defensive footwork, lack of consistent punch combinations, limited shot selection with the hands, defensive wrestling, and the ability to consistently maintain pressure or volume.
Pettis has improved, but given the activity he has and the caliber of opposition, he is still in the process of diversifying and developing the finer, connective points of his game. He leans on his physical tools a little less, but his skills and approach are still defined by those physical tools.
3. R-E-S-P-E-C-T. The secret to Pettis’s success is directly related to this word. He has a reputation as a once-in-a-lifetime talent offensively, but his defense has been historically bad — not T.J. Dillashaw bad, but pretty bad nonetheless. The point is, guys saw Pettis fight and went into their fights with him looking to avoid certain weapons and situations instead of trying to figure out how to put him in situations to best use their own weapons. This sense of respect allowed Pettis to work at a pace he preferred and provided him with a lack of pressure that allowed for a more offensively wide-open attack in terms of creativity and intensity.
Guys weren’t willing to consistently pressure, exchange or get physical with Pettis. They would make attempts, but when he didn’t immediately fold or change strategies, they would lower their offensive intensity and workrate. When faced with fighters who refused to capitulate in the face of his unique blend of physical tools and offensive wizardry, Pettis was often pushed (see: Henderson) or defeated (see: dos Anjos; see also: Edson Barboza, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway).
Pettis is much like the aforementioned former middleweight champion Rockhold, in that the reputation of what he has done forces guys to be more cautious. This allows him to do all the things they are fearful of him doing in the first place. Rockhold took longer to be found out because the array of physical gifts he possesses, especially at his weight, are much more pronounced than the advantages Pettis has shown. On the other hand, Pettis, unlike Rockhold, has consistently shown world-class durability and a willingness to engage at any range, regardless of the amount of pressure or physicality being exhibited. Pettis’s efficiency may suffer, but his willingness to bite down and engage never does. Once fighters stopped respecting his weapons and physical skills, Pettis essentially stopped winning.
2. Pettis has had much success as a fighter against a myriad of calibers, styles and sizes of opponents. He has won titles in two separate organizations, beaten a number of ranked fighters, worked his way into the pound-for-pound rankings, and almost broke the internet with a highlight-reel kick. However, he accomplished all of this with essentially no real defensive wrestling skills, no jab, no ability to fight off his back foot, no combination punching, a tendency to admire his work after he lands strikes, and effective but grossly limited punching technique.
Much like many other physical talents, Pettis has leaned on his attributes as a crutch that has allowed him to break the rules and in some cases completely ignore those rules due to his explosiveness, durability, power and agility. In the same way as Ronda Rousey, Jessica Andrade, Ovince St. Preux and Francis Ngannou, Pettis has abilities that far outweigh his technical prowess. When faced with an opponent who could handle his physical tools, Pettis lacked the development of his technical and strategic abilities and therefore had his progress halted as a fighter.
1. In his refusal to take a step back, Pettis seemed to be in denial about the reasons he was losing. Instead of taking an extended break where he could reexamine his approach, his style and the limitations of each of those things, he continued forward. Even though he had won almost all of his fights on his way to the meeting with dos Anjos, Pettis had shown cracks in the form of technical flaws, lack of situational awareness, and poor cage IQ. These things were minimized by his athleticism and durability, which allowed for continued success.
Instead of rushing to get back into the Octagon to get back to the belt, Pettis should have spent more time refining and redefining his game before working his way back up the lightweight division step by step. Instead of fighting highly ranked opponents who were aware and capable of attacking the holes in his game, Pettis should have taken on mid-tier fighters so that he could slowly work new concepts, techniques and strategies in while locking horns with fighters against whom he had a greater margin for error.
His chosen level of opposition didn’t allow him time to fine-tune things or get comfortable. Instead, he had to hope his talent would be enough to allow any changes he made to be a big enough difference-maker to get him back on track. At the elite level, though, it wasn’t enough.
The funny thing is that Anthony’s brother, Sergio, as a result of a lack of elite talent, did the very thing that Anthony refused to do. Sergio might never reach the heights Anthony has seen, but Sergio has at least demonstrated a consistency, discipline and balance that has eluded Anthony throughout the entirety of his career.
Pettis is still a talent, but he’s just not as prodigious a talent as he was when he was at the top of the game. He still has the ability and the skill to compete at the higher levels of MMA, but for him to really make any progress, he is going to have to show that he can win consistently. He can do it, too. But can and will are two entirely different things.