The lives of professional fighters are filled with uncertainty; their successes and failures play out in the public eye for all to see.
When the cage door closes and the battle of wills begin, it becomes a matter of opportunity. One walks away victorious, the other defeated, the outcome sometimes determined by only the slightest of margins.
What happens under the bright lights is what the fans are left to debate, but rarely are they given a glimpse into what it takes to make the walk to the cage in the first place.
This is what the climb looks like. This is The Fighting Life.
The nature of expectation is a strong belief that something will come to pass in the future. Whether it is an individual accomplishment or a series of events presumption has elevated to a heightened state, the fabric of a situation changes when promise and potential are involved.
While threads of this element can be found in many different aspects of life—in the world of professional athletics—the chosen few who the public have deemed capable of elevating the sport in which they compete arrive to a situation where pressure is a constant and the lines of support and detraction become intensified.
When expectation becomes attached to an athlete, the landscape shifts into a realm where the fruits of success and the trappings of failure go beyond normal boundaries. Once those terms have been altered, a different battle begins and a competitor must find comfort in the chaos of the situation as they continue to push the line of progress forward.
Where some rise to great heights when given the opportunity to compete on the biggest platforms, others fold under the pressure of the moment.
Former WEC lightweight champion turned featherweight contender Anthony Pettis may be no stranger to the spotlight, but the next step in his career has the potential to take his visibility to an entirely different level.
At just 26 years old, the Milwaukee native has already risen to become one of the most promising young talents in the sport of mixed martial arts. Working behind a unique blend of speed, power and a striking arsenal steeped in creativity and unpredictability, Pettis’ skill set and impressive resume have brought him to the cusp of super-stardom.
That being said, standing within striking distance of becoming a UFC champion and having his profile on the verge of exploding is familiar territory for the Duke Roufus-trained fighter. After defeating Benson Henderson to become the WEC lightweight champion and creating one of the most phenomenal highlight reel moments (The Showtime Kick) in MMA history in the process, Pettis was poised to enter the UFC fold with an immediate title shot in tow.
Unfortunately for the Roufusport staple, the road to becoming a UFC champion would take a costly detour. When his immediate title shot was shelved due to a trilogy bout between 155-pound title holder Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard, Pettis dismissed the idea of waiting for his turn to come around and accepted a bout with fellow contender Clay Guida.
“The Carpenter’s” wrestling skills tipped the balance on their bout at The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale and the sting of the setback against Guida had a ripple effect as it locked up the brakes on a title shot and reshuffled Pettis into the deck of the ultra-competitive lightweight division. In addition to his loss to the Chicago native, Pettis would also battle injuries and lengthy lay-offs as he attempted to regain traction in the divisional race.
The situation presented a drastic shift in momentum as he went from a rapidly rising star to being described as over-hyped and overrated in the course of one fight. Ever a student of the fight game, Pettis faced the reality of the situation head on and learned a valuable lesson in the process.
“My mentality started to change after the Henderson fight,” Pettis told Bleacher Report. “My WEC career happened so quickly and I was exposed to different levels of fame in a very short amount of time. A year-and-a-half into my career I’m fighting for the title. I landed the ‘Showtime Kick’ and had the MTV Series (World of Jenks) and that provided different levels of fame and recognition.
“As fighters, we have to play into that. Everybody is saying you’re the man and you think you’re the man because of it, but you get one loss and then all of sudden you suck. I was the man going into the Guida fight and then I lost and everybody forgot about me. I was still the same athlete. I still had the same level of talent, but our fans in mixed martial arts are short sometimes. They only care about the next guy in line. They only care about who is in the next big fight. There are so many big fights nowadays it’s hard to stay on top.
“It was a difficult situation,” Pettis added. “I was coming off the best performance of my career against Henderson and then I was forced to wait. I had to wait three or four months to even know when I was fighting, then it took six months to actually get the fight in. A lot changes in six months. If you don’t make mixed martial arts a lifestyle, you won’t continue to improve.
“You won’t grow with each fight and that’s what I learned. I did some things wrong going into that Guida fight. Before the fight I took some time off. I told myself I was the champ and that I deserved it, but that can’t happen. You think you can pick back up right where you left off but that isn’t true. You have to start everything back over again and there is no progression in there. Now after my fights, I get right back into camp and work on new things. It’s not a training camp but I’m in the gym being a student of the game. That’s what I always need to be and that was something I learned big time in that fight with Guida.“
Despite his frustrations, the sacrifices and a renewed focus would prove worthwhile as the former WEC title holder answered back with three consecutive victories, two of which came in the form of brutal first round finishes over Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone.
In the aftermath of his destruction of “Cowboy” at UFC on Fox 6 in January, Pettis once again locked in the number one contender position with a promised shot at the lightweight title his for the taking.
“The fight against Cowboy was exactly the statement I was looking to make,” Pettis told Bleacher Report. “I had a great performance and I couldn’t have asked for a better one. I had been on the sidelines for almost a year with my shoulder and the reason it took so long for me to come back is because I wasn’t going to get in there and compete at 80 percent.
“I was making sure my shoulder was 100%. I knew that a loss in that fight would put me at the back of the bus but if I won then the world was mine for a little bit. I wanted to put on the best performance I could and I accomplished that. No one has ever stopped Cowboy the way I did.”
Dismantling Cerrone in quick fashion put Pettis back in the spotlight and in the aftermath of his victory at UFC on Fox 6, the doors to title contention where thrown open. At the post-fight press conference at the United Center, UFC President Dana White declared him next in line for a shot at the 155-pound crown and it appeared as if his nearly two-year journey back to a title opportunity had come to a close.
But much like the unpredictable and versatile attack he brings to the cage, Pettis rolled out an offensive no one saw coming when the talented young star made the decision to vacate his contender position in the lightweight division in order to secure a title fight with featherweight phenom Jose Aldo later this year.
News of the fight dominated the headlines of MMA media and the showdown between Aldo and Pettis instantly became one of the most anticipated bouts of 2013. While the decision to pursue “Junior’s” 145-pound crown was based in Pettis wanting to test himself against an opponent regarded as one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport, it also gave a clear look at another stage of his evolution in the fight game.
The situation proved Pettis had an understanding of the rhythm in which the sport moves and he wanted to capitalize on the moment. While a high-profile bout was sitting on the table in a guaranteed title shot at lightweight, it took savvy to see a bigger opportunity around the corner.
Like a seasoned chess player, Pettis saw past the immediate option and moved towards the bigger opportunity. The ability to do so is something he credits to the turbulence of a rapid ascension to the top of mixed martial arts and the successes and setbacks along the way.
“Even at the Las Vegas card (UFC 156) a few weeks later people were still talking about my fight with Cerrone,” Pettis said. “I looked at the situation with the mentality like I’m the man and I am going after what I want. Jose Aldo is one of the pound-for-pound best in the world and that is very intriguing to me. I can make 145-pounds and why not go down there while I’m hot and take advantage of the situation.
“A fight with Aldo is very intriguing to me. He can explode and he’s a very good athlete. That is why his striking is so good. To be a great striker you have to have a certain level of athleticism and he has that. I kind of have an idea of what he is going to be throwing but I’m not going to make it in my head where he is going to do this, this, and that because what if he doesn’t do any of those things?
“It’s an MMA fight but two great kickboxers are going to be fighting in there. It’s hard to say what is going to happen but if you’re getting in trouble, you go for a takedown. It’s mixed martial arts and we are expecting it all. He does have good takedowns. We’ve seen him take guys down and he’s won rounds that way in the past. We are going to be ready for everything in there.
“I think there our styles will make for an exciting fight. I don’t hold back and I let it all out in the cage. I think when you fight fearless, that is when you have your best performances.”
If preparing to face his most difficult challenge to date weren’t enough, the ante on the fight was raised when the UFC announced the showdown would take place in Aldo’s home country of Brazil. The passionate Brazilian fans create a unique and raucous environment that has been known to overwhelm the foreign opposition.
While Pettis acknowledges the additional challenge fighting a Brazilian in his backyard will create, he also understands it is an element he will simply have to adapt to.
“You can’t prepare for something like that,” Pettis said. “You just have to know that it’s there, expect it and embrace it. That’s what I’m doing. I’m using that as motivation. The whole country is going to be against me and he is their golden child. And I expected that and that is how it should be. People were telling me the Milwaukee card goes down the week after and that I should have fought there, but he is the champ and I need to go get the belt from there and bring it back home.”
Once the ball began to roll on the fight between Aldo and Pettis, it didn’t take long for the bout to become a reality. In a two-day span Pettis went from being the No. 1 contender at 155-pounds to making his featherweight debut against the division’s dominant champion. While Pettis was excited with the outcome, there was one aspect of the scenario which left him feeling uneasy.
Dropping down to compete for the 145-pound title meant he would now be sharing a weight class with his close friend and training partner Erik Koch. For the past two years Koch has held position as one of the elite fighters in the featherweight division, and over the course of this run, earned a title shot against Aldo at UFC 149.
Unfortunately for Koch the title opportunity would never materialize as a series of injuries would not only force him out of the main event in Calgary, but also the rescheduled tilt at UFC 153. The Iowa native’s hard luck would continue in his return to the Octagon as he suffered a second round TKO loss to surging contender Ricardo Lamas at UFC on Fox 6.
The loss to “The Bully” would remove Koch from the immediate title picture—a scenario Pettis would step directly into.
“To be honest, that is something I feel bad about in this situation,” Pettis said. “The text I shot out there wasn’t me asking for the fight, I was just saying Jose Aldo is good but I think I can beat him. When the fight started coming about I had to hit Erik up right away because I didn’t want him to think I was taking his spot. Erik is like a brother to me man and I wouldn’t want to hurt him. If he would have said no and wasn’t cool with it, I wouldn’t have taken the fight to be honest. He has to work his way back up and has a lot of time to get there. Aldo is what intrigues me about the division. Really, it’s not like there are a whole bunch of fights I want to fight at 145.
“The level of competition isn’t as tough down there as it is at 55 besides Jose Aldo. Don’t get me wrong, there are some great guys down there, but to be the number one guy at 55 is a much harder task. You never know. I’m not saying I want the easier fights but right now I have my hands full with one of the best fighters in both divisions. “
With his collision with Aldo set for August 3rd, Pettis is experiencing yet another surge on his rise to the top of the sport. His success inside the cage has continued to create interesting opportunities outside of the Octagon. With his recent addition as the newest member of Team Metro PCS, Pettis joined a collection of UFC superstars the likes of Ronda Rousey and Urijah Faber to become a promotional face to one of the UFC’s biggest sponsors.
“It’s amazing,” Pettis described when asked about the experience. “When you are winning fights, that is when these opportunities come. You have to focus on the fighting side and the big opportunities will come.
“I’m excited to be a part of Team Metro PCS. There was a competition at the end of last year where the fans voted and I almost won. [Urijah] Faber edged me out and got me at the last minute. Faber and I are boys and he has way more followers than I do on Twitter. I mean c’mon, he’s ‘The California Kid’. Who doesn’t love Faber? He beat me in the competition and for Metro PCS to still want me on the team is an honor. I’m coming off a big win and now I’m getting an opportunity most guys don’t get. To be on the team with Ronda Rousey, Urijah Faber and Cain Velasquez is a great opportunity.”
Being a young star in the most successful promotion in mixed martial arts is the equivalent of a dream come true for Pettis. At the same time, the fame and recognition he’s experienced as the result of his hard work is a long way from the hard-knock days of his youth growing up in the rustic Midwestern setting of Milwaukee, Wisc.
While Pettis’ skill set is filled with flash and pizzazz, it has been his blue-collar work ethic which has laid the foundation for his continued to success—an attribute he very much credits to his home city. Milwaukee is passionate about their sports heroes and the support Pettis receives from his hometown collective provides additional motivation on his quest to become champion.
“I am born and raised in Milwaukee,” Pettis said. “I have so much history in that city. It’s one of those small cities where everybody knows everybody and I am proud to represent them. It’s still hard for me to talk about it in that way because I don’t want it to sound like I’m ahead of the town or anybody in it.
“There aren’t many athletes that are from Milwaukee that are at the top of their sport. Most of our stars are NBA or NFL players from other places. With me, Milwaukee has someone who is born and raised in the city and I’m representing them pretty well. They show out and support me 100 percent. They go to my gyms. They go to my sports bar and I’m proud to be fighting for them.”
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.