Can Anthony Pettis Take the Lightweight Division to New Heights of Popularity?

Levi NileContributor IIISeptember 24, 2013

Jan 26, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA;  Anthony Pettis kneels before his fight against Donald Cerrone (not pictured) during UFC on FOX 6 at the United Center.  Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports
David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

When Anthony Pettis submitted Benson Henderson to claim the UFC lightweight title, it was done with an authority that the division hadn’t seen since BJ Penn destroyed Joe Stevenson at UFC 80.

When it comes to the landscape on I-155, there hasn’t been an explosive, take-no-prisoners kind of champion since Penn. That isn’t to say that his predecessors (Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson) haven’t been great champions, because they have.

But neither of those two gentlemen ever managed to stop any of their opponents, save for the one time when Edgar defeated Gray Maynard via TKO in Round 4 their rubber match. Aside from that single time, all lightweight title fights have gone to a decision since Penn stopped Diego Sanchez at UFC 107.

All of that ended when Pettis defeated Henderson via submission in Round 1 of their title fight at UFC 164. The notoriously hard-to-submit Henderson tapped out quickly to a sudden armbar, and it was over before we knew it.

Now, with Pettis at the helm, the lightweight division has a bona fide killer wearing the belt. Like Penn, Pettis has a way of finishing elite competition and making it look far easier than it really is, and that is one of the key components for true drama.

This is great news because it restores to the division all the excitement that the lower weight classes have long been praised for.    

And it looks to be just the beginning.                                    

When studying past champions at 155, we find that there are many different species of greatness. In Edgar and Henderson, we had two champions who were notable for their determination, heart and desire.

Aug 31, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Benson Henderson (left) fights Anthony Pettis during the UFC-164 bout at BMO Harris Bradley Center. at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

Both men loved being the champ and both men fought hard to keep that belt. When looking at the fighters both men conquered, you see a who’s who in the division for their time: BJ Penn, Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and, of course, for Henderson we can add the name of Edgar.

That’s a pretty impressive resume for any fighter at lightweight, belt or no belt.

But when you look at Pettis and compare him to former champions, you notice one thing right away: Pettis is a show-stopper. He’s the kind of fighter that has the desire, God-given gifts and a skill set that was made to end fights.

When you look at his last three bouts alone, you can see it plain as day. Against the tough-as-nails Joe Lauzon, Pettis blew him out of the water and looked fantastic doing so.

Then, he squared off against Donald Cerrone in a fight that had the fans salivating. Pettis walked out of the cage midway through Round 1 after overwhelming Cerrone with a barrage of kicks to the body that saw him fall to the floor, hurt and ready to be finished.

Finally, in the biggest fight of his career, he stepped in against reigning champion Benson Henderson and submitted him with almost no real effort at all.

Now, a division long noted for having a slew of dangerous contenders finally has a dangerous champion, and it’s long overdue.

When Penn was king, the UFC didn’t have the exposure and coverage it does now. The deal the UFC enjoys with Fox was nothing more than a pipe dream back then, and thus many great fighters of that time were unknown on a big scale.

With Pettis stepping in as the top man in 2013, it seems nothing less than serendipity. He’s at the right age (which means he’s young), and he truly wants to be great.

As a fighter, Pettis was already commanding a great deal of attention with his daring in the cage; as champion, the amount of attention is going to increase because all fighters are now gunning for him. Besides, shiny objects (like a title belt) have always drawn many an eye.

Khabib Nurmagomedov in action
Khabib Nurmagomedov in actionGary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

When people look at a great champion, the very next thing they look for is the next biggest threat to his crown; and in the lightweight division, these fans of great fights have many matchups to look forward to.

As it stands right now, there are several fights for Pettis that walk and talk a lot like a Fight of the Year: vs. Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez, TJ Grant and Khabib Nurmagomedov—all seem like they’d be incredibly entertaining.

But we don’t really have to go that far into the future. Pettis' next fight against Josh Thompson has all the makings of a classic. And of course, if he keeps winning, a superfight against Jose Aldo could be one of the biggest fights in UFC history.

If Pettis can continue in his winning ways (which means winning in spectacular fashion), more and more fans are going to tune in. Pettis fights in a way that is hard not to love; his submission game is top-notch and his striking is the best in the division, bar none.

Oddly enough, the fact that he has lost twice (by decision) makes him even more compelling because more people will tune in when true risk is involved. As great as he is, Pettis is not unbeatable—he’s just incredibly destructive. If you want to beat him, you should be willing to go through hell.

It’s that notion of a true fight, each time out, that is going to make people tune in. The same was true for fighters like Julio Cesar Chavez and other highly popular fighters from the smaller divisions. Nearly every big-name fighter has been hugely entertaining because they had one flaw that an opponent could exploit if they were willing to pay the price.

And the same is true for Pettis. As Clay Guida proved, he can be defeated, but it’s going to be damn hard to do. Thankfully, there are plenty of hungry fighters out there who won’t shy away from the task.

When fans see all these components in one division, with a champion who is going to have to be at his explosive, dynamic best in order to keep his title, all that is needed is a promotion equal to the possibilities.

And as we have seen with Pettis, running up the cage wall to deliver that head kick to Henderson, nearly anything is possible.

And that is why he is just the man to turn heads toward the lightweight division and keep them there for as long as his reign lasts.