The knee injury Anthony Pettis suffered was relatively minor.
A little tweak in the gym, he said. “One of those freak things that could happen to anybody,” explained his coach, Duke Roufus.
Not that big a deal in the grand scheme of things, except that it forced him out of a planned title fight with UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo.
And that, in turn, threw Pettis into a spiral of depression and self-doubt that was anything but minor.
“I was just in this funk that I couldn’t get out of,” Pettis told MMAjunkie.com (www.mmajunkie.com). “I questioned everything. I questioned my career choice, if I’m ever going to be a champion, if I’m supposed to be a champion. It was just like, every time I’m supposed to get a title shot something happens and I don’t get it.”
When you think about it in those terms, maybe Pettis could be forgiven for trying to talk his way into the UFC lightweight title shot that had already been promised to T.J. Grant. That fight was a few weeks later – just long enough to give his knee ample time to heal, Pettis insisted – and it was at UFC 164 in his hometown of Milwaukee, against a fighter he’d already beaten once and who he seemed destined to clash with again.
How could he not at least try for a rematch with Benson Henderson, he reasoned. Anything to pull him out of the dark mood he was in.
Roufus saw it. Of course he did. He’s been a trainer and friend to Pettis for years, and his own career as a kickboxer taught him what it was like to lose big opportunities that you might never get back again.
“Sometimes the hardest thing in those situations is keeping someone positive,” Roufus said. “I think why Anthony is very good at what he does is he’s very emotionally connected to the sport. He loves it. He loves trying to be the best he can be. Having something like that taken away from him, it’s a big loss in his personal life. He’s 26, but he’s still mindful that the clock is ticking.”
So when a concussion suffered during jiu-jitsu training eventually forced Grant out of the title fight with Henderson, it seemed almost too good to be true. In fact, it was Roufus who heard the news first, then faced the task of convincing Pettis that it wasn’t just some cruel joke.
“He actually didn’t believe me,” Roufus said. “He thought he was being punked.”
Even though the circumstances seemed a little strange the more he heard about them, Pettis said, “I didn’t ask any questions. I was like, ‘He’s out and I’m in? Deal.’”
There’s a flip side to this bargain, however. Contrary to how it might look from Pettis’ perspective these past few months, title shots in the UFC aren’t just handed out one after another. If you take your shot and lose – even if it’s on short-notice – you might wait years for another one. And the Henderson that Pettis will be facing on Aug. 31 at Bradley Center in Milwaukee seems significantly different from the one he beat in the WEC back in 2010.
This one, Pettis admitted, is smarter than the one he caught with the “Showtime Kick” that night in Arizona. This one knows how to win rounds, and knows that winning rounds wins championships.
“I’m sure he’s expecting a five-round fight,” Pettis said. “He’s the champ, and he knows he needs to win five rounds to keep that belt. GSP does it the same way. These guys are intelligent fighters, and they know they have to win the rounds to keep their belt. I’m expecting him to do what he’s been doing. He’s going to come out, do just enough to win the rounds, and keep his belt. That’s his game plan, and that’s never my game plan. I’m always looking to finish.”
What you have to wonder is, does looking for the finish improve his chances against a fighter like Henderson? Or might it lead to him disregarding the round-to-round score and only making it easier for the champ to build a big lead as the fight wears on?
The way the Pettis camp sees it, the longer you stay in the cage, the greater the danger. And if you plan on being there for five rounds, it only means your opponent has 25 minutes worth of chances to put you away.
“Honestly, I think it plays right into Anthony’s style,” said Roufus. “I think Ben’s been doing an incredible job of protecting his championship, and I think Anthony’s been doing a fantastic job of attacking to win. There’s two strategies out there. You can protect to win, which then you’re going to win a lot of close fights or fights that are considered controversial, or you can take it out of the judges’ hands by finishing fights, which Anthony has been looking to do.”
There’s also the variable of their shared history to consider. Pettis has one decision win over Henderson, but he also has that highlight-reel kick that Henderson has been forced to see over and over and over again. Every time the current champ shows up to a UFC event, he’s guaranteed a chance to see it on the big screen one more time.
The psychological impact of that moment could push him to do something uncharacteristic in an attempt to replace Pettis’ highlight with one of his own, Roufus said. Or it could make him doubt himself when the critical moment arrives.
“Are you worried about getting kneed again, like Anthony kneed him?” Roufus said. “Are you worried about getting ‘Showtime Kicked’ in front of God and everybody? Are you worried about getting kicked upside the head? That’s a big added advantage for Anthony, but he’s working very hard to make sure he’s not resting on the laurels of that last victory. It’s very tough to beat someone twice, and Ben’s been on the bad end of the highlight reel ever since that. He’s got to be emotionally connected to that and he’s going to come in very well-prepared. The (MMA) Lab and his coaches are very good strategists, and they’re going to try and come up with the safest way to beat Anthony.”
That’s something Pettis is expecting, given Henderson’s recent performances, but it isn’t something he ever wants to emulate, he said.
“I’m not a fan of that style,” Pettis said. “I wouldn’t even try doing that. That’s just manipulating the rules of the game to keep your title. If you’re truly the best, I mean, look at Anderson Silva. He got knocked out in his last fight, but I think he’s truly the best because he’s finished some top guys, and he does it impressively. He’s not trying to grind it out and stay on top of you to win the rounds. He’s out there fighting fights. That’s what I respect, and that’s who I want to be.”
He just has to hope that he can be that fighter and still end up hoisting the UFC lightweight belt when all is said and done in Milwaukee. If there’s one thing we know by now, it’s that Henderson won’t part gently with that hardware.
For more on UFC 164, stay tuned to the UFC Rumors section of the site.