Kingdom Come: When Anthony Pettis Lost the Title at UFC 185 & Created a Third Act

A battered Anthony Pettis in between rounds at UFC 185.

A battered Anthony Pettis in between rounds at UFC 185.

The next few days will find legions of MMA pundits and talking heads espousing the performance of newly minted 155-pound king Rafael Dos Anjos at UFC 185 in Dallas—and rightfully so.  This wasn’t Dos Anjos’ first rodeo in Dallas.  In 2006, Dos Anjos rode into North Texas for UFC 103 on a 2-fight losing streak before taking an unmemorable decision win over Rob Emerson.  This time around, he left Dallas to a hail of fanfare and several pounds heavier after taking the belt from Anthony “Showtime” Pettis in a one-sided affair. The King is dead; hail to the King.

This is not a eulogy for Anthony Pettis.  This is on par for the course.

One of the worst things about MMA and the UFC in particular is the lack of a true sporting season. With one event after another, there is no shortage of content and fights, but there is little time for reflection, especially as a title reign is being built.  And when a title reign is halted, like some mansion whose beams and girders stand exposed to the elements and without ornamentation, the one thing that comes into stark focus is its foundation. Today, many are questioning the foundation of Team Pettis in light of the Dos Anjos victory, but it’s Pettis’ foundation that remains as it always has—obstinate. Pettis’ loss wasn’t the lone upset of UFC 185, and this wasn’t Pettis’ first loss even if it feels that way to many.

Anthony Pettis before round one at UFC 185.

Anthony Pettis before round one at UFC 185.

Pettis won his first title, the WEC lightweight championship, on the promotion’s very last show before it was folded under the UFC’s promotional belt.  Pettis was the ruler of a kingdom that ceased to exist minutes after he was crowed. And just because he was crowned WEC royalty did not guarantee him a place at the UFC’s Parthenon after the merging of the two promotions.  The intrigue of a champion versus champion matchup would be put aside, and Pettis would have to earn his way into a title shot despite his resume and his bonafides.  And in the first test of his UFC career against one-man strobe light Clay Guida, Pettis was weighed, measured, and found wanting.  To add insult to injury, Pettis, the champion who personified Showtime and who had made his bones on techniques only seen in videos games, found himself losing in the worst possible way—a control-heavy decision. No muss; no fuss.

The one-time and future 155-pound king would have to start from the bottom at the largest and most notorious MMA promotion in the world.  A pauper’s story for sure, but a second act and one that would find Pettis cutting through Joe Lauzon, Jeremy Stephens, and Donald Cerrone—fan favorites, veterans, and contenders in the UFC’s stable of 155-pound killers.  It was a winning streak filled with highlights and capped off by an unprecedented lightweight title win as Pettis submitted fellow WEC alum, former WEC champion, and UFC champion Benson Henderson, a man who had never been submitted in his lightweight career.

Then, the freshly coronated ruler of the 155-pound class was then taken down by something even worse than a labored decision victory—injury.  A champion who could not defend his championship, Pettis was once again a king with no kingdom, and the division flourished in his year-long absence. Pettis would be welcomed back to competition by Gilbert Melendez—a stiff out for any first title defense let alone for a champion returning from a year-long absence due to injury.  By round two Melendez would be vanquished, and in typical Showtime fashion, by submitting a rival who had never been submitted in his 26-fight career. It would also be Pettis’ only title defense.

Throughout fight week in Dallas for UFC 185, the city was treated to the heavy-handed UFC branded #welcometotheshow tagline, a not so subtle and pun-filled reference lofted upon a man who literally wears those expectations on his shoulders.  Heavy words to be certain.  Perhaps heavier than the heft of the championship belt.

Duke Roufus & Anthonsy Showtime Pettis at the UFC 185 Weigh Ins.

Duke Roufus & Anthony Showtime Pettis at the UFC 185 Weigh Ins.

Before Bruce Buffer’s announcement of a clear-cut winning decision for Dos Anjos had a chance to resonate through the American Airlines Center, Pettis’ critics, one-time contenders and future rivals, struck at Pettis’ lowest point.  If the end of a championship reign is one of the few times the MMA community can get introspective, it’s also one of the ripest times to shamelessly self-promote. Many on Twitter extoled Dos Anjos.  Many more criticized or called out Pettis.  The King is dead; hail to the King.

No one but Pettis knows if the expectations of a promotional juggernaut, the expectations of a world-class team in Roufusport, or the personal expectations Pettis placed on himself were too much to bear. What’s more likely is it was simply Dos Anjos’ night.

It’s clear Pettis was defeated round after round in the main event at UFC 185.  It’s also clear that round after round, he never stopped fighting.  Pettis had no answer for Dos Anjos’ onslaught, but he continued to answer the bell.  For Pettis, a man whose fighting career has seen more than its share of setbacks, the result of UFC 185’s main event serves as another challenge, another kingdom to claim and reclaim. Vanquish, rule, fall, rinse, repeat.  Few fighters make it through a quarter of that cycle.  Fewer still make it through an entire revolution of that cycle. Anthony Pettis makes it routine.  Call it the third act. Call it a fourth act. Call it a saga.  The King is dead; hail to the King.

Anthony Pettis with Joe Rogan

Anthony Pettis with Joe Rogan

Leg Man – Did Palhares Get Dirty with Steve Carl’s Leg?

I’ve lamented in the past about the strange and sad journey of Rousimar Palhares and his run in the UFC.  I try my best to keep fighter criticism to nil, but in the case of Palhares, I ultimately sided with the camp that said, despite how phenomenally talented Toquinho is, perhaps fighting isn’t the best occupation for him given his proclivity to intentionally hurt his MMA opponents…  and his sparring partners…  and fellow competitors in grappling matches.

After the UFC cut ties with Palhares, he found a home with the one fight promotion that isn’t into the whole brevity thing, The World Series of Fighting.  World Series of Fighting president Ray Sefo went on record in December stating that while the WSOF would welcome Palhares with open arms, they would not tolerate any of the shenanigans that led to his UFC release.

So, after all eyes were on Palhares to make sure he would pass his pre-fight drug test administered by the Nevada state Athletic Commission, all eyes were on Palhares to see if he could manage to submit his opponent Steve Carl and whether or not he would intentionally hold on to the submission as he had done many times in the past.

After all of the context, on Saturday night, this happened:

So, did he or didn’t he? Too close to call?  It all depends on the POV you bring to the fight.

From my perspective, it seems like Palhares held on too long.  I know that Ray Sefo thinks I’m crazy, and I’ve been called worse, but allow me to explain.

Given the position of the referee and the fact that Carl taps before the ref intervenes, Palhares could have let go of the heel hook.  The cameras saw the tap.  The commentators saw the tap.  The people in the arena saw the tap. The referee saw the tap (even is he was slightly out of position to break it up fast enough). It would be impossible to argue that Carl didn’t tap.  It was clear to Carl and everyone else watching that Carl had been bested, yet Palhares held on when he didn’t have to.  When the evidence is that clear, and an opponent knows he has been defeated, shouldn’t the tap be enough?

But what about Matt Lindland and Murilo Bustamante? Aren’t fighters trained to “keep going” until the referee says otherwise?  It’s the fighters’ job to fight.  It’s the referee’s job to protect the fighters, right?

I concede that fighters are trained to continue fighting until the referee says stop and waiting until the fight is stopped by a referee eliminates any second guessing by the fighters or the public.  By the letter of the law and the spirit of the rules in place, Palhares didn’t do anything illegal in Saturday night’s win over Steve Carl. He followed the rules as they are spelled out and obeyed the command by referee Yves Lavigne to stop.  However, shouldn’t we expect more out of the fighters in a situation like the one presented on Saturday night?  It’s easy to write off the responsibility a fighter has to another fighter as something out of his/her hands and that it’s the sole responsibility of the referee to protect the fighters, but can’t we expect a little more from the fighters themselves?  Just because a fighter can crank on a joint once his/her opponent has tapped, does it mean he/she should?  I don’t buy that fighters are machines programmed to do something and not use their own judgment.  There are numerous examples in the cage of a fighter ignoring the advice of a corner and doing his/her own thing. However, it all depends on the fighter/fighters in question.

Consider the case of Anthony Pettis’ most recent win against Benson Henderson.  Pettis wrapped up Henderson in an arm bar that was so deep, Henderson could only verbal tap out. And even then, due to the position of the fighters and referee Herb Dean, the submission went unheard by the referee and the entire crowd in attendance in Milwaukee.    No one knew what had happened except the fighters who were involved in the fight.  By all rights, Pettis could have held on to the hold and raised his hips, further inflicting damage until Herb Dean came to break it up, but he didn’t.  There was enough respect among both competitors that they knew what had happened even if no one else did at first blush. Henderson could have argued that he didn’t tap if he wanted and likely have gotten a restart.  He didn’t.  The Pettis/Henderson example also speaks to the character of both the victor and the vanquished.

I won’t question Palhares’ character.  I don’t know him.  What I do know is that he was suspended for 90 days in 2010 for continuing to crank on submissions after an opponent and referee had called for a stop to the fight.  What I do know is that he lost his job in 2013 for the very same offense.  What I do know is that every time Palhares slaps a winning leg submission on an opponent, a great number of people will scrutinize just how quick he releases the submission.  Lastly, what I know above all else is that only Palhares has himself to blame for the baggage he brings into the cage.

UFC 171 – The Afterglow: Big Tex Edition

Showtime and Money are not impressed with your Q&A performances.

Showtime and Money are not impressed with your Q&A performances.

So I turned 37 last week, and to celebrate, I took off of work most of last week and tried to take in as many of the events and promotions the UFC offered during their visit to Dallas in prep for UFC 171.  This isn’t the UFC’s first visit to Dallas.  In 2009, the promotion brought Rich Franklin/Vitor Belfort & Crop-Cop/Dos Santos to North Texas and later, Strikeforce: Overeem v. Werdum.  Having seen all of Zuffa’s offering to Dallas, UFC 171 stands head and shoulders above their past efforts. Every event I attended was brimming with fight fans from every background.

The difference between the 2009 event and 2014 is noticeable just from a visual standpoint of the demographics in attendance.   The hordes of Affliction/Tapout/Dethrone t-shirt tough guys from 2009 had been replaced in droves by couples, young people, children, even the infirmed (at one of the meet-and-greets I went to, there was an elderly couple, each with a seeing service dog and a wheel chair).  It was a real delight to see such a broad swath of fans the UFC has managed to tap into.

The pre-fight, end-of-the-week highlight included a one-two punch of a Fight Club Q&A session with Anthony Pettis and to the surprise of those in attendance Chad Mendes, and then the weigh-ins.  Some observations from the Q&A, the weigh-ins, and the fight itself:

  • While the fan base has evolved since the 2009 show, the fight IQ of said fan base hasn’t been able to keep pace.  Anthony Pettis and Chad Mendes were asked on 11 different occasions for pictures and autographs and were asked to either take of their shirts or sleep with members of the audience on at least 4 different occasions.  To their credit as pros, they tried to accommodate each legitimate request and question with a response, but when one fan asked Pettis (and I’m paraphrasing) if he faked an injury to get out of fighting Aldo only to then fight Benson Henderson, you could tell Showtime as well as the audience had had enough.  I realize fans are not the media. They don’t have the same motivations in their questions, and even though seeing a lot of fans turn into the Chris-Farley-interviewing-Paul-McCartney character from SNL is funny and cute, it would really help to have someone from the UFC hosting the Q&A with a little crowd quality control experience.
  • The weigh-ins are an event unto themselves.  A thousand people filed into Gilley’s Southside Ballroom to get a glimpse with fighters both known and not-so-well known.  There were just as many people craning their necks to get a view of Joe Rogan and Nick Diaz as there were trying to get pictures with Luke Barnatt.  Oh, and to the contingent of MMA misogynists that cry no one is interested in seeing women’s MMA/that women fighters are not as talented as the men/that women’s division is shallow/that women’s MMA is a marketing ploy by Dana, no other fighters, aside from those on the main event, got as loud of a pop as Jessica Andrade and Raquel Pennington when they were announced.  Live with it, don’t live with it, but as Iceman King Parsons used to say, “It bees that way some times.”
  • The crowds were huge EVERYWHERE.  I was able to attend a meet-and-greet with Uriah Hall, which was one of a half dozen that took place over the week at various MetroPCS stores.  Other meet-and-greet attendees included Cain Velasquez, Ronda Rousey, Matt Hughes, Jeremy Stephens, and Phil Davis.  The Rousey line was so long, they were forced to cut people off.  I received similar reports from other people I know that similar instances happened with the Cain appearances  as well, which leads me to believe the UFC severely underestimate interest.  I know the partnership with MetroPCS is one that allows for these fan one-on-ones, but all this tells me is that Dallas is ready for its own fan expo. Dave Sholler, the PR Director for the UFC said as much last night when he tweeted:

  • The fight itself was a sellout, which UFC officials predicted; however, there were tons of fans in attendance for the prelims which started at 5 PM.  No one ever shows for the prelims except for the die-hard fans.  The arenas always look so empty on TV during the prelims, but in the ACC the fans piled in before the PPV broadcast and gave it a full feeling.  By the time the PPV started the arena was swelling with people and the decibel level continued to rise.  It was the kind of response Mark Cuban wishes he had every time the Mavs play.
  • The next time the UFC comes to North Texas, it has to zero in on At&T Stadium.  Dallas is ready for it. Throw in a fan expo and a main event worthy of a stadium show (the possible return of GSP against Hendricks, perhaps), and baby, you got a stew going.

Showtime for The Waterboy: Sergio Pettis to the UFC?

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In case you didn’t know, current lightweight king Anthony Showtime Pettis has a little brother who has been making waves on the regional fighting circuit shifting his time between flyweight and bantamweight. However, it appears his time in the “minors” is coming to a close.

I’ve only seen Sergio fight once on an AXS MMAshow late one Friday night, but to think there is another Pettis out there with that kind of skill level is kind of scary.  Like big bro, Sergio trains out of Duke Roufus’ team Roufusport based out of Milwaukee.

Here he is in his last fight taking on James Porter:

Sergio is legit, but the bigger question is if he does sign with the UFC, in which class will he make his debut?   Bantamweight is at a bottleneck as Renan Barao and Dominick Cruz settle who the real champ is.  Featherweight is a bigger question mark considering big bro Pettis’ desire to take on Jose Aldo, and the line of top contenders who object to that fight, including Chad Mendez, Frankie Edgar, Cub Swanson, and Ricardo Lamas,

What this does make me think of is the lineage of fighting siblings.  The UFC has had no dearth of fighting brothers including Jim and Dan Miller, Joe and Dan Lauzon, and even Matt and Mark Hughes.

Like looking in a mirror.

Of course Sergio will run into comparisons to big brother.  Showtime has put together a really dynamic legacy in the sport in a really short amount of time.  But, I just can’t help but to root for a guy from that lineage whose big brother refers to as The Waterboy.

The Redirect – On TJ Grant’s Injury

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Overnight, word broke over Twitter that TJ Grant could not be cleared in time medically for a December 2013 meeting with current UFC 155 kingpin Anthony Pettis.  This is the second time TJ has had to bow out of a title shot due to the same concussion he suffered training for a meeting with former champ Ben Henderson.  This must be one serious concussion.

This is also devastating news for Grant who originally earned a title shot after finishing off Gray Maynard in short order and going undefeated since dropping to 155.

Unfortunately, time and again, injuries take the most worthy contenders and escort them to the back of the line, reshuffling the deck.  For the UFC’s 155 class, the silver lining is the depth of the division.

To that end, UFC matchmakers have tapped Strikeforce vet Josh the Punk Thomson to replace Grant (called it) in what would no doubt be a most entertaining fight, especially since the two have a recent history and jawed back and forth through Twitter earlier this year.

I would love to see the matchup since Thomson tends to shine when he’s fighting anyone not named Gilbert Melendez.  And there’s little to say about how entertaining Pettis is that hasn’t already been said. However, I just don’t see this fight happening, at least not by year’s end.  Thompson tends to be injury prone, and Pettis seems to hit the injury speed bump more often than most.  If they can stay healthy during their respective camps, I would love to be proved wrong and will gladly eat my hat.

For fans, the Grant injury should set up a showdown with Benson Henderson at some point, and the Gilbert Melendez/Diego Sanchez October matchup stays intact (whew!).  It also gives guys like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Jim Miller, Gleison Tibau, Edson Barboza, and Miles Jury the time to put their own stamp on the division and set themselves apart from the pack.