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

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When You Mix Fight Club & Church Club, You Get Clubbed Alright

 

Sadly, this is not a fake trailer:

Two things: there are all kinds of wrong with this trailer; and, I will definitely be watching this.

I hate to judge a movie based on a trailer (I made that mistake with Star Wars Episode 1), but because this hits close to home with me being a Christian and a fight fan, here are some quick, knee-jerk reactions that are probably just as wrong as what’s in that trailer:

  • 0:36 – That’s a lot of dudes… Women also fight, so I wonder if any were invited to join the church’s fight club. I never trust any church that has velvet ropes for some members and not for others.
  • 0:41 – “Tough guys need Jesus, too.” I’d argue that’s really limiting.
  • 0:43 – “You guys like to see me fight another pastor?” Paging Joel Osteen.
  • 0:55 – “Tonight we got to fight and then we talk about Jesus tomorrow when we go to church.” This is actually the most insulting aspect of the trailer. Christians are commanded to put God first, before anything, so to stop putting him first for the duration of the fight and pick things up after seems pretty egregious for a Christian to say.   Or to say we only talk about Jesus “tomorrow” or “in church” also seems real limiting.
  • 1:02 – “The tradition of which I am a part is that we would love one another, and this ain’t love.” True, “this ain’t love”.  It’s a sport.  However, I wonder if this guy extends the same love to everyone, across the board. It’s easy to say, harder to practice.  If you’re that committed to love, get to loving and stop proselytizing. Show me the love, man!
  • 1:06 – “At the end of the day, it’s about reaching people with the gospel, regardless of what you do to introduce them into a relationship with Jesus Christ.”  Uh, reaching with the gospel is one thing, but an MMA fight ain’t the gospel.  It’s an MMA fight.  It’s like saying , “I’m going to win over people to Christ through shoemaking.”
  • 1:17 – The footage with Benson Henderson is a great example of a guy who has never been shy about his love of God or his relationship with Christ.  I don’t know how big a part Benson has in this film, but I bet it’s there (along with the Jon Jones footage) as a prop.  Focusing on one man, his faith, and his fulltime job seems like it would make for a more compelling look at both worlds.  As it stands I don’t think either Christianity or MMA is going to come out looking good when this movie is released, which wouldn’t be the first time for either.
  • 1:30 – “Mainstream Christianity has feminized men. If we would raise our boys to be men, these kind of problems would go away.” This guy again?  Is feminizing like Martinizing?  Using the gospel to justify some macho fantasy about “de-feminizing” boys is about as good a use of the Bible as using it to power your car.  Shouldn’t Christians be attempting to raise their children to be more like Christ and having the faith to let the rest sort itself out according to God’s plans for their kids?   Besides, the guy here could use some feminizing.
  • 1:40 – “Cagefighting doesn’t speak about loving one another; cagefighting is about hating one another basically.”  This guy again, too?  Ugh.  “Cagefighting” isn’t about loving or hating.  It’s a competition. Love and hate play as much of a role in a “cagefight” as they do in building a model airplane.
  • 1:48 – As the pastor puts his kid into a fight, “God said don’t be afraid.”  Surely there is a better example to show how to teach a child to not be afraid? As a Christian man, I don’t fear (at least I try not to).  I don’t fear busses or alligators or crossbows.  But that also doesn’t mean I go walking in front of moving busses, wrestle with alligators, or juggle crossbows.   Acting on any of those things doesn’t prove to the world that I’m not afraid.  That’s ego. Giving in to trying to prove I’m not afraid means I’ve already lost and am giving in to the very fear I’m trying to show everyone doesn’t bother me.  There’s a difference between someone of faith being persecuted and not being afraid of that persecution, and a ditzy father thinking that putting his kid in a fight with another kid is going to teach him to trust in God and not be afraid.  Also, MMA isn’t a sport for kids. Their bodies are not fully developed.  MMA is also not a metaphor.
  • 2:00 – “Jesus never tapped out…” Well, yes he did.  He submitted to God’s plan as all Christians are called to do.  Submission to God is part and parcel to the gospel.
  • 2:17 – “Can you love your neighbor as yourself, and then at the same time, knee him in the face as hard as you can?” This depends.  Lyoto Machida, Mark Munoz, Jon Jones, and Alexander Gustafsson say yes.  Ronda Rousey and Brock Lesnar say no.

This whole trailer and idea of a church fight club feels like a weird offshoot of the same warped following that the movie Fight Club has. The Fight Club fanatics who love the movie (not even the book mind you just the ideas of the book and movie), seem to miss the point no matter how many times they watch it.  Maybe that’s the correlation since too many Christians who love quoting the Bible are only looking to the Cliff notes and can’t be bothered to actually read it.

Anyway, stepping off the soapbox.  This looks like a real interesting kind of train wreck.  I can only imagine the reactions from Benson Henderson and Jon Joes (or even the UFC) once the film is released.

Original fight club

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

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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.

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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.

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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.