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

WAR OF THE WORDS: BEST MMA QUOTES – DAY 5

“Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”—Gus Johnson

Being an MMA commentator is an utterly thankless job.  For every fight fan who praises Michael Schiavello’s enthusiasm during a fight or Joe Rogan’s rapport with fighters in post-fight interviews, there are droves of critics who decry Mike Goldberg’s responsibility to plug the next UFC event mid-fight or Mauro Ranallo’s attempts to give a live fight more context and illustration.

And fighters-turned commentators don’t get any latitude either. Guys like Pat Militech, Brian Stann, Kenny Florian, and Bas Rutten offer a unique perspective but get lambasted by fight fans who perceive their insights as attacks on and personal biases against the viewer’s favorite fighter. Even the fighters sometimes fail to give the commentators the credit they deserve.  From Josh Barnett taking offense at Kenny Florian or Rampage Jackson coming down on Rich Franklin for stating the obvious, MMA commentators seem to bear the brunt of criticism from all directions. and this is likely before they even get production notes from producers.  It’s a lose-lose situation, but it does speak volumes that the number of commentators, especially in the UFC, is so few.  It’s a challenging job that not just anyone can fill.

A good commentator is one that complements the action so the audience barely notices the contribution as being a part of the broadcast. So when a commentator draws attention to himself or herself in spite of the action, it makes the commentating task that much harder. It’s also a trap that every commentator falls into, at one time or another, directly or indirectly.  But when veteran sports commentator Gus Johnson jumped into the bear trap during the CBS broadcast of Strikeforce: Nashville, MMA fan reactions were vitriolic.

In the main event, Strikeforce middleweight champion Jake Shields dominated Dan Henderson with a gutty performance after Shields was rocked early.  Looking back, Johnson teed-up Shields perfectly. Johnson set the scene, talking about how the perception was that Strikeforce had expected Shields to lose by bringing in Henderson, and Shields was more than ready to respond with his thoughts.

Then, the wheels came off.

Self-promotion machine Jason Mayhem Miller had just interrupted Jake Shields’s victory interview with Johnson when the extras from Shields’s camp, including Gilbert Melendez and Nate and Nick Diaz, took umbrage and began to throw punches at Miller. The production cut to a shot of an empty arena from the prelims, briefly, to distract the audience. However, when the live broadcast returned, the melee intensified, and Johnson, wisely, exited the swarm like a thief in the night.  The disgust from the crowd and Mauro Renallo was audible. And then Johnson added to the ridiculousness in the cage saying, “Sometimes these things happen in MMA.”

Fight pundits and critics took aim at Gus Johnson for his response.  These things happen in MMA? Thanks a lot Gus! We’re trying to get on national TV here!

The dirty little secret that no one likes to mention is that yes, these things do happen. Maybe not as frequently in MMA as the connotation suggests  (though even recently Johnny Bedford and Rani Yaha engaged in a post-fight kerfuffle). They happen in MMA (and they seem to happen with frequency when the Diaz brothers are in the cage). They happen in the NBA. Hell, they happen in the NFL after practically every play where there’s a holding penalty. Johnson just happened to acknowledge this on a live mic instead of trying to spin out of it.  But the connotation was out there, and fight fans to this day still cry foul.

The criticisms about Johnson’s calls that night and his knowledge of the sport aside, the simple fact is there was really no way for Gus Johnson to steer the brawl in Memphis into an acceptable landing. It wasn’t Johnson’s fault the fight took place to begin with. And to his credit, he attempted to right the ship and interview Jake Shields once the cage had cleared. Still, Johnson’s quote lives on in infamy partly because of the time and place and the infancy of the sport.  In a piece by SI’s Loretta Hunt, Strikeforce promoter Scott Coker says of the brawl in Nashville, “It’s was a national event and letting that situation happen was an embarrassment.” At the end of the day, the brawl was embarrassing. Gus Johnson’s call simply ended up complementing that embarrassment.

WAR OF THE WORDS: BEST MMA QUOTES – DAY 2

“We’re throwing spinning shit now?”—Nick Diaz

Photo by Esther Lin via SBnation.com

The conclusion of the battle between Nick Diaz and Carlos Condit at UFC 143 for the interim welterweight championship drew a line in the sand between both camps’ vocal fan bases.  It was cat people versus dog people, original Star Wars trilogy fans versus prequel Star Wars fans, democrats and republicans. On one side, fight pundits who believed that Diaz’s chasing after Condit and trash talking wasn’t enough for him to earn the win. On the other side, Stockton diehards who decried Condit’s failure to engage in a dog fight was enough to warrant a loss.

Diaz is a goldmine for quotes. He says what he means and (in his mind) he means what he says. However, when Diaz barked at Condit in mid-fight for attempting a spinning back-fist, he added a taunt for the ages.  Hear Condit talk about the taunting here.

Diaz walked through Condit’s spinning back-fist and continued to bait Condit into fighting his fight. The taunt, however, fell on deaf ears within the cage as Condit refused to be trapped. Condit’s attack was calculated and measured, and when he found himself against the cage, he circled back out and took the center, forcing Diaz to engage on Condit’s terms.  Frustrated by Condit’s gameplan and the judges’ decision to award the interim championship to Condit, Diaz announced his retirement in the cage in a post-fight interview with Joe Rogan (luckily for fight fans, he was later coaxed out of retirement).

For Diaz, the pre-fight trash talk isn’t trash talk. It’s his opinion. It just happens to be a juicy enough molehill of opinion for writers to jump all over and build mountains. Even during the fight, Diaz isn’t trash talking as much as he’s just voicing his own internal narrative.  There is something refreshing about that kind of honesty and non-canned response.  It’s driven by passion, and while you can argue about the timing of taking a verbal jab at one’s opponent in the middle of a fight, Diaz is one of the few competitors who can pull it off.

 

ADDENDUM: This was supposed to have been posted for tomorrow; however, the mighty Mike Chiapetta over on the Fox Sports site used this same example in a wonderful piece over the art of trash-talking. The timing seemed apropos. Go read it now.

Voice of the Voiceless?

“I think that, quite frankly this may sound egocentric, but I think the transition from calling a pro wrestling match and calling MMA fights would be easy,” –Jim Ross

Good ‘ol J.R. is looking to be the next voice in the UFC.  

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I think the UFC desperately needs more commentators.  Whatever your feelings are about Joe Rogan and Mike Goldberg or Jon Anik and Kenny Florian, I worry that those four guys are going to get burned out with as many dates and shows as the UFC puts on.  Added to that, the expansion into international markets and the international travel involved, their commitments to TV shows on FOX Sports 1, and any other personal appearances, and it’s shocking how these four are able to keep up with the demands of a UFC schedule.  It’s also shocking that there are only four full-time UFC commentators.

I don’t know if JR can help.  I don’t know if you can totally divorce yourself from the entertainment aspect of pro wrestling (see Brock Lesnar cutting a promo after Mir/Lesnar2).  JR is immensely talented, and as skillful as he is behind a microphone, he is just as adept behind the scenes.  He was an integral part to the success of the business side of the WWF/WWE, and he might be better served behind the scenes, especially in dealing with talent.

I for one would welcome JR’s ability to tell a story and engage fans, making them care about more than just the fight happening in the cage, but I also recognize from a strictly presentation perspective how that may not fly with MMA fans.  I will say this, no one can drop the phrase “slobberknocker” as seamlessly into a conversation better than JR, and there is no shortage of MMA guys from the Pride and Strikeforce era who have tried and failed.