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