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

UFC MIA: Where Are They, Now?

In the news cycle and marketing cycle of the UFC juggernaut, a lot of fighters get lost in the shuffle.  With so many events, one card seems to dovetail into another with very little time left for reflection on where the competitors stand.  Make no mistake. This isn’t a commentary on fighters who are past their prime, fighters who are retired, or fighters who have fallen away from the sport. This is a legitimate question about fighters on the UFC’s active roster who seem to have fallen off the UFC’s radar in the announcements of upcoming events.  All of these fighters bring tremendous value to the promotion, so to see their faces on the backs of milk cartons seems more than just insulting. It seems troubling.

Recharging the Stun Gun

After Ronda Rousey’s domination of Sara McMann in late February of 2014, the immediate talk in the aftermath was who could challenge Rosuey for the title.  This brought along weeks of Cyborg Justino talk (which still continues) and briefly, talks of Gina Carano. However, there was little time to reflect on a next opponent under the Zuffa umbrella and Rousey’s legacy before she was off to shoot a movie, and the UFC circus was off to Macau for the Ultimate Fighter finale on March 1st. In the main event of that card, Dong Hyun Kim floored John Hathaway with a vicious spinning elbow KO. The sound Kim’s elbow made as if connected to Hathaway was so audible, it left many in the live crowd stunned.  It was a vicious performance with such a defining finish, it created immediate talk of The Stun Gun’s place at the 170-pound division and whether or not he deserved a shot at the title. However, before fans could argue over Kim’s place in the welterweight picture, it was time to promote Fight Night: Gustafsson/Manuwa, and the narrative changed to the light heavyweight division. Once that card concluded, the UFC headed to Dallas, Texas for UFC 171 (where a new welterweight champ would be crowned on a welterweight-heavy card).

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It took 3 weeks from Kim’s KO-of-the-year candidacy for him to go MIA.  His is an example of a performance that makes for great “best of” shows, but the UFC can’t seem to build on it.  As of May 1st 2014, the UFC hasn’t uttered a peep about Dong Hyun Kim’s next opponent or his next fight.  Apparently, fans aren’t the only people who have forgotten about Dong Hyun Kim as the UFC has yet to discuss when he will make his next appearance.  To rub salt in the wound, fellow welterweights with varied performances in Tyron Woodley, Robbie Lawler, and Rory McDonald all have new fights lined up for the summer despite fighting between late February and March of 2014.  The Stun Gun remains opponent-less.

Lauzon, Gone?

Remember that one fight where Joe Lauzon and Jim Miller went toe-to-toe and literally left it all in the cage at UFC 155 in one of the most exciting and unbelievable examples of heart in a fight?  Of course you do.  Joe Lauzon definitely does.

The hope, of course, is that the tingle he felt watching Jim Miller work at UFC 172 translates into a full-blown itch to return to the cage.  You get the impression, Lauzon’s got the fever from this April 20th tweet:

Aside from reminiscing, hosting Q&As, doing fight commentary, watching Game of Thrones and The Ultimate Fighter, and enjoying his time being a father, all is quiet regarding Joe Lauzon. It’s not that surprising that Lauzon would take his time getting back to the cage form a personal perspective, but also consider the state of the 155-pound division.  It’s already been decided that Gilbert Melendez will get the next shot at the title against Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, and with that fight taking place at year’s end, the rest of the division is left in neutral to sort itself out. So, there’s no real hurry to get Lauzon a fight.  However, with Melvin Guillard being cut, Mac Danzig retiring, Nate Diaz trying to negotiate a raise, the lightweight division is shifting and reshuffling.

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Seeing Lauzon match up with other lightweights coming off of recent wins would be a welcome sight.  Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone, and Ramsey Nijem all represent newly minted wins and solid opponents for Lauzon.  Perhaps even a rematch with Jorge Masvidal. Any of those opponents would be a fight fan’s delight against Lauzon.  Those potential fights would also likely rack up more post-fight bonuses for Lauzon, who’s made winning post-fight bonuses a habit.

Until then, fight fans can at least take comfort in the knowledge that Lauzon is usually spending his Sunday nights the way a lot of people do—watching the goings-on in Westeros.

In Absence of Truth

If you can say one thing about Brandon “The Truth” Vera, it’s that he’s ambitious.  He once declared he would own the UFC light heavyweight championship and the heavyweight championship simultaneously, and he’s moved between the two divisions simply for the challenge of it.

Despite losing his last two fights, Vera has never backed down from a challenge.  Look at the losses on his ledger, and you see an MMA murderer’s row: Couture, Jon Jones, Fabricio Werdum, and Shogun Rua. The other thing you’ll notice is that many of his losses should include asterisks.

Throw out the Ben Rothwell loss since Rothwell tested for high levels of testosterone (a fight that should have been overturned to a “no contest” given that Rothwell was suspended by the UFC). The decision of the Couture fight is widely thought of as a case of the judges making the wrong call. Include the Werdum loss where the referee arguably stopped the bout too soon (even though Werdum had Vera mounted, many of his shots weren’t connecting).   Added together, it can be argued that there are only two fights in the last five years where Vera was stopped legitimately, against Jon Jones and against Shogun Rua: neither of which is anything to be ashamed of.

If you believe in luck, you have to believe that Vera has simply hit a streak of it.  Twice on his resume, Vera ran into opponents desperate enough to cheat to win. One of whom, Rothwell, is still under suspension. The other, in Thiago Silva, has been banned for life from the UFC after being charged with aggravated assault and allegedly holding a gun in his wife’s mouth and threatening to kill her.  For whatever reason, Vera seems to either get the cheaters or the cream of the crop when his number is called. Despite this, he’s never backed out of a fight.

photo via Lee Brimelow

Since his fight with Rothwell, news on Vera’s next fight has been silent.  Unless, of course you follow him on Twitter, where he links to and discusses all things political, religious, environmental, and just about anything else that strikes his fancy.  However, his absence is noticeable to the UFC and to fight fans.  Whether it’s because Vera is working things out and taking time for himself or because Joe Silva lost his number is unclear.  What is clear is the dearth in the light-heavyweight division and the heavyweight division.  Neither is particularly deep, so to have a veteran guy that can move between divisions seems like a pretty valuable asset.  Vera is too talented a fighter to have work as an understudy for injured light heavies or heavies.  He’s headlined cards, and he’s fought the best in two different divisions.  His is a noteworthy void and, hopefully, one that is simply self-imposed.

UFC releases vet Melvin Guillard

I remember reading an interview Patrick Cummin’s did before his fight with Daniel Cormier saying that the light heavyweight division had a much smaller number of fighters compared to the lightweight division. The numbers were something like 2 digits to the lightweight’s 3 digit roster. Given the crowded nature of that class, it makes sense that the UFC would start to trim the roster. Still, when you cut a guy like Melvin who has been around for 9 years, it will make headlines. Especially when the UFC needs fighters to cash in on FightPass cards. Ultimately, it’s the nature of the beast, and it could likely end up being a good thing for both parties. The UFC give someone else an opportunity to shine, and Melvin gets to work out what he needs to from a training camp perspective and possibly field some lucrative offers from WSOF and/or Bellator. He shouldn’t have to wait long for a new home.