He may not have suspected it at the time, but when Sergio Pettis was just 11 years old, he saw something that may have changed his life.
The youngest of three boys, Sergio had often heard one of his older brothers talking about this mixed martial arts (MMA) fighter nicknamed "GSP." It was only natural the grade schooler wanted to see for himself what all the hype surrounding the initials was about.
He got his chance the night his family ordered an Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) pay per view (PPV) featuring the undefeated up and comer Georges St-Pierre taking on then-dominant welterweight champion Matt Hughes.
GSP may have lost that night back at UFC 50, but evidently a seed was planted in the mind of at least one young fan watching at home in Milwaukee, WI.
Less than five years later, and just days before his sixteenth birthday, Sergio stepped into the cage for his first amateur MMA fight. His opponent was five years his elder.
Here Pettis was, too young to drive a car on his own and about to step into the cage with a full grown man who hoped to punch him until he lost consciousness.
Needless to say, his family wasn't thrilled.
"It was scary man," Pettis recalls. "My family wasn’t about it at first. They were like, 'How is a 15 year old going to go against a guy who is 20? It just doesn’t seem fair.'"
Despite his family's understandable reservations, Pettis was game for the challenge.
"As a martial artist I had belief in myself that I could go in there and compete," Pettis reflects. "I trained with some of the best guys in Milwaukee at the time. We went in there and took the risk and came out with a win. I just fell in love with [MMA] from there."
Stopping an adult in the first round of a cage fight may be an unusual way for a kid to spend his summer vacation, but young Sergio's early start in MMA makes a little more sense when you consider that his brother -- the one who used to talk incessantly about GSP -- is none other than former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) star and current UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis.
Growing Up Pettis
If you've ever seen the sense of brotherly concern Anthony and Sergio Pettis exude when they work each others' corner at fights, you'd never suspect there was a time when they couldn't get along.
"I would bother him," the younger Pettis brother admits. "I was kind of a little punk."
One thing the bickering brothers had in common was an interest in martial arts. Over time that interest helped forge a common bond that brought them closer together, but it wasn't an overnight process.
"We all did taekwondo and I had just finished my taekwondo career," Pettis remembers. "I wanted to win the world championship in point sparring, and I won that when I was 13. Anthony made the first transition to Duke Roufus' [gym]. He brought me in there the first day and beat me up."
It was a discouraging start for the younger Pettis, one that had him thinking of giving up this MMA business and sticking to the taekwondo he was already so proficient in. After he got accustomed to life under Roufus' tutelage, however, he soon began to view both the sport of MMA and his older brother in a different light.
"As [Anthony and I] got older, I guess we started maturing," Pettis reflects. "The sport brought us really close together. We both had the same interest and wanted to take it to the next level."
That's exactly what both Pettis brothers did.
The Next Level
When Sergio Pettis made his amateur debut in August of 2009, his older brother Anthony was just weeks removed from his premiere fight in WEC, which he won by way of first-round triangle choke over opponent Mike Campbell.
From there Anthony's career has been well documented. The "Showtime kick" that made him a star, his long road to a UFC title shot after missing out on a promised opportunity to fight for the belt and his eventual first round armbar win over lightweight champ Ben Henderson last August at UFC 164.
However, while Anthony was climbing to the top of the sport, the younger of the two fighting Pettis brothers was also making waves of his own.
Sergio racked up three more amateur wins before making his pro debut against Kyle Vivian at an independent fight card held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.
"It was crazy," Pettis remembers. "There were a lot of people there, actually. I was really surprised. Like 4,000 or 5,000 people for my first fight."
If the Canadian fans in attendance were hoping to see their countryman Vivian put a stamp on the young upstart from the States, they must have left disappointed. Pettis notched a first round TKO victory after he knocked Vivian down with a headkick.
Although Pettis was happy with the win, his pro debut was slightly marred by what he later admitted was an early stoppage.
"I was upset that [the ref] took that away from me," Pettis admits. "But I still came out with the win. That definitely helped build my confidence."
If one win helped build Pettis' confidence, it must have grown exponentially during the ensuing two years. Over the course of nine professional fights, Pettis amassed a 9-0 record, including three wins by submission and three by either TKO or KO.
It was a first round submission victory by way of kimura over late-replacement opponent James Porter in Pettis' ninth professional fight, which took place last month (Sept. 28, 2013) in his hometown of Milwaukee, that earned him a shot in UFC.
After the fight, Pettis took a page from the young GSP's playbook by dropping to his knees and begging for a spot on the UFC roster.
Just like with his hero St-Pierre years before, Pettis' plea didn't fall upon deaf ears.
Perhaps the only thing rarer than a 20 year old who is certain what he wants to do with his life is a 20 year old who is on the precipice of beginning his dream job.
In one of those funny twists of fate that destiny so often favors, the younger Pettis brother will be making his UFC debut on a card headlined by GSP -- the same fighter who first caught his attention all those years ago.
"It’s crazy [to be on the same card as] someone that I looked up to before I started competing serious," Pettis muses. "It’s gonna be amazing. I’m excited to even meet the guy."
While Pettis may sound a bit like a starstruck fan, don't mistake that for a lack of confidence in his abilities as a fighter.
"Now that I’m where I am, right now I’m very confident in myself and I feel I can throw whatever I want in there," Pettis declares. "It’s my playground."
"I want to stay along with [Lee]," Pettis reveals. " I want to go for a knockout, man. I see a headkick knockout, or a right hand knockout. I’m going to try and go out there and impress the crowd; impress Dana White; impress myself. I’m just gonna go out there and get that victory."