Former World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) Lightweight champion, Anthony Pettis, will rematch Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) 155-pound kingpin, Ben Henderson, this Saturday (Aug. 31, 2013) at BMO Harris Bradley Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
After winning a war over Henderson at WEC's final event, Pettis was absorbed into the UFC along with a hand-picked group of his coworkers. The young mixed martial arts (MMA) prospect had arrived at the big show and was ready to compete for the title against the winner of Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard.
It was his reward for being the last man to hold the promotion's Lightweight belt.
Unfortunately for "Showtime," the UFC title was tied up by a draw. Instead of waiting longer for his opportunity, Pettis chose to stay active, taking on Clay Guida. Regrettably, Pettis was thoroughly controlled en route to a unanimous decision loss, forfeiting his opportunity to challenge for another world title.
A few short months later, Pettis was back in the Octagon against hard-nosed brawler Jeremy Stephens. The fight was surprisingly close, but Pettis managed to edge out the Iowan in a split decision victory. A win is a win, but this was far from an awe-inspiring performance.
In his next two fights against Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone, Pettis came in with a new intensity. He systematically destroyed two very game fighters in minutes with power kicks, proving that he could not just survive in the UFC, but thrive. An abrupt attempt to fight Featherweight champion Jose Aldo failed because of injury, but then a concussion to T.J. Grant finally opened the door for Pettis to go for UFC gold.
Does Pettis have what it takes to once again dethrone Henderson?
Let's find out:
Pettis is a third-degree black belt in Tae Kwon Doe and trains Muay Thai under Jeff "Duke" Roufus in his Milwaukee gym. "Showtime" has also mixed flashy Capoeira techniques into his attack, creating an unpredictable blend of styles that is very difficult to deal with.
While he is a skilled boxer, it's clear that his kicking ability is his best asset. Pettis can rip lightning fast kicks high, low and from multiple angles. He likes to throw switch kicks, which allow him to get an extra step before throwing, meaning he can close even more distance.
Pettis loves to follow up his combinations with a high kick. He doesn't even need to commit to his punches because he is able to feint just as well. Pettis sets up most of his kicks, evidenced by how rarely his kick is countered or caught.
In his last two fights, Pettis has fought as a southpaw rather than his standard orthodox stance. This worked quite well for him in both fights, as he was still able to throw quick punches, but his kicks packed extra power. Against an orthodox opponent, a southpaw has a big advantage with kicks because he can step outside of his opponents' lead leg and land them easily.
Another interesting habit of Pettis' game is that he frequently counters his opponents' kicks. Whether by absorbing the kick and firing off one in return, or attacking with punches in the midst of his opponents' kicks, Pettis likes to ensure he is the one controlling the fight with his legs. Cerrone learned this the hard way, as Pettis hit him hard with combinations each time "Cowboy" tried to land a leg kick.
Pettis is a very competent boxer. He prefers long, rangy strikes and primarily sticks to his left hook and straight right. However, Pettis also has a sharp jab and powerful right hook. Pettis doesn't throw very long combinations, preferring instead to stick to two- and three-punch combinations. It's also worth noting that Pettis is much more active with his jab and jab feints when he fights from southpaw, helping him gauge distance for his kicks.
Pettis does an exceptional job cutting off the cage and pressuring his opponents against it. This means he cuts an angle when they try to circle away, basically what Nick Diaz failed to do in his bout against Carlos Condit. Once his opponent is backed into the fence, he's easier to hit and has a hard time throwing powerful punches, so Pettis can let loose with his punches and kicks.
Pettis and his team take it one step further. He's no longer just using the cage to trap his opponents, he's using it as a weapon. In addition to the infamous "Showtime" kick that dethroned "Bendo" in the WEC back in 2009, Pettis ran up the cage to land a nice knee on Cerrone. While these techniques require incredible timing and ability to judge distance, it's Pettis' ability to cut off the cage that makes them possible.
Since his loss to Guida, Pettis has faced criticism for his wrestling ability. Despite these complaints, Pettis has shown that he can wrestle quite well in his WEC fights. In addition, he reportedly began training more often with Olympian Ben Askren to solidify this hole, which can only be beneficial.
The only time where wrestling seemed to be a major part of his gameplan was his fight with Stephens. "Lil Heathen" had success taking down Pettis in round one, but Pettis turned the corner in round two, implementing a grappling heavy attack.
In his fight with Stephens, Pettis showed that he was capable of shooting in for quick double-leg takedowns. However, he seemed to prefer to work from the clinch, where he was able to repeatedly dump Stephens to the mat. While he had a hard time keeping Stephens down, his takedowns certainly appeared improved.
Even though it did improve, Pettis' takedown defense remains the easiest route to victory for his opponents. The biggest reason seems to be that Pettis fails to widen his base when he's pinned against the cage. This allows his opponents to control his hips and bring him to the mat. It would greatly benefit Pettis to watch how his team mate Erik Koch defends double-leg takedowns against the cage, as he is excellent at spreading his feet out and making takedowns very difficult to achieve.
On the other hand, Pettis does a very good job of pummeling while he's in the clinch. He's not impossible to take down from this position, but it's much more difficult.
While Pettis' takedown defense is less than superb, his ability to get back to his feet is excellent. Much of it stems from his aggressive guard, but Pettis is always seeking for underhooks that he can use to stand back up. Another way Pettis gets back to his feet is his kicking techniques. Pettis is not afraid to throw a spinning kick from his back and often uses the momentum to get back to his feet.
Pettis is a purple belt in jiu-jitsu and has a very aggressive style. He's not the most technical jiu-jitsu player, but his hips are very fast and he never stops working.
The most important thing about Pettis' guard game is that he doesn't allow his opponents to settle. He's either doing his best to kick them off of him or looking for a mistake in their ground and pound that he can capitalize on. This constant movement makes him difficult to hang on to and often allows him to get back to his feet.
Clearly, Pettis' favorite submission is the triangle choke. He hit three in the WEC and was able to get them largely because of his opponents' aggressiveness. Both Roller and Cambell were trying to dive in and out of Pettis' guard with punches, but "Showtime" was able to catch them without both hands in for a triangle choke.
Against Alex Karalexis, Pettis set up a pretty basic triangle. He controlled Karalexis' posture with one hand and fed his arm through his legs with the other, trapping Karalexis in the hold. His finish was perfect, as he reached under the leg and got a great angle before squeezing for the finish. The punches from within the triangle were just icing on the cake.
One of the smoothest examples of Pettis' bottom game was the sweep he used to trip Stephens. As Stephens was standing above Pettis and contemplating his next move, "Showtime' began sneaking his foot behind Stephens'. Stephens didn't react, so Pettis grabbed Stephens' other ankle and kicked him in the stomach, while sweeping with his other leg. "Lil Heathen" had no choice but to fall.
While Pettis' guard game off of his back is pretty effective, there are some flaws. Pettis is a bit too active with his guard and is often leaning on his shoulders with his feet high on his opponent. This makes him susceptible to any type of stacking pass. Additionally, his constantly moving legs occasionally leave him in a dangerous position for a counter submission vis-a-vis Jim Miller vs Charles Oliveira.
Pettis is also quite skilled from the top position, especially the back mount. He's able to force his opponents to turn over and will quickly jump on their back from turtle. Once he's there, he does a good job of controlling with his lower body, frequently using the body triangle. However, he doesn't do as good a job with his arms, often abandoning the seat belt grip to land small punches. When he does this, skilled grapplers can sneak out the back door or spin into his guard.
Best chance for success
Pettis needs to do what made him successful last time. Namely, he needs to pressure "Bendo," avoid takedowns and attack with heavy shots when Henderson is against the cage.
It is very important for Pettis to avoid Henderson's powerful leg kicks. In addition to possibly sweeping him off his feet, they will slow down Pettis' kicks, which is a huge part of his game. Frankie Edgar had success catching them and landing a few hard shots, so there's no reason that Pettis shouldn't focus on doing the same.
Another important factor is staying off the fence. Henderson's takedowns will be much more effective along the fence, and Pettis does not want to be on his back. Although Pettis often likes to back away from strikes, it would be better to counter and not give up any space. Even if he gets hit, he will still be on his feet, plus he can focus on countering more often.
Pettis will almost inevitably end up on his back at some point in the fight. Instead of working for submissions, Pettis needs to put all his attention of getting back up or sweeping. Trying to submit Henderson is incredibly difficult -- more accomplished jiu-jitsu practitioners such as Nate Diaz and Jim Miller can attest. Therefore, getting out of the grappling exchanges altogether would benefit the Roufusport-trained product.
Can Pettis achieve his dream of becoming a UFC champion or will Henderson tighten his grip on the Lightweight championship?