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UFC 181: Anthony Pettis is the 'Fighter to Watch' tonight on PPV

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Injuries are a common occurrence in modern-day mixed martial arts (MMA), perhaps most frustratingly at the championship level. Lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who defends his world title against Gilbert Melendez in the UFC 181 co-main event later this evening (Sat., Dec. 6, 2014), is no exception to this unfortunate pattern.

After defeating Benson Henderson a second time for the Lightweight title way back in Aug. 2013, "Showtime" still has yet to defend his 155-pound belt. Indeed, a series of unfortunate injuries have kept the talented striker on the shelf for a very long time, hijacking the title picture in his weight class as a result.

Pettis' career highlights are well documented, from his rise to glory in World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) capped off with his incredible "Showtime Kick" (see it here) that played a part in his title-winning performance, to his unfortunate denial of a promised title shot and subsequent loss to Clay Guida, to his rise back to the top of the division and his aforementioned capture of UFC's world title.

Pettis has built himself into an incredibly exciting fighter, integrating his exciting, unorthodox striking game with an ever-improving defensive wrestling game, as well as his very threatening submission skills.

In his second fight with Henderson, we saw Pettis at his very best, putting on a comprehensively dominant performance in the course of just one round. "Showtime" controlled the striking phase with ease, most notably with a series of successive body kicks that clearly got to his notoriously tough opponent. When brought to the ground, Pettis wasted no time in setting up an armbar and tapped out Henderson, who is known for his incredible durability and submission defense.

Unfortunately for fight fans, it has been more than year since we've seen Pettis in this incredible form. Hampered by injuries, the Lightweight champion has come under fire from fans and fighters alike, asserting that he is fragile and injury prone. One hopes that these injuries don't hamper his improvement as a fighter, much less when he could very well be in his prime, but it isn't out of the realm of possibility.

In an even more frustrating turn of events, UFC inexplicably did one of the single most annoying things, putting Pettis on the shelf even longer by placing him as a coach on the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter (TUF). Finally, now that taping is finished and the season is nearly over, we get to see Pettis' long-awaited return to the Octagon.

Pettis returns to the cage at what may be the peak of his popularity, as he has made one of the more notable mainstream crossovers in UFC history, having recently become featured on the Wheaties box (see photo here), an honor afforded to many top-level athletes and never before to an MMA fighter.

"Showime" has the opportunity to expand on his popularity tonight -- he's featured in the co-main event of a very stacked pay-per-view (PPV) card, which should serve him well in terms of viewership, but it's up to him to make it count.

Melendez is a very high-level fighter, and though some may question his right to another title shot just one fight removed from his first failure to obtain the UFC title, he is one of the best fighters the division. Melendez, similarly to Pettis, made his name outside of UFC, but his skills outside of the Octagon have translated just as well into his UFC career, where he has had two very impressive performances in his two fights with the promotion.

Part of what makes Melendez so good is how well-rounded he is and his ability to mix up his attack so well. While he is a very good striker in his own right, he excels at making fights ugly, with impressive clinch work and takedowns that do well to break up the timing of his opponents and keep them fighting backward. He fights impressively on the back foot, too, as he showed in his fight with Diego Sanchez, beautifully countering the attacks of his notoriously aggressive opponent.

This fight between Pettis and Melendez has all the workings to be an all-time classic ... and certainly the potential to be a late "Fight of the Year" candidate. Both men are readily equipped to challenge one another regardless of where the fight is taking place, and both have some clear cut advantages that the other will have to work hard to avoid.

Even though he may be hampered by injuries -- and hasn't fought in some time -- expect Pettis to come into this fight very well prepared for whatever Melendez tries to throw at him. After seeing what he was able to do to Henderson, I think Pettis is a special type of fighter, one I expect to hold onto his championship belt for some time. He has the potential to make a mainstream crossover and become a real star, and I think he'll do it.

Melendez is a great fighter, but he isn't taking that title tonight, because it's Pettis' time.

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