Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight kingpin, Anthony Pettis, is set to defend his belt once more against the ever-improving Rafael dos Anjos this Saturday night (March 14, 2015) inside the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
After faltering in his UFC debut opposite Clay Guida and struggling a bit against Jeremy Stephens, Pettis has basically ripped apart each of his opponents. In his last two performances, he submitted fighters who are notoriously difficult to tap out, and he made it look easy.
For each moment Pettis has looked vulnerable, there are three in which he looks like a potential all-time great. Can "Showtime" continue his current streak and dispatch another excellent lightweight?
Let's take a closer look at this skill set and find out.
Pettis is an excellent kickboxer, as he possesses both a third degree Tae Kwon Doe black belt and years of training under Muay Thai expert Duke Roufus. All that striking experience allows him to mix creative attacks into an already potent offense, such as his famous "Showtime Kick."
There are few factors that separate Pettis from the vast majority of strikers. He can kick and punch harder than most of the division, but that doesn't automatically equal success. Simply take a look at Edson Barboza, who could probably chop a tree down with his kicks, but still fell before the feints, Octagon control, and pressure of Michael Johnson.
While it's not unique to Pettis, one important thing to Pettis is his preference to fight in the opposite stance of his opponent. The Southpaw-Orthodox dynamic is very different from a standard meeting of two fighters in the same stance, and Pettis excels at capitalizing on it.
Most importantly, standing in the opposite stance really opens up the kicking game for both fighters, especially to the body. It's generally better to be the Southpaw fighter in these exchanges, as it body kicks then land on the liver to a debilitating effect, but Pettis proved against Henderson that he can do plenty of damage from the orthodox stance as well.
When Pettis does attack with kicks from the opposite stance, he ensures that he has the outside angle. Whenever opposite stance fighters collide, it's very often a battle of lead feet for that outside position, as it forces the other fighter on the inside to turn towards his opponent or give up an easy path to his chin and mid-section. While Pettis will capitalize on this angle with punches, he usually feints and fires off a kick.
Speaking of feints, Pettis is phenomenal with them. The young kickboxer is not an incredibly active striker -- he rarely throws extended combinations unless his opponent is hurt -- but he does constantly feint. Due to the unpredictable nature of his kicks and their potency, his feints have to be respected. Once Pettis has his opponent reacting, he'll begin to line up a brutal kick.
And it usually only takes one for "Showtime."
Pettis also uses feints for the final differentiating factor: Pettis is excellent at controlling where the fight takes place. In many of my fight previews, the "Keys to Victory" section is filled with mentions of footwork and where the fight takes place that are often similar in nature. In short, that's because a majority of bouts are determined entirely by which fighter dictates where exchanges occur, whether the victor knowingly enacts such a strategy or not.
The lightweight strap-hanger knows exactly what he's doing. Utilizing his very convincing feints and footwork, Pettis is constantly maneuvering his opponent into the fence. With his back against the cage, Pettis' opponent is not able to evade strikes nearly as well.
Considering Pettis' ability to end a fight in an instant, it's a very risky position to be in.
The most famous -- and frankly, the coolest -- example is the "Showtime Kick," which nearly took Benson Henderson's head off in their first match up. He's attempted similar off-the-cage kicks/knees in bouts since, to varying degrees of effectiveness, but Pettis will just as commonly step forward and crack his opponent with a couple of heavy punches.
To avoid getting walked into the fence and battered, some opponents have attempted to simply pressure Pettis out of the gate. While constant pressure is very likely a key to defeating him -- it's very difficult to kick while moving backward -- Pettis definitely recognizes that and is clearly working on it.
For example, look at his most recent title defense, a second round submission victory over Gilbert Melendez. In the first round, Melendez had a fair amount of success, as he came in with an excellent game plan. Rushing Pettis to the fence with some dangerous punching combinations, Melendez would then drop down for a takedown and dirty box whenever possible.
Unfortunately for Melendez, it turns out that Pettis is one of the rare breed of fighters who can both follow a game plan and adjust mid-fight. Either trait on its own is valuable, but putting them together separates contenders from champions.
In this situation, Pettis began to move laterally much more when Melendez pressured. This cause Melendez to miss often and badly, as he was fairly desperate to begin grappling. In one such occasion, Pettis countered with a hard straight shot, rocking Melendez and setting up the eventual finish.
After losing his debut to Clay Guida, Pettis has faced much skepticism in regards to his wrestling ability. However, he's clearly worked on it quite a bit, as he's defended the majority of his opponent's takedowns in his two title fights, and both men are strong wrestlers.
Offensively, it's really rare that Pettis will shoot for takedowns. In the main exception to that, Pettis shot a number of quick double legs against Jeremy Stephens. He didn't always finish the shots, but he was often able to work into the clinch afterward and then briefly drag the slugger to the mat.
Defensively, Pettis had difficulty with defending the double leg against the fence. When pushed into that position, he would fail to spread his legs out, which allowed his opponent to lock his hands. Once that happens, it's easy to finish the takedown from that position, even if the defending wrestler is much better.
That does seem to have changed, however. In his last two fights, both Melendez and Henderson shot double legs on Pettis when the champion had his back to the fence. Against the wrestlers, Pettis succeeded in getting a wide base and defending his opponent's shots.
Considering his previously solid clinch work, that means it will very likely be rather difficult for most lightweights attempting to replicate Guida's success.
It's also worth mentioning that Pettis is very good at getting off his back when he is taken down. Since he's dangerous with both submissions and a variety of kicks from his back, opponents will often give him a fair bit of space. With his quickness, that's all he needs to return to his feet.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Pettis is a very dangerous jiu-jitsu fighter, an expert on quickly capitalizing on his opponent's vulnerabilities. While Pettis is not a technical master of the art -- don't mistake that as derogatory. His technique is very good and his aggressiveness with submissions has secured him a number of finishes against very talented opposition.
When put on his back, Pettis does not allow his opponent to settle. He keeps an open or high guard, which allows him to constantly threaten with submissions or stand ups. Since his opponent must be very wary of the bottom game, it often keeps the champion safe from ground strikes.
The champion's favorite submission is likely the triangle choke. He attacks with it all the time, usually using the common push-the-arm-through set up. However, Pettis will also land the choke by waiting for his opponent to reach back and punch, then throwing his legs up around his foe's neck and remaining arm. Once Pettis locks his legs, he'll properly finish the choke be hooking the leg and securing an angle.
He might add in some punches for good measure, as well.
Pettis' last two submissions were actually rather similar, despite being very different moves. In both cases, his finish came as much due to his killer instinct as his submission ability, as Pettis badly hurt Melendez and Henderson prior to locking in submissions.
Neither technique was particularly complex. Henderson was barely able to breath after absorbing a series of body kicks and only had secured top position after Pettis' slipped on a crazy kick. While Henderson recovered on top, he left his arm in a bad position -- which he often does -- and Pettis capitalized on it by quickly rotating his hips and attacking the arm. His feet weren't in great position, which allowed Henderson to partially stack him, but it wasn't enough for Henderson to escape the hold.
Similarly, Pettis stunned Melendez badly with a straight shot, which sent Melendez stumbling after a double leg. Pettis simply grabbed his neck and sat into guard. If Melendez regained his composure at any point before submitting, it was already too late, as Pettis had the grip locked in tight.
Both submissions were basic techniques, but they were done very quickly at the opportune moment. When a fighter is hurt, his defense to both punches and submissions is slowed. Pettis is quick and talented enough to capitalize opening, but it's possible -- especially for battle-hardened scrappers like Henderson and Melendez -- to tough out the additional shots and recover.
It doesn't work that way without a tap out.
For the lone defensive weakness that I've noticed, Pettis' aggressive guard play from his back can put him in danger. When he's throwing his legs up for submissions, his opponent can counter by stacking him up and moving to Pettis' back. Or, it could leave his legs in a bad position to be attacked, similar to when Jim Miller submitted Charles Oliveira a few years back.
Best chance for success
If Dos Anjos chooses to kickbox with Pettis, the champion simply has to be alert and play his game. Dos Anjos is a dangerous striker, but Pettis is very likely the superior kickboxer and will look to quickly prove that.
Should Dos Anjos look to close the distance, strike from in close, and land takedowns, it's vital that Pettis carries his lateral movement over from the second round of his bout with Melendez. Otherwise, the Brazilian may have the athleticism to drag Pettis to the mat, and Pettis does not want one of the division's best black belts on top of him.
Instead, Pettis needs to work his movement and look to counter with his punches. Dos Anjos' conditioning has been iffy in the past, so he likely can't work a crazy pace for five full round. He'll attempt to give himself moments to rest at range, and Pettis simply has to set up a kick during one of those rest moments.
It only takes one.
Will Anthony Pettis defend his title for the second time, or can dos Anjos step away from his dark horse label and take the title?