clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 120’s Anthony Pettis

Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight kingpin, Anthony Pettis, looks to return to the title mix by defeating the hard-hitting, Dustin Poirier, this Saturday (Nov. 11, 2017) at UFC Fight Night 120 inside Ted Constant Convocation Center in Norfolk, Virginia.

Heading into 2015, it seemed like no one would be taking Anthony Pettis’ belt any time soon. Then, Rafael dos Anjos walked him down and kicked his ass, and two more fighters handed him defeats in his next contests as well. “Showtime” then went to Plan B, a drop to Featherweight, in hopes to reinvigorate his career.

Sadly, the weight cut was too much for him, and Pettis was stopped by Max Holloway and sent back to 155 pounds.

This is just Pettis’ second fight back at Lightweight. The former champion certainly looked good in his return opposite Jim Miller, but Miller is no longer a contender himself. As it stands, this is Pettis’ real return, as he’ll once again be fighting a top-tier Lightweight.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:


A third-degree black belt in Taekwondo, Pettis rose to the title on the strength of his kickboxing. Honed by kickboxing expert Duke Roufus, Pettis refined his game to simple techniques that repeatedly did damage to opponents, forcing them to make mistakes.

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.

Pettis has a reputation as a Southpaw, but that’s only because most fighters are right-handed. Against a Southpaw in Ben Henderson, Pettis largely fought from the Orthodox stance instead.

The reason is almost entirely because opposite stance engagements open up the power kick for both men. In that area, few can top Pettis, who is one of the hardest kickers. He kicks with both speed and power, firing out potential fight-enders to the head and body.

Pettis does take great care to set up his kicks, as he only needs to land one cleanly to drastically change the fight. In particular, Pettis does much of his best work with feints. The Tae Kwon Doe is not an incredibly active striker -- he rarely throws extended combinations unless his opponent is hurt -- but he does constantly feint. Because of 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 (GIF).

Feints are also Pettis’ biggest weapon in keeping his back off the fence. If he’s able to force his foe to respect his hand and kick feints, he’ll be able to fight at his preferred distance and most likely win. If his opponent walks through those feints, Pettis is in for a difficult fight.

Pettis does his best work when able to stalk his opponent. 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 (GIF). 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 (GIF).

As for his overall boxing, Pettis definitely knows how to punch. On the offensive, he’s usually sticks to short, long range combinations that can set up his kicks. If he’s being pushed backward, Pettis can plant his feet and throw a hard counter cross, but he often doesn’t do it enough to really deter his foes.

Pettis’ footwork is another key factor in whether he’s able to avoid putting his back to the fence. When he moves laterally, he’s often able to angle out and land hard kicks or counters. At the very least, he’s able to return to the center of the cage. The real problem arises when Pettis backs straight up. When that happens, he’s far more hittable and easier to take down.


Pettis’ wrestling on its own is not a major problem. It’s more a problem of cage positioning than anything else, but it’s also something that Pettis has been working on.

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.

Pettis’ issue with being taken down is no longer a technical one. In the past, he failed to widen his base against the fence to defend he shot. He does that well now, and he’s never been easy to takedown from the clinch. However, Pettis tends to wilt under constant takedown attempts. When his foe drops down to a double, transitions between single legs and clinch trips, and doesn’t relent when Pettis pops back up, "Showtime" tends to retreat to his guard rather than keep wrestling back to his feet.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Pettis is a very dangerous jiu-jitsu fighter, an expert on quickly capitalizing on his opponent's vulnerabilities. Pettis’ style of jiu-jitsu is all about timing and speed, hopping on small openings and making the most of them. He doesn’t control and overwhelm his foe on the mat — like a Demian Maia type of grappler — but he can catch just about anyone.

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.

Pettis really likes to throw his legs up and attack whatever is available. Opposite Henderson, that was the arm bar. Pettis is a very flexible athlete, which helps him land that position with more speed (GIF).

Pettis will attack with the triangle as well, usually using the common push-the-arm-through set up (GIF). 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.

The guillotine has been a major weapon for Pettis in the last couple years. Opposite both Gilbert Melendez and Charles Oliveira, Pettis was able to submit very talented grapplers with this technique. The interesting thing about Pettis’ guillotine is that it’s not all that complex. Pettis attacks with the high-elbow guillotine and does so from full guard, but he’s able to land the tapout because of his timing more than anything else.

In both cases, Pettis caught his opponent rushing. Opposite Melendez, it made sense, as Pettis had just stunned the veteran with a cross. Melendez scrambled forward and tried to stay safe with a takedown, but he dove right into the choke (GIF).

Oliveira’s situation was less severe, yet he made the same mistake. The Brazilian had momentum on his side heading into the third round and landed an early takedown, but Pettis was able to scramble. Rather than take his time, Oliveira took an ugly shot to continue the grappling exchange. He left his neck wide-open, and Pettis was able to capitalize and end the bout.

Another factor in Pettis’ ground game is his offense from his back. Pettis throws hard upkicks and even sweeping round kicks from his back. Together with his jiu-jitsu, these strikes can make his opponent a bit hesitant to full engage with Pettis on the mat. In turn, Pettis is then able to land sweeps or stand ups because of that extra space.

In this week’s technique highlight, we broke down one of the techniques he’ll use from his back: the tripod sweep.


It’s really hard to get a read on where Pettis stands at 155 pounds right now. Unfortunately for the former champion, until he scores a big win or puts on another stunning performance — things he is definitely capable of — fans are still mostly rating him based on the three-fight loss streak that sent him to Featherweight. This bout is a chance to put real distance between him and those losses, as well as advance into the Top 10 once more.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an amateur champion who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.

Sign up for the newsletter Sign up for the MMA Mania Daily Roundup newsletter!

A daily roundup of all your fighting news from MMA Mania