Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Lightweight kingpin, Anthony Pettis, will jump up a division to face the Welterweight division’s Karate Kid, Stephen Thompson, this Saturday (March 23, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 148 from inside Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, Tennessee.
This fight is kind of shocking.
Just four fights ago, Anthony Pettis was looking to drop down to 145 pounds and capture the Featherweight crown. The weight cut proved to be too much, but “Showtime” returned to his natural weight class and put on some solid performances. Though he split the four bouts evenly, he won decisively in the two victories and gave Top 5-ranked opponents tough rounds in the losses.
In short, Pettis wasn’t doing terribly at 155 pounds. Now, he’ll look to take on a much larger man in “Wonderboy.” It’s an intriguing style match up and high-profile fight for the former champion, but one has to wonder whether he really has a future at Welterweight?
Either way, let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
Pettis’ kickboxing attack is not quite as complicated as one would expect from watching his highlights. The third-degree Taekwondo black belt certainly has a varied arsenal of funky kicks to fling at his foes, but that’s not truly the core of his game. Instead, long-time coach Duke Roufus has Pettis stick to his most powerful techniques and ensure they are well set up.
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 Benson 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 from either stance.
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. He 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. 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).
It is certainly true that Pettis’ main weapons are kicks, but that does not mean his hands are useless. When leading, Pettis’ ability to feint with the jab and one-two combination to set up his kicks is pivotal, which means the strikes themselves must be threatening or his opponent can simply ignore the feints. On the whole, Pettis also does a very nice job of staying in good position to fire a cross or jab as his opponent advances (GIF).
Perhaps more than anything else, Pettis understands well how to pair punches with kicks. From Southpaw, Pettis will often fire a hard right hook before the left body kick — that’s a classic two-shot combo for a reason (GIF). A bit trickier is Pettis’ cross-kick, in which the kick (usually a high kick) follows the cross from the same side, another favorite of fighters in opposite stance engagements. Finally, Pettis does a nice job of punching after the kick as he leg returns to position. While that sounds counter intuitive, the leg swinging back into place can provide quite a bit of force (GIF).
Defensively, Pettis’ flaws are pretty well-known at this point. He’s simply not great at circling off, falling back to his habit of moving straight backward. The most important consequence of this habit is Pettis walking himself into the fence, where suddenly he can no longer maintain distance and prevent foes from crashing forward.
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 several 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.
Pettis is a very dangerous Brazilian jiu-jitsu fighter, an expert on quickly capitalizing on his opponents’ 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.
In this week’s technique highlight, we analyze the advantage of quick hips!
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.
Pettis’ guillotine is also a major weapon. 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 and avoid getting his stomach punted. 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.
Pettis’ time as a champion seems to be firmly in the past. That’s not an insult to him — time catches up to everyone, and future opponents already have a blueprint against him. Since he’s at that point in his career though, it seems like Pettis is now hunting for high-profile fights rather than building toward a title run. At the same time, a win over Thompson would immediately introduce Pettis to the Welterweight Top 10, which would be a very interesting (and unlikely) turn of events.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter 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.