by Jason Kelly www.twitter.com/jaykaymma
When Anthony Pettis beat Ben Henderson in the final WEC bout ever, he walked away with the promotion’s lightweight belt and the guarantee of a UFC title shot.
But after UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard fought to a draw a few weeks later on Jan. 1, Pettis’ aspirations were put onto Zuffa’s back burner.
However, the fighter known as “Showtime” chose to stay active. He is finally making his UFC debut at The Ultimate Fighter 13 Finale on Saturday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas.
“I’m just ready to get in there,” Pettis said. “It’s been a long time. It’s been six months since my last fight and I’m just excited to get back in there and show my skills and keep improving.”
Being away from the sport for any reason takes a toll on a fighter. The frustration of watching your peers compete while sitting on the sidelines can make a fighter more eager, but Pettis waited patiently for his time because he knew his time was coming.
“I wasn’t really (frustrated) because I had something to look forward to,” Pettis said. “I had an opponent already, so I knew I would be fighting. I was patiently waiting for my title shot and training. (I was) just trying to get better while I waited.”
Pettis may not be fighting for the UFC lightweight belt as planned, but he is competing against a top-ranked lightweight, Clay Guida, in his first UFC contest. While the Roufusport fighter was offered other opponents, Guida is the one “Showtime” chose, for multiple reasons.
“I chose to fight Clay,” Pettis said. “I had the opportunity to fight a lot of different guys, but I chose Clay because he’s a top lightweight. He comes ready to fight, that’s for sure, so he’ll be a big test for my first (UFC) fight.
“I think it’s going to be a fun fight. I definitely feel like I have an advantage in a lot of areas. I feel I have better striking than him. I think my ground game can give him a lot of trouble and my wrestling is good. I think I’m going to surprise him a lot with my wrestling and my takedown defense.”
Training under the tutelage of K-1 kickboxer Duke Roufus, Pettis figures to hold the striking advantage. During Pettis’ time away from the cage he focused on improving his overall game, and preparing for Guida has forced the Wisconsin native to bring in some different training partners for wrestling, yet keep his usual mates in the loop.
“Training is going great,” Pettis said. “I’m really focused and I’ve had a lot of time to get better everywhere. I think I’m a better fighter than where I was at in December. It’s going to be interesting to see what happens.
“I stayed with the Duke Roufus camp and I brought in some guys like (Bellator welterweight champion) Ben Askren as a wrestling coach, he’s been a big help to me. I brought in Sergio Pettis, he was my training partner for this fight. He’s got really good wrestling and a very similar style, so he was a big help. Then the same guys as always, Eric Koch, Danny Downes and all those guys.”
Prior to becoming a UFC fighter Pettis did not compare himself to the promotion’s lightweights because they were not possible opponents. Now that they are potential adversaries, he feels good about his chances of making it to the top of the division.
“I really didn’t see them as opponents,” Pettis explained. “Once we all combined and came in, I started viewing these guys as opponents. I feel very confident that I will be at the top very soon.”
Though Pettis may not have made comparisons between WEC and UFC lightweights, fans and media did. Now that they are all scrapping in the same cage, he is quite proud of his fellow WEC fighters.
“The lightweight division from the WEC is holding their own,” Pettis said. “I think a lot of people’s opinions have changed. Now they have to shut their mouths about how WEC lightweights were not as good.”
The WEC deconstructed the blue-canvassed cage for the last time with its final memory being Henderson’s and Pettis’ epic five-round battle that displayed the now famous “Showtime Kick” from Pettis.
Henderson picked up a win in his first UFC bout over Mark Bocek. Pettis is happy for “Smooth” and believes there is a strong possibility he and Henderson may meet again in a lightweight title bout.
“A win like (that in the UFC) gives me confidence,” Pettis said. “He fought a tough guy in Mark Bocek, and ended up winning a tough fight. That only boosts my confidence and lets me know where I’m at. I think that is very possible to see (Henderson and me fight for the UFC belt). Ben Henderson is a tough dude and he’s good everywhere. I think if you give it some time both of us will be right at the top again.”
That famous “Showtime Kick” — where Pettis leveraged off the cage and delivered a roundhouse kick to Henderson’s face — not only gained sponsors for Pettis such as Xyience and Toyo Tires, but also earned him a gourmet steak dinner from Roufus.
Pettis confirmed the stakes were not set for this fight yet, but there will be a wager placed on his fight with Guida, and he has a craving.
“We were talking about that,” Pettis said. “We were wondering what the wager is going to be for this fight. I don’t know what it will be, but I’m craving some steak. I thought it was a one-time thing, but this time if I do something crazy, this time he can cook me a meal on the grill.”
After all Pettis endured these past six months, he feels he is in the right place at the right time. The absence of fighting in Pettis’ life left a void he could not fill, but now he is days away from filling that gap.
“Everything is on point and it’s been a long time coming,” Pettis stated. “It’s right there and I’m ready to fight. When you don’t fight for a long time, something feels like it’s missing in your life. I’m at the point where I need to fight. Everything feels right. I’m finally here, I’m doing all these interviews and just being here, it all feels right.”
After opponent changes, a layoff and things not going anywhere near according to plan, Pettis kept a positive attitude and remained patient. One thing that never changed during his time off was his main focus.
“I’m focusing on becoming the best in the world, and I’m just ready to go.”