This article originally appeared on WrestlingObserver.com on 9/2/13
If you wanted to make a great sports movie, it probably wouldn't be a good idea to base your screenplay on Anthony Pettis' 10 year journey from tragedy-beset teenager to world champion.
After all, it would likely strike viewers as hackneyed to see the main character, after suffering innumerable hardships along the way, finally get the UFC Lightweight Championship strapped around his waist in the final scene of the film. Audiences would see that feel good ending coming a mile away. From the opening of the movie where the troubled young man first walks into his future coach and surrogate father figure's gym it would be obvious that after quite a bit of blood, sweat, tears, and perhaps a gratuitous sex scene or two the protagonist would eventually win the big one. Talk about a cliche-ridden plot.
But sometimes the hopelessly trite has a way of being downright heart-wrenching when clothed in actual flesh and blood.
Case in point, the photo Pettis took of his newly won championship belt sitting atop his father's gravestone immediately after leaving the Bradley Center on Saturday night.
It was a reminder that behind the kick that will be played on UFC highlights until the end of time, the flashy suit, the supremely confident swagger, and the 10 pounds of gold that now proves he's the best in the world at 155 pounds, Pettis has overcome great personal tragedy to get to where he's at. You can't rightly call Pettis a survivor, because other than a couple professional setbacks all he's done is thrive.
In a sport as mercurial as MMA it's impossible to forecast a new champion's prospects with any degree of certainty. Pettis could eventually become the champ who defines the era and puts the lightweight title back on the money-drawing map again with his highlight-reel friendly style, or he could end up being just the latest face in the litany of one and done champs we've seen over the years. Whatever the case may be, just by capturing the UFC lightweight championship in his home town Pettis earned himself a moment most fighters can only dream of.
And although world championships may forever remain merely the stuff of dreams for most if us, in a way Pettis may have became more than just a champion on Saturday night. The former disadvantaged teen may just be serving as a beacon to young MMA fans out there dealing with adversity in their personal lives. It might take genetic gifts few are endowed with to make it to the top in professional sports, but the main lesson Pettis' story provides is that unflagging hard work in the face of disheartening setbacks can lead to great things.
And who knows? There may have just been a future world champ siting in the nosebleed section of the Bradley Center who got the message set by Pettis' example loud and clear.
A little over a year ago Anthony Pettis wasn't even on then-UFC lightweight champ Benson Henderson's radar.
"It's on him," Henderson told reporters at the UFC 150 post-fight press conference when asked about the possibility of a rematch with Pettis for the UFC strap. "It's his job to get to the belt level. It's not my job to wait for him or open the doors for him."
At the time Pettis was coming off a lackluster split decision victory over career journeyman Jeremy Stephens. Before that he was outwrestled by Clay Guida en route to a decisive loss. Henderson, on the other hand, had just defeated former lightweight champ Frankie Edgar twice in a row. Although Henderson remained confident he and Pettis would, as he was fond of putting it, "dance again" it didn't look like the two would be cutting a rug anytime in the foreseeable future given the trajectory of their respective careers.
But you know how the old saying goes: what a difference a year, two spectacular first round knockout finishes, and a perfectly-timed injury can make.
If you've watched any UFC television in the past month then chances are you're well aware of Bendo's oft-stated desire to "wash the Pettis stain" off his soul. As the champ walked to the cage on Saturday he had the unmistakable air of a man who wasn't entertaining the idea of anything other than a thorough metaphysical scrub down by way of a decisive victory over the only man to defeat him in the past six years. Surely the heretofore rubber-limbed Henderson never thought he'd find himself tapping to an armbar in the first round.
But that's exactly what happened thanks to Pettis' masterful jiu jitsu work from the bottom. Guess he'll have to try an OxiClean stick or something to get that deeply imbedded "Pettis stain" off his soul, because his odds of ever doing so the old fashioned way aren't looking so great at the moment.
During his reign Henderson proved himself to be just a notch above most of the best lightweights in the world, and he probably still is. It's just that it's hard to see him getting to the top of the mountain again while Pettis sits atop the lightweight throne.
Henderson attempted to pressure Pettis against the cage in the early going of their rematch, but the challenger proved himself able to deal with this by effectively separating and keeping himself from being taken down. On the feet Pettis appeared to be the crisper of the two in the striking department, including a series of brutal kicks he landed to Henderson's ribs. Once Henderson finally got Pettis to the ground the advantage was supposed to be his, but instead he found his shoulder jacked up within a matter of seconds thanks to an impregnable Pettis armbar.
The loss puts Henderson in an unenviable position. He wasn't the most successful champion from a box office standpoint, so the UFC likely won't rush to put him back in a title shot. What's more he's lost two in a row to Pettis, most recently in decisive fashion. He's going to need to go on an impressive win-streak to earn another shot at the belt.
However, as long as Pettis remains champ Henderson just may remain in the same divisional purgatory Urijah Faber has occupied for so long at bantamweight: good enough to beat everyone else in the division, but not quite good enough to unseat the current champ.
Changing of the guard
Four years ago Frank Mir main evented the largest drawing PPV show in UFC history. Saturday, he lost his third fight in a row when Josh Barnett sent him crumbling to the mat with a knee to the forehead.
There was perhaps no mid-tier fighter as beloved as Clay Guida during the UFC's tenure on Spike TV. He's now 1-3 inside the Octagon since the UFC made its debut on FOX back in November of 2011.
Back in the mid-part of the last decade Brandon Vera ripped off four impressive UFC victories in a row before falling short against then-heavyweight champ Tim Sylvia. Since 2008 his record looks like a lopsided checkerboard, with a mere 4 wins to 6 losses (and 1 no contest).
All three men suffered career setbacks at UFC 164 that will be hard to rebound from. Mir is 34 years old and is now several wins away from ever being considered a viable title contender again. Guida should still be relatively close to his athletic prime at 31, but his recent performances make him look like a fighter whose better days are behind him. Vera's entire UFC run, for whatever reason, was a story of a fighter who never lived up to his potential and turned in a number of pedestrian outings. He's very likely done in the UFC after this past loss unless the company decides to keep him around for their debut in the Philippines next year.
The larger story here is that these three are merely the latest in what has become a trend of UFC stars from the Spike TV era beginning to near the twilight of their careers. Of currently active UFC title holders four fighters first held championship gold before the UFC began its relationship with FOX: Cain Velasquez, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, and Jose Aldo (Dominick Cruz has been inactive so long it feels unfair to include him). However, GSP is the only man in that list who could have been considered a real star before 2011.
Mir, Guida, and Vera's career downslides are symptomatic of a much larger story that hasn't gotten a lot of attention, mainly because it's been occurring by degrees rather than all at once: we're currently in the midst of a changing of the guard where many of the stars who helped build the company during its vital early years on Spike are now tumbling down the ranks while the prelim fighters of yesteryear are climbing the ladder and taking their place. If nothing else it makes one wonder what current lower tier fighters may be holding UFC gold five years from now.
And now one from the "Actually Joe, I don't want fight whoever the UFC puts in front of me" file
As a UFC fighter there a lot of things you can't control. Injuries, last minute opponent changes, incompetent refereeing, and bad judging are just a few of the vicissitudes fighters have little choice but to grin and bear throughout their careers.
Which is why it's so baffling that the majority of fighters pass up a chance to take control of their careers when a little self-efficacy is thrown their way in the form of the softball post fight question, "Who would you like next."
Many fighters act like the question was an unsolvable riddle put to them by Sophocles' Sphinx or something. They hem, they haw, and eventually they come out with the pat line, "Whoever the UFC puts in front of me."
UFC 164 saw a refreshing break from this pattern thanks to a number of fighters who realize it's in their best financial interest to angle for the biggest matchups available at the moment.
The encouraging trend started when Magnus Cedenblad called out Dylan Andrews after winning the first fight of the night in rapid fire fashion thanks to a quick guillotine choke. Cedenblad may be a lower tier fighter in the organization, but he did the very best he could to make use of the spotlight afforded him by his victory by parlaying his 30 seconds of mic time it into setting up his next fight.
Ben Rothwell continued things in spectacular fashion when, after dispatching of Brandon Vera by way of 3rd round TKO, he did an excellent job hyping up a fight between himself and Travis Browne as a can't miss barnburner. Whether or not the fight gets made is another issue altogether given Browne's apparent disinterest, but nevertheless Rothwell should be commended for setting his sights on a realistic opponent who would likely be the biggest matchup available to him right now and doing his damnedest to convince the world the fight needs to be made.
Chad Mendes and new lightweight champ Pettis also deserve credit for aggressively lobbying for a match with long-reigning featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo. With Pettis' call-out of Aldo a fight between the two is now solidly established as the biggest fight available in the UFC's lighter weight classes. As for Mendes, he's amassed four knockouts in a row since losing his first title shot against Aldo and he's smart for trying to ride that wave of momentum into a rematch.
The sands of the hourglass run triple time on a professional athlete's career, so if you're a fighter it's a good idea to do everything in your power to optimize your earning potential while you still can. Sometimes this means speaking up and poking your verbal finger in your optimum opponent's chest.