One of the marquee fights to kick off the UFC's 2016 schedule is the January 17th UFC Fight Night 81 co-main event between Anthony Pettis and Eddie Alvarez. It's the first fight for Pettis since losing his lightweight belt to Rafael dos Anjos in one-sided fashion back in March. As it stands right now, he's about a 3-to-1 favorite to defeat Bellator's former lightweight champion.
At 28 years old, Pettis should be entering the prime of his career, and he's rightfully earned his reputation as one of the most dynamic and athletically gifted fighters in all of MMA. But, there's a major question to be asked about the ongoing health problems and how much of an effect they've had on him to date, and potentially the effect they've had on his quest to regain the lightweight title.
Pettis' defeat to dos Anjos was his only fight of 2015, with a scheduled July return against Myles Jury called off after Pettis injured his elbow (which required surgery). In the 5 years that the former WEC champion has been in the UFC, he has fought just 7 times, and this is the 3rd time he's had 1 bout in a calendar year. For perspective, Beneil Dariush debuted in 2014 and already has as many fights in the UFC as Pettis. In fact, the only ranked UFC lightweight with as many or fewer MMA fights from 2011-2015 as Pettis is ... Eddie Alvarez, whose Bellator career was notably affected by a prolonged contract dispute. Every ranked lightweight with fewer UFC fights than Pettis during this timespan -- Alvarez, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Bobby Green -- debuted in the promotion in 2012 or later.
Here's a timeline of his major surgeries and fight-cancelling injuries while on the UFC roster:
The story of Pettis in the UFC is one of misfortune and disruptive timing. Right out of the gates, his promised immediate title shot versus the Edgar/Maynard winner was squashed when the fight ended in a draw, forcing him to fight a non-title bout in the interim. We've seen moments of electrifying in-cage brilliance from "Showtime" over the years, but they've been followed either by defeats or long-term injuries. This pattern dates back to his infamous Showtime Kick vs. Ben Henderson that closed the gates on the WEC. After beating Bendo, he lost to Clay Guida and eked out a split decision over Jeremy Stephens in his first two UFC fights. More recently, his guillotine choke of Gilbert Melendez -- and even this was off a 16 month layoff after submitting Henderson -- was followed up by the relinquishing of his belt vs. RDA.
If Pettis is to reclaim top spot at 155 he'll have to do so by bucking historical trends. The lightweight division -- and for the sake of this post, we'll go with date from its reinstatement in 2006 -- is consistent in its high turnover of top-level talent. Not once has a champion managed more than 3 successful title defenses, and none of the vanquished champions has even gotten another title shot aside from immediate rematches*. Of the challengers to receive title shots and come up short, only Kenny Florian and Gilbert Melendez got a second chance.
* - Sean Sherk was stripped of his belt due to a failed drug test, but did fight B.J. Penn as a challenger
UFC records of lightweight challengers post-title fight loss
Hermes Franca: 1-2 at lightweight, cut from UFC
Joe Stevenson: 3-5 at lightweight, 0-1 at featherweight, cut from UFC
Sean Sherk: 2-1 at lightweight, retired from UFC in 2013
Kenny Florian: 6-0 at lightweight post-Sherk, 2-1 at lightweight post-Penn, 1-1 at featherweight before retiring in 2012
Diego Sanchez: 2-2 at welterweight, 1-2 in return to lightweight, 0-1 at featherweight
Gray Maynard: 1-4 at lightweight, soon to fight at featherweight
Nate Diaz: 2-2 at lightweight
Gilbert Melendez: 1-0 post-Henderson at lightweight, 0-1 post-Pettis at lightweight
Donald Cerrone: Hasn't fought since RDA loss (duh)
Total record: 22-23 (19-18 at lightweight, 2-2 at welterweight, 1-3 at featherweight)
UFC records of lightweight champions after losing their belt/losing the immediate rematch
B.J. Penn: 1-2-1 at welterweight, 0-1 at featherweight, retired in 2014
Frankie Edgar: 5-1 at featherweight
Ben Henderson: 2-2 at lightweight, 2-0 at welterweight
Total record: 9-6-1 (2-2 lightweight, 5-2 featherweight, 1-2-1 welterweight)
The main point here is that lightweight provides, in my opinion, the thinnest margin of error of any weight class. It's one thing to say, "[X] fighter just needs a couple of wins to get back into a championship bout," but virtually no one at lightweight has actually done so. When Florian fought Sherk, it was the 2nd LW fight of his career and the division had just been reinstated. Melendez wasn't supposed to get a title shot vs. Anthony Pettis, but when Bellator tried to snag Gilbert away, the UFC retained him and gave him one. Cut those out and you have a slew of contenders who ceased to win consistently (Maynard, Stevenson, Franca), aged and/or injured their way into retirement (Sherk, Florian), and ex-champions who have all changed weight classes, of which Frankie Edgar is the runaway most successful of the three.
It is not crazy at all to suggest that Pettis will end up keeping in line with the same trends. The divisional landscape has changed since he beat Henderson in 2013: Tony Ferguson has ascended to the top 5, Eddie Alvarez is in the UFC, Khabib Nurmagomedov beat Rafael dos Anjos a few months after Pettis captured the belt, but has had his own career-sapping injuries to deal with.
In 2016, Pettis has to not only show that he's still a cut above the best lightweights in the world, but keep an active schedule. If he beats Alvarez and then fights 1-2 additional times before 2017, it's a major victory for him. If Pettis beats Alvarez but then is sidelined with another long-term injury, it'll only frustrate fans even more and add to his already long list of health-related setbacks. If he loses to Alvarez, then it's hard to see a scenario where he ever returns to the very top, which would be a shame, because he was pegged to be a superstar when the WEC ended, and while winning (and once defending) UFC gold is no small feat, I don't think you can say those claims have ever materialized.