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UFC Boston opinion: Anthony Pettis, Reggie Bush, and 'successful disappointments'

Mookie Alexander reviews Anthony Pettis' loss to Eddie Alvarez, and why his UFC career has been a success, but also a major disappointment.

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Before 2015 came to a close, I detailed why 2016 was the most important year of Anthony Pettis' career.  He was soundly defeated by Rafael dos Anjos, forced out of a bout with Myles Jury due to injury, and didn't compete again for the rest of the year. Defeating Eddie Alvarez, and performing well in the process, would've been a major stepping stone towards regaining his belt.

Instead, Anthony Pettis is on the first losing streak of his MMA career. In a lackluster affair, Pettis wound up on the wrong end of a split decision vs. Eddie Alvarez. It wasn't particularly thrilling to watch, and regardless of whether or not Pettis should've actually gotten the win, his explosive and dynamic offense -- I know, I know, calm down! -- was largely stifled once again.

Quietly, Pettis sits at 5-3 in the UFC and is #3 in the latest lightweight rankings. When you completely remove context of Pettis' WEC career and the hype that ensued after the famous "Showtime kick" vs. Ben Henderson, his record is excellent. He went from losing to Clay Guida and struggling with Jeremy Stephens to finishing Joe Lauzon, Donald Cerrone, Henderson, and Gilbert Melendez consecutively. Winning the UFC lightweight title and successfully defending it is nothing to scoff at, and those are great accomplishments that Pettis has managed.

So why doesn't it feel great?

I liken Pettis' career, albeit not completely, to that of NFL running back Reggie Bush. At USC, Bush won the Heisman Trophy (given to the nation's best college player) in 2005, and was one of the most electrifying running talents of his era. In his final year before going pro, Bush ran for 1,740 yards and 16 touchdowns on just 200 carries, and snagged 37 pass receptions for almost 500 yards and 2 more TDs. This was the awe-inspiring run that punctuated his Heisman-winning season.

The New Orleans Saints selected Bush #2 overall in the 2006 NFL Draft, with the expectation that he would be their franchise running back for the long-term, and who could blame them? Bush was outstanding when he started at USC, but it never materialized. The Houston Texans, who drafted defensive end Mario Williams #1 overall, were initially ripped to shreds for not choosing the consensus best player on the board.

Even though Bush was a key contributor in New Orleans' eventual Super Bowl win in the 2009 season, he never panned out like they'd hoped. He averaged below 4.0 yards per carry in his first three seasons, and only averaged 418 yards and 105 carries in his five years with the team, which is backup RB caliber. Reggie's value came primarily as a dangerous kick returner, which earned him All-Pro honors in 2008, as well as catching passes in a pass-hahppy offense. After two seasons, Bush had 161 receptions, which most wide receivers don't manage in that timeframe.

One of the biggest problems for Bush, which tied directly into his inconsistent productivity and inability to hold down the starting job, was his propensity to get injured. He tore his left PCL (sound familiar?), which ended his 2007 season 4 games early, tore his meniscus in 2008 (sound familiar?), and sprained his MCL on the same knee after he returned from surgery. Bush had offseason microfracture surgery in 2009 and missed two regular season games due to soreness in the repaired knee. His final year in New Orleans saw him miss half the season with a broken right leg, and the Saints traded him to the Miami Dolphins in the 2011 offseason. To his credit, his best years were from 2011-2013. He broke the 1,000 rushing yards mark once in Miami and once in Detroit. For those teams, he was the undisputed #1 on the depth chart, stayed healthy, and statistically performed like a top 15 player at his position.

Currently with San Francisco, Reggie Bush will turn 31 in March and he's coming off a torn ACL suffered when he slipped on stadium concrete during a game in St. Louis. Given his age (31 is ancient for RBs), mileage (9 years), and injury problems, it's very possible he won't be on an NFL roster to start next season, if ever again. If so, his final numbers make for a moderately successful career, especially when you consider that NFL running backs have the shortest average career length (3.3 years). But Bush wasn't billed to be merely an above-average player with intermittent periods of greatness, he was hyped as a future all-time great who would continue producing highlight reel moments happen at a pro level, and based on level of expectations, you can absolutely argue that Bush was a disappointment.

That's essentially how I view Pettis right now. Granted, where Bush and Pettis clearly differ is the fact that Pettis actually was #1 at his craft at the highest level of the sport, unlike Reggie. Otherwise, the similarities are striking, particularly how their abilities are so heavily tied into their tremendous athleticism, but they've both had their careers significantly affected by injuries. Bush was a successful disappointment because he didn't have statistics that matched his projected targets coming out of college. Pettis is a successful disappointment in the sense that while he's won and defended a championship, his UFC tenure has more or less been disjointed. His wins have been fantastic but frustratingly spaced out, and his losses have been ugly if not damning. You could point to increased level of competition, the injuries, and/or an admission that he has always had serious, yet-to-be patched flaws in his game, and that specific competition has been able to exploit them.

I believe Pettis can still turn things around, but his margin for error is just about gone. It's evident that there's a general blueprint on how to at least neutralize him, but only a handful of lightweights are capable of executing it well enough to get a win. Until we see otherwise, he's not lost a striking-heavy bout inside the Octagon. The problem for Pettis is that, as noted in my previous article, lightweight is a shark tank. This division is to MMA what running backs are to the NFL: Your spot at the top is shorter and less secure than any other skill position, and the talent pool is deep enough that you're instantly replaceable in case of drop-off. It was only a shade over 3 years ago that Jim Miller, Joe Lauzon, and Gray Maynard were all top 10 lightweights, while Rafael dos Anjos was not. Meanwhile, I fully expect Shogun Rua to remain #8 at light heavyweight in 2027, even if he doesn't win any fights.

It's an inauspicious start to Pettis' 2016. He says he wants a "real fight ASAP", which sounds neat until you realize his health issues make him totally untrustworthy as far as committing to an active schedule. Another loss almost certainly takes him out of the title picture for good at 155.

If 2013 was Pettis' peak, then he'll have to go down as one of MMA's biggest "What-if?" stories, and that is definitely disappointing considering what fans saw the night of December 16th, 2010.