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Anthony Pettis - The Fire Within

“Pettis is overrated.”

“Pettis is not as good as everybody thought he was.”

Those are just the phrases that come to mind immediately for lightweight contender and former WEC champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, who got a crash course in the fickle nature of the fight game after his June loss to Clay Guida.  

According to those folks, Pettis was a figment of their imagination, “a one kick wonder,” as he puts it, and you can tell that even as he prepares to get back into the Octagon to face Jeremy Stephens this Saturday night on the UFC 136 card in Houston, the barbs still burn.

“Duke (Roufus), my coach, actually prepares me for a lot of the stuff inside and outside the cage, and he always tells me that you’re only as good as your last performance and unfortunately for me I had a bad performance in the Guida fight and a lot of fans aren’t as loyal as you think they are,” he said. “They’ll celebrate with you, but once you lose, they’ll turn on you.”

It’s a situation experienced by so many fighters that to count them here would crash the internet itself. Win today and you’re the greatest thing since pizza. Lose tomorrow and you’re yesterday’s news. That’s the nature of the sports business, but one brand new to the affable 24-year old from Milwaukee, whose compelling story, personality, and talent made him a star in the WEC. And when he capped off his WEC title winning effort against Ben Henderson in December of 2010 with a kick off the cage that became a highlight for the ages, there seemed to be no stopping him.

But Guida has a way of getting in the way of things, and he stopped Pettis in his tracks with a beautifully executed gameplan of mauling and brawling that kept the dynamic striker from getting any room to breathe. The unanimous decision in Guida’s favor was a no-brainer. Pettis had his second pro loss (the first coming via decision to Bart Palaszewski in 2009), and it was time to regroup.

“It’s just a build-up of a number of things that went wrong,” he said. “I don’t want to say I had a bad fight or it was an off-night because that leaves something in my mind that I could have that kind of performance again. There were a number of things that I did wrong – preparation for the fight, gameplanning that should have been changed – but you can’t cry over spilled milk and I’m just ready to get back and get my next win.”

And when it comes down to it, that’s all he really can do. He’s got too many gifts to walk away from the game, and why would he? Oh wait, that’s what some “fans” of the sport believe fighters should do when they lose a fight. But Pettis knows better, and he admits that he still has plenty of people who remain in his corner.

“I still got some loyal fans,” he said. “I can’t say everybody turned on me. It’s just that the fans that don’t really know who I am, they just saw the kick (against Henderson). ‘Oh man, look at this crazy kick this guy did,’ and they don’t really know my skillset behind that kick. But some of my fans are always loyal to me, they know that I have skills, and that I want this so much. But the general masses and most of the media portrays it that I’m overrated and Guida exposed it.”

So where does a fighter begin after such a defeat? Do you erase everything you’ve done and start from scratch, or simply tweak the soft spots in your game and move forward? Pettis, hurt by the criticism, but using it as fuel, has become a gym rat.

“I just live in the gym,” he said. “I got back to becoming a student of the game and just learning everything. After the Henderson fight, I got so much media attention, the title shot in the UFC, all these appearances, all this hype, and no matter how many people tell you about it, you kinda gotta experience it for yourself to realize how it affects you and how it is. So I think I’m kinda getting more used to performing on that level where people actually care about my training and care about what I’m doing, so for me it’s just balancing everything out.”

A couple key factors help him attain that balance now, and the first one has nothing to do with the fight game, as Pettis and his girlfriend welcomed a daughter into the world in July.

“I’m not as important as I used to be,” Pettis laughed when asked how things have changed for him since the arrival of Aria. “She comes first. And it’s motivation. I’ve got a daughter to take care of now. I’m fighting for more than just myself and my own gain so I’ve got to do my job well to take care of her.”

The other factor is an old standby in Roufus, Pettis’ longtime trainer and mentor, and someone who isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel after the Guida loss. So don’t expect “Showtime” to play it safe from now on. He will be bringing all the unorthodox moves we’ve come to expect from him.

“A big reason why I’m with Duke is because he allows me to be myself,” said Pettis. “He doesn’t want to make me a Muay Thai guy, he doesn’t want to make me a wrestler or a basic jiu-jitsu guy. He allows me to create my own style and make my own Anthony Pettis. So he’s supportive but he’s still smart about it. He’s not like ‘ok, go out there and do a jump spin kick and see what happens.’ Everything’s set up, and he just helps me make it more effective.”

So with the motivation of being a father, the stability of having a good trainer and team behind him, and that little something in the back of his head that says ‘I’ll show you,’ Pettis is in fine stead as he prepares to meet Stephens, an unabashed banger who will likely strike with the striker.

“I’m getting to fight a striker finally,” said Pettis. “I’ve been fighting all these wrestlers, and people are counting me out big time; so for me it’s a chance to come back and show these guys that I am gonna be the number one contender and the champion one day.”

Pettis also has a secret weapon in camp in fellow UFC fighter Danny Downes, who recently extended Stephens the three round distance before losing a decision.

“Danny talks to me a lot and we train every day together,” said Pettis. “Danny said he (Stephens) didn’t feel as strong as everybody makes him out to be, and his punching power ain’t the end all. Everybody’s always like ‘oh, Jeremy Stephens has knockout power,’ and he does, but it’s not one of those punches where he touches you and it’s over. I got a good chin, so I’m not gonna go out there and overthink his right hand or left hook; I’m gonna do my gameplan and put my will on him.”

And not that Pettis needed any more motivation, but Stephens has not been reticent in declaring just what he’s going to do to the former WEC champ. There will be no retorts though; Pettis is saving his war for the Octagon.

“I haven’t really lashed out or talked any crap at all,” he said. “I’m gonna let my fight skill do the talking. I’ve got a lot to prove in this fight, it’s my second one in the UFC and I need to get that ‘W’ and I need to do it the ‘Showtime’ way.” I’m here to stay. I’m not just a one kick wonder and I’m not a guy who just got lucky once. I’m coming for that title shot and I’m gonna earn my title shot.”