“That particular kick comes from my traditional martial arts background. That just came off the top of my head. I wasn’t planning on throwing that kick (against Henderson). That was instinctive."
Being famous for an astonishing, almost fantasyland kick is nice, and when Anthony Pettis’ career is over someday, that may be what many people best remember him for. But that’s not how the 23-year-old phenom wants to be defined.
Already in possession of a WEC belt, the Milwaukee native now covets the UFC title and the legacy and prosperity that would come with it. Pettis’ rapid ascent toward the top of the 155-pound division has earned him the right to sit cageside for Saturday night’s main event between UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and No. 1 challenger Gray Maynard. Asked to predict a winner, the flamboyant fighter (fittingly nicknamed “Showtime”) was understandably somewhat wishy-washy. But under pressure to make a pick he squeezed out a half-hearted prognostication.
“I’m going to go with Gray Maynard,” said Pettis, 13-1. “If he can get him down and bully him like he did the first fight then I think Gray Maynard can take the fight. But Frankie has some momentum behind him.”
That was Pettis commenting on the same night earlier this month when he dethroned Benson Henderson for the WEC crown. More than a week later, however, Pettis was back on the fence.
“I don’t know, this fight is hard to call,” he said. “Frankie Edgar against BJ Penn, he looked like a whole new Frankie Edgar. But Gray Maynard is a huge 155er who just imposes his will. His nickname (“The Bully”) fits him well. Either guy I fight will be a tough fight. I’m just getting ready for another wrestler.
“A lot of people say I would match up better with Edgar. I mean, I think it would be a higher-paced fight. But they are the champion and the No. 1 contender so I’ve got my work cut out for me with either guy.”
Pettis hopes to achieve bigger and better things in 2011, but the rising star will be hard pressed to outdo the massive good fortune that engulfed him in 2010. Few fighters experienced a more banner year, as he racked up a 4-0 record, gained national exposure courtesy of being featured on MTV’s “World of Jenks,” and won a world title with arguably the most clutch – and most spectacular - flying kick that MMA fans have ever seen. I must confess that I can replay Pettis’ running, off-the-cage kick against Benson Henderson over and over and over again, without it ever diminishing my sense of marvel. I’ve replayed and studied the maneuver more than any other I’ve witnessed in the cage, and judging from a YouTube video of the maneuver, there are millions more who feel the same way I do.
“That particular kick comes from my traditional martial arts background,” said Pettis, who at the behest of his late father began studying Tae Kwon Do at 7 years old. “That just came off the top of my head. I wasn’t planning on throwing that kick (against Henderson). That was instinctive, man. We didn’t practice that before the fight, it was just one of those things.”
Pettis said that when he went back to his corner at the conclusion of the fourth round, he mistakenly thought he had just finished the third round. So, headed into the fifth and final round – with the fight up for grabs – head coach Duke Roufus set his fighter straight: This is it, kid. Last round.
“S---! I got to get after it,” Pettis thought to himself. “My dream is five minutes away. I gotta get after it and make it happen.’”
With less than 90 seconds left, and Pettis arguably losing the fifth and decisive round, he charged forward, went airborne, bounced off the cage on one leg! … and unleashed the mother of all high kicks. And actually landed it flush across Henderson’s face.
“It was a title fight and there was a lot at stake and that’s one of those kicks where you can get yourself in trouble if you miss,” he said. “It was a clutch kick that just happened at the right time.”
It was a kick that has caused Pettis’ popularity to skyrocket, a kick so wondrous that reporters and fans are still trying to figure out what in the heck to call it. Some have stayed simple, dubbing it a “superkick.” Others have called it a “Matrix” kick. I like to call it the “Holy S&$%# Kick,” since I literally and instinctively started writing expletives on my computer screen while writing about the fight live from Glendale, Ariz., earlier this month. Holy (expletive of your choice) is the first thing that jumped into my mind, and I’m one of those guys who tends to think that our first reaction to a situation is usually the right one.
In the days following his sweetest victory, Pettis would soon learn that while he hasn’t changed much, other people’s reaction to his presence has. He returned to Milwaukee even more recognizable and beloved than before. His cell phone answering machine was overwhelmed with messages, and flooded with hundreds of text messages.
After fighting five times in the past 12 months, Pettis took a well-deserved break, booking a four-day cruise to the Bahamas.
“It was my first time there,” he said. “It was crazy, all the workers and a lot of other people in recognized me in the Bahamas. They said, “You’re the guy that did the kick off the cage …” It was crazy. I didn’t even know they watched WEC over there. When I went through Customs they were trying to take pictures with me.”
Roufus calls his prized protégé a “Latin GSP,” comparing Pettis to current UFC welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre in athleticism, work ethic and determination. Indeed, Pettis has come so far, so fast. By now, Pettis’ humble beginnings have been well-documented, and oft-reported, but bears repeating because it showcases the true grit and glory of Pettis’ struggle to the top. For most of his life, he had been dealt a rather paltry hand. The product of a seedy, drug- and crime-infested neighborhood in the south side of Milwaukee, Pettis can never completely forget the violence of that place because those mean streets claimed the life of his father. Eugene Pettis, a janitor who worked two jobs so his kids could attend Catholic schools, was murdered on Nov. 12, 2003. He was 46.
Pettis, half-Puerto Rican and half-Mexican, is motivated by his father’s memory. In the days leading up to a fight, and even during his walk to the cage, he sports a hooded sweatshirt with his father’s image. Pettis said he won the WEC title not just for himself, but for his father.
“It’s a dream come true,” Pettis said. “My dad was with me all throughout my martial arts career. When he died I stopped doing martial arts for awhile. But then I found mixed martial arts. Duke Roufus and Pat Barry, these guys brought me in and were like family to me. It’s something (my father’s death), that I carry with me into every fight. My dad gives me my competitive edge and I bring him on my hoodie to every fight. I feel close to him doing this. Getting this belt is the icing on the cake. I can’t wait to go to his grave and show him that.”