Former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis is a changed man. He can still jump off the cage and kick someone in the head, can submit fighters who don’t make a habit of getting submitted, and, at 28, he may not even be in his prime yet.
Yet as he prepares his Sunday co-main event against Eddie Alvarez in Boston, he’s not the same person he was when he fought Rafael dos Anjos in March of 2015, a bout that cost him his 155-pound title.
“I think I definitely changed a little bit already,” he said. “I’m more mature. When I first got to the belt, I was so excited to have it and so excited to be the champ, and it all was new to me. Now this time around, I feel like I’ve been there, I’ve done that, I’ve accomplished that, and my goals are a little different. Now it’s time to leave a legacy and show that I can stay on top. When I get there, I can’t get comfortable, I can’t get complacent. I’ve got to get there, stay hungry, stay motivated and stay as long as I can. There’s only a small window that my body can handle this.”
Injuries have always been the albatross hanging around the neck of “Showtime,” limiting him to just one fight in 2012, two in 2013, and one in 2014. But it was that one fight in 2014, a second-round submission of former Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez in defense of his title that seemed to mark a new day for Milwaukee’s Pettis, so much so that he fought just three months later against dos Anjos.
One of the sport’s top superstars and the first UFC fighter to appear on a Wheaties box, Pettis suffered a broken orbital bone early in the first round and was never in the fight after that. He gamely went five rounds with the Brazilian, but when the final scorecards were read, there was no question who won the bout.
Anthony Pettis was an ex-champion, and his bandwagon emptied. It didn’t surprise Pettis at all.
“I felt it before,” he said. “I was coming off winning the WEC belt and going to the UFC, I lost to Clay Guida (in 2011), and people are very quick to forget and looking to make someone as human as they are. So when somebody gets their shine, they’re secretly waiting for them to lose so they can tell everybody ‘See, he is human,’ or ‘He isn’t as good as everybody made him out to be.’ So there are a lot of undercover haters.”
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Pettis doesn’t sound bitter. He’s been at the top of the game long enough to know the lay of the land. It is complicated being a world champion, but it’s what he signed up for. That doesn’t make the aftermath any easier, but if anyone can handle it, Pettis has already proved that he can.
“When you’re the champ, you’re getting pulled in every direction,” he said. “Media, sponsors, appearances, seminars – you’re the top of your division, so everybody wants something from you. And for me, when I lost the belt, there was almost like a night and day switch. Some of the people that I thought were there for me and really cared for me, that I thought were in my corner, they didn’t show up as much. So I definitely got to see who’s really in my corner and who really cares for me as a person and me as an athlete and me as a champion.”
The life of a contender is normally less complicated, but maybe not for someone like Pettis, who is expected to be great and to be spectacular every time out. But those are the opinions of people outside his inner circle. For Pettis, there are simple goals to be achieved this weekend.
“Eddie is definitely one of the top fighters in the world,” he said. “Based on his last two performances against guys that I’ve smoked easy (Donald Cerrone and Melendez), I would say that if I don’t come out there and have a great performance, then I’ve got to go back to the drawing board and figure out what’s wrong. But at the same time, coming off a loss, you never want to lose two in a row, and I think that’s more of the motivation than anything. I don’t want to lose two in a row, I definitely want to be back where I was at, and I just want to have fun doing it.”
Fun? Not exactly the adjective one would use to describe a fight with Alvarez, but that’s the biggest change from last March.
“This time around, I’m not putting all this pressure on myself that I need to be this flashy fighter, this guy that everybody thought I was,” he said. “I just want to go out there and have fun doing it. I chose this as a career because I had fun doing it. I had a great time in the WEC, I had a great time in the UFC, and this is like the next chapter in my career, and I want to make it fun. I don’t want to go out there and have all this pressure I’m putting on myself. I’ve just got to go out there, enjoy my job, enjoy my career, and the results will happen.”