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There’s a right way and a wrong way to win. More to the point, there’s a right way and a wrong way to answer the inevitable post-fight question: Who’s next? “Whoever the UFC puts in front of me” is invariably the worst and most boring answer; if you’re looking to climb the ranks, calling out nobody tacitly admits that you are, in fact, also a nobody. The name of the game is to gain fans and build storylines, and no one has ever been interested by or attracted to wimpy compliance.
It’s slightly better to narrow it down to “someone in the top 10,” but again, that’s not going to get anyone talking, and in the current climate of matchmaking, getting people to talk goes a long way. The best bet is to have a name ready. If fans respond to that name, it’s one of the most powerful ways a fighter can take the reins of his or her career.
In recent memory, Nate Diaz and Mickey Gall have parlayed post-fight callouts into particularly lucrative matchmaking. Diaz, of course, set up his biggest career paydays by voicing his desire to fight Conor McGregor’s “[expletive] ass” after a good-but-not-great win over Michael Johnson. All it took was a good bounce from Rafael dos Anjos getting injured and voila: Two fights later, Diaz was a multi-millionaire. Gall, on the other hand, didn’t quite rake in the payday Diaz did, but he did translate a high-profile yet expected win over Phil Brooks, aka “CM Punk,” into a fight with Sage Northcutt -- possibly the biggest name in the welterweight division that was in his range of ability. He didn’t need quite as many F-bombs as Diaz, but calling “Super Sage” corny was apparently enough to get people excited.
There’s a reason MMA is called the fight game. There’s an element of gamesmanship required to navigate one’s career, and those who are assertive and smart about who they call out are often in the best positions to advance their careers. Sergio Pettis was aware of this.
After a fine performance against Brandon Moreno at UFC Fight Night 114 on Saturday in Mexico City, Pettis is at the highest point of his four-year tenure with the Ultimate Fighting Championship. It was the first time he was in the main event, and he overcame legitimate adversity to win a clear-cut decision over the crowd favorite. Even though he was on the wrong side of what should have been a 10-8 first round, Pettis was composed and fought his fight, keeping Moreno at the end of his punches and kicks enough to do some damage and ward off half of the prospect’s takedowns. The fight itself was good, too. It wasn’t spectacular, but on the spectrum of fights, it was closer to spectacular than it was to terrible; and that matters, especially for someone whose nickname up until now could have justifiably been “Younger Brother of Anthony.”
Despite the breakthrough moment, he didn’t call for a title shot. He mentioned champion Demetrious Johnson, which was smart since it put himself in the discussion, but he ultimately called for a fight with Henry Cejudo. This was a wise decision.
With four solid wins in a hollowed-out division, Pettis has as good a claim as anyone has had to challenge Johnson for the title. Wilson Reis won three in a row before his title shot; Tim Elliot won “The Ultimate Fighter” after previously getting cut from the UFC; Cejudo won four in a row, with his fourth victory being a split decision; John Dodson won three in a row before getting both of his shots; and Kyoji Horiguchi won four in a row, all against unranked opponents. Pettis has a better case for a title shot than a lot of recent contenders, and that’s to say nothing about Chris Cariaso -- a man Pettis beat during his current streak.
Pettis is only 23. He knows there is a good chance he’s simply not ready for Johnson yet, and he also knows that time is on his side. Why rush? Max Holloway didn’t, and it worked out pretty well for him. Cejudo is a known commodity in the division, and a storyline between him and Pettis already exists. Cejudo is step-up in competition but also represents a more winnable fight than “Mighty Mouse.” Of course, Cejudo is currently booked against Wilson Reis, but even if he loses, it sets up Pettis with Reis, who is the same caliber of fighter and no worse of a stylistic matchup than Cejudo. On all fronts, it’s a better career move.
If Pettis beats the Cejudo-Reis winner and then maybe picks up another win while Johnson moves up for a champion-versus-champion super fight against whoever the bantamweight titleholder is at the time, he’ll be in a much better position to compete with the pound-for-pound ace at the helm of the division. Of course, it’s no guarantee he’ll win, but there’s a legitimate silver lining there, too. A loss now will validate the fact that he isn’t ready for the title shot while at the same time exposing holes in his game to shore up. Just to repeat: Pettis is only 23 years old. A loss at this stage of his career would do little to keep him from a title shot, especially since Johnson has already wacked almost every other flyweight contender. Unless Pettis falls off a cliff, he will get a title shot sooner or later.
Pettis may not have the explosive dynamism of his older brother, but what he lacks in athleticism he makes up for in craft. This also manifests outside of the ring. Older Pettis has a flare to his personality that younger Pettis does not, but the latter knows how to make the most of his appeal by being smart. That lends itself to longevity in a way that Anthony Pettis’ style -- both inside and out of the cage -- may not. It’s hard to emerge from the shadow of an older brother, especially one as beloved and exciting as “Showtime,” but the younger Pettis is carving out a fine niche for himself, and he’s doing it his own way.
Pettis just might be the guy to knock Johnson off the throne. It may take him a second try, and he may have to wait until he’s 30 and Johnson is 37, but that’s not such a bad thing. He has the most valuable asset any fighter can have: time.
Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.