Anthony Pettis has taken the MMA world by storm. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
MILWAUKEE -- The parking lot is jam packed on a Monday night at the Roufusport Martial Arts Academy. As the fight team prepares for its evening sparring session, a crowd of onlookers begins to gather. Duke Roufus’ gym has an open-door policy, and a small group remains glued to the action for the next hour and sticks around afterwards in hopes of catching Anthony Pettis for a quick photo or autograph.
Whether Pettis notices his slieu of onlookers or not is immaterial. His focus is right where it should be: on the task at hand. The pressure is on. Roufus and assistant coach Scott Cushman bark out orders to a dozen fighters donning shinguards and headgear. No detail is overlooked, as the coaches provide individual fighters with specific pointers during and after each round. No 50 percent sparring here; the session is designed to simulate the intensity of a fight. Each fighter displays nimble footwork, as fists fly to the rhythm of the techno music sounding in the background.
Although he was a tae kwon do black belt, Pettis started in the beginner’s class at Roufusport when he first stepped foot in the gym in 2006. However, it did not take long for him to stand out from the crowd.
“What I did notice about Anthony is that he lived here,” says Roufus, a former world kickboxing champion. “He was here for grappling twice a day [and] kickboxing sometimes twice a day. He progressed so fast because he put the work in. Some people think because they’re in tae kwon do [that] they can be just as good as Anthony Pettis. No, you have to work just as hard as Anthony Pettis. He’s talented, but he works just as hard as he is talented. That’s why he’s as good as he is.”
Pettis -- who faces Clay Guida at “The Ultimate Fighter 13” Finale on Saturday at the Palms Casino Resort in Las Vegas -- considers tae kwon do his base style, along with kickboxing, but he has put plenty of effort into adapting the kicks he threw growing up for wrestling and MMA.
“[With] a lot of tae kwon do kicks, you can go straight up because it’s point sparring,” he says. “Whereas if you’re fighting wrestlers, you want to keep your core low so you can defend takedowns.”
The now immortalized off-the-cage kick he executed against Benson Henderson in the WEC 53 main event was actually adapted from tae kwon do, as well.
“That was from demos I used to do when I was a kid,” Pettis says. “We used to jump off the wall and break a board. Duke was the one who was, like, ‘Let’s try that on a moving target,’ so we kind of just perfected it on a moving target. I didn’t practice it for that fight; it was just instinct.”
Pettis, who has two tae kwon do gyms with more than 300 students, stops by to teach two to three times a month when not preparing for a fight. His roommate, UFC featherweight Erik Koch, also has a background in the discipline.
“It’s one of those things with striking -- people are so used to traditional boxing, in and out striking. They’re not used to the karate. They’re not used to the tae kwon do, and that’s why you see people doing crazy stuff right now,” Koch says. “[Lyoto] Machida doing the jump crane kick [at UFC 129] and then Anderson Silva with the front kick to the face [at UFC 126]; you’re seeing striking evolve because we have to come up with new things, because it starts getting stale and it doesn’t work. The sport is still evolving.”
Speaking with “Showtime,” one becomes struck by how quiet and laid back he seems compared to his style in the cage.
“The nickname comes from the fights,” Pettis says. “It’s not at all my personality. I’m not at all like that. A lot of people think Showtime means a showy guy, a show-off. I’m just a laid-back guy, but my fighting style is flashy. Everything I do makes the fans go ‘Ooooh!” So the first time I fought, Duke was, like, ‘Man, you put on a show every time you fight, so we’re gonna call you Showtime.”
After sparring, Pettis politely greets the fans who have gathered in the gym and agrees to pose for photos.
“At times, he’s uncomfortable with his stardom,” Roufus says. “He’s just Anthony. He’s just like any other 24-year-old dude. He likes to train, and he doesn’t get caught up in the star stuff. One thing he knows: if he doesn’t win, there’s no star stuff, so don’t get used to the star stuff. Get used to winning.”
Pettis finds his inspiration in Silva, the longtime UFC middleweight champion, and welterweight king Georges St. Pierre.
“Just the way they have been champions for a long time,” he says. “They’re both really down-to-earth guys and they represent that sport very well. I like that style of a fighter. I don’t want to be that loud guy that wants all that attention. [I want to be] the guy that knows that he’s really good and he gets his attention from skills, like Anderson Silva and GSP.”
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