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Nine minutes, 45 seconds. That’s how long it took for Anthony Pettis to disrupt the narrative. From washed up, outgunned and over the hill, to the most unlikely welterweight contender since a 1-4 Matt Brown won seven straight with six finishes.
After storming the lightweight division in the World Extreme Cagefighting promotion and then marching into the Octagon to capture -- and defend -- Ultimate Fighting Championship gold inside six fights back in 2014, Pettis had looked like a husk of himself for the succeeding half-decade. A cut above divisional gatekeepers like Jim Miller and Charles Oliveira, but cannon fodder for the upper echelon. In his last five fights, Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier and Tony Ferguson each stopped the Milwaukee native inside three rounds, and while the former champion was deservedly praised for his courage in moving up to 170 pounds, the prevailing wisdom was that he had bitten off more than he could chew. Once poised to become the UFC’s next mainstream star, we’d settled into viewing Pettis as a fighter almost devoid of stakes: a fun, risk-taking power-puncher who was reliable in action but not in victory.
And his opponent for this welterweight experiment? Stephen freaking Thompson -- a two-time title challenger whose only losses were contentious, vociferously debated decisions. He took then-welterweight-champion Tyron Woodley to a majority draw back at UFC 205 at Madison Square Garden, then doubled down with an equally close, though far less celebrated, majority decision loss three months later. Since then “Wonderboy” had glided past Jorge Masvidal at UFC 217 before falling victim to some hometown cooking against future title challenger Darren Till in Liverpool. He was the puzzle that no one had quite figured out, with knockout victories over the likes of Robert Whittaker and pre-decline Johnny Hendricks. He rightfully walked into the cage a 4-to-1 favourite against Pettis, and many -- myself included -- were expecting a five round shellacking at best, if not a straight-up mercy killing.
But “Showtime” showed up, and waded into the fire like no one before him had attempted to. He stayed at range and made the most of miniscule openings that presented themselves in the aftermath of Thompson’s many assaults, landing low kicks and gradually chipping away at the karateka’s mobility. Bloody and bruised, he awaited -- and found -- the opportunity, the half-second where the always-bouncing Thompson appeared suspended and vulnerable; the subtle rebound off the fence, which momentarily collapsed the space between them; the superman hook and the vicious, consciousness-stealing hammer punches.
Pettis has won just four of his last 10 fights, but the victory on Saturday definitively reshuffled the cards. Like Sugar Ray Robinson’s famous left-hook knockout of Gene Fullmer, a blow he described as the most perfect of his career, we’ve been reminded of Pettis’ greatness; what the former champion was -- and ostensibly still is -- capable of when he has his night.
And that’s a rarity, you know. More often then not the good old days disappear and all we’re left with is a cocktail of nostalgia, disappointment and forum threads debating ‘how good fighter X really was’. It’s been more than six years since Anderson Silva looked like “The Spider,” and nearly a decade since B.J. Penn last looked like “The Prodigy,” but “Showtime” is back, even if it’s only for a quick minute.
Which brings us to the next issue, which is where the resurgent 32-year old should focus his energies next. As Sherdog’s Todd Martin pointed out earlier this week, Pettis is something of a man in the middle. With losses to Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier, the two men who will vie for the interim 155-pound title in two weeks time, a move back down to 155-pounds would be imprudent if he wants to keep his championship aspirations alive. By the same token though, a genuine run at the 170-pound title is complicated by the presence of Pettis’ top-5 ranked teammates Tyron Woodley (No. 1) and Ben Askren (No. 5), and the raft of pressure-heavy fighters like Rafael dos Anjos, who put a beatdown on Pettis in 2015 to commence his long decline.
You know what would be a good fight? Conor McGregor, who appeared to call out Pettis on Saturday night via Twitter. That match-up would have been paradigm-shifting: two strikers with victories across three different weight classes and title fights across two; McGregor’s frenetic energy versus Pettis’ ubiquitous swag; the UFC’s most transcendent -- and vexing -- star versus a guy that never quite lived up to expectations.
For now, such a possibility seems to have been consigned to afterthought-status. McGregor tweeted out a “retirement” of sorts earlier in the week, followed closely by a report that he is being investigated for an alleged sexual assault in Dublin. McGregor’s story seems poised to be swallowed up by a Mike-Tyson-esque fall from grace, and the likelihood he meets Pettis in the Octagon has gone from probable to dubious.
But maybe that’s OK. Maybe we don’t need a future match up to invest in, or a next big adventure, to appreciate what happened on Saturday. Maybe Pettis will pick go on to pick up consecutive victories in his next fights -- it would be the first time since 2014 -- or maybe he gets tooled up against “RDA” and we go back to viewing him as damaged goods.
Either way, we were in the presence of “Showtime” this past weekend. And in a sport never short on cruelty and anticlimax, we shouldn’t soon forget how special that is.
Jacob Debets is a law graduate and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.