Anthony Pettis is back at lightweight, his natural habitat, and seemingly all the better for it. Since returning to 155lbs, following a brief and regrettable stint at featherweight, the former UFC lightweight champion has resembled something like his old self and last time out, in July, scored a decision win over Jim Miller to get himself back in the win column.
Ahead of Saturday’s fight with Dustin Poirier at UFC Fight Night 120, Pettis sat down with Fighters Only contributor Gareth A. Davies to discuss the importance of his coach, Duke Roufus, the tragic death of his father, any similarities and differences he shares with his brother, Sergio, a potential clash with Conor McGregor, and how, despite losing three fights in a row, he has managed to turn it all around.
Question: There appears to be an unbreakable bond between yourself and Duke Roufus. How important is that relationship?
Anthony Pettis: It’s a relationship that was built over years and years. It didn’t just happen. To have somebody that you trust that much in your corner is the difference between winning a fight and losing a fight. We’ve been through so much, man. World championships, big wins, big losses. I think for me having him in my corner means all the difference. He understands martial arts and martial artists. When it comes to improving and changing my style, he gets it and can add to it. He’s very open-minded. He thinks the same way that I do. I think he’s a special person because he kind of grew with this sport. It’s not like he started his coaching career as an MMA coach. Me, Dan the Savage and Stephan Bonnar were the first MMA guys in Duke’s gym. It was a kickboxing gym with a jiu-jitsu programme.
Q: What about the bond you share with Sergio, your brother? Even though you’re so different as fighters…
AP: I think me and Sergio have totally different styles. I’m a bit more wild and he’s well-schooled. I do crazy things. He’s been at all my fights and has been in the corner for world championship fights. He’s been around me my whole career pretty much. I’ve definitely mentored him a lot; not so much with his style but more in terms of showing him how I’ve done it.
Q: Did you know from a young age that you would become a pro fighter?
AP: Not at all. Fighting wasn’t part of the plan. It kind of just found me. I’ve done a lot of fighting, but I wasn’t planning on being a professional at all. It was more a love of martial arts. I wanted to do that as a career but I didn’t even think about fighting as an option. Fighting found me.
Q: In that case, what were you headed towards?
AP: I was 16 years old when I started my first business. School wasn’t my favourite thing but I started my first tae kwan do business when I was 16. I’ve been doing business my whole life. I still own two gyms. I own two barber shops and a sports bar.
Q: You began early, very early, in martial arts, at the age of five. What was ‘Showtime’ like back then?
AP: I was a daredevil in martial arts. I’d do jumping kicks and all the crazy moves. But I was afraid of competition. From six to ten I couldn’t even compete in a tournament. That’s how afraid of competition I was. I was shy. I would get so nervous. My mum would always say just go out there and lose because I’ve already paid for the tournament. I would go out there and lose on purpose because I was so nervous to compete.
Q: Is fighting a type of therapy for you?
AP: I think it’s one of the things that takes you away from the problems of life. If I have problems in my life or something going on, there’s so much to learn and so much to concentrate on that you kind of forget about the outside world. You’re just focused on the technique and training and whatever it is you are trying to achieve at that time. It’s definitely a therapy.
Q: The tragedy surrounding your life when your were sixteen is well-documented… did it motivate you to fight?
AP: Losing my dad, I kind of had a down time in my life from 16 to 19. He died when I was 16 and for three years I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I didn’t even know if I wanted to continue. But I had a younger brother, I had a mother, and I think that was my motivation, more than my dad dying and me wanting revenge on the person who killed him. That wasn’t my motivation. I wanted my brother to have someone to look up to and my mum to be proud. I wanted to get her out of the situation she was in. That’s when fighting came in. At 19 years old I started training at Duke’s gym and committed myself 100%. I was there every day and at every class. He was going to kick me out of the gym sometimes I was there so much. Me and Duke became really close at that age.
Q: Fighters rarely go through a career without a difficult patch, and, until recently, you were in the midst of a tough one. How did you cope with that and eventually pull yourself out of it?
AP: From the Rafael Dos Anjos fight I just had a really hard time. I beat Gilbert Melendez and I felt amazing and then I went into the RDA camp and I didn’t have that same spark. Something was missing. I would never pull out of a fight. I fought RDA and we all know what happened: I got demolished. That was the first time in my career I felt I wasn’t as good as the guy I was fighting. I always felt I was very close or better than the guy I was fighting. RDA was the first guy who made me feel like I didn’t have that pop or that energy. I didn’t have that willpower to get past that first punch. He hit me with a good punch at the beginning and I couldn’t see out of one eye. I started making excuses in my head and it was a rough time in that fight.
Q: You then fought Eddie Alvarez…
AP: I go into camp right away to fight Eddie Alvarez and I dislocate my elbow and had to have surgery that was almost career-ending. It was an inch away from a nerve that would have prevented me from making a fist with my hand. I had that injury, I got the surgery done, I rehabbed for three or four months and I fought Eddie Alvarez. He held me against the cage. I had two losses in a row.
Q: And then it was Edson Barboza…
AP: When I fought Edson Barboza – with two losses in a row – my confidence was shot and Barboza won a decision on me. That was the worst time in my career, for sure. I was questioning everything. I started moving around and changing camps. I changed training partners. I was just reaching for anything. It was the wrong decision. I should have just stayed on the path I was on with my coaches and my team. I shouldn’t have changed anything. But you lose three in a row and you’re going to grab at anything.
Q: Looking back, was it a mistake to drop to 145 pounds?
AP: Worst decision of my career. I should never have dropped to 145 pounds. My confidence was always there, but just making that weight cut was miserable. The weight cut was brutal. Throughout my training I was cutting weight. I couldn’t even spar because I was so fragile getting down to the weight. But I made it one time for Charles Oliveira, we got the W, and then the UFC offers me a title shot against Max Holloway for the interim title. Of course, I’m not going to decline that. I go into the Holloway fight, I miss the weight because it was that hard of a weight cut, and we all know what happened in that fight. It was the first time in my career I’ve been finished. I think that was a desperate move to go to 145. It really made me lose the love for training and fighting because I was just miserable. Then going back to 155 made me feel comfortable again. I felt I was enjoying myself. When I’m having fun in training, that’s when the best Anthony Pettis shows up.
Q: How tough was it to turn it around after that?
AP: After that fight my spirits were down, man. I took six months off and tried to figure out what I wanted to do. I didn’t know if I had the love to do it anymore. I didn’t even need to fight. I had enough businesses and stuff going on. I have a great life outside the cage. But I missed the training camp, the grind, the guys in the gym, and running the miles and the pre-fight media. The love for that brought me back. I then fought Jim Miller and had a great fight, and I’m now looking to build on that. I’ve got Dustin Poirier coming up and I’m excited.
Q: Is a fight with Conor McGregor on your radar?
AP: I think me and McGregor would make an amazing fight. I’m in a position in my career right now where I have to go on a winning spree. I’ve never lost the way I’ve lost in the last two years of my career. I’ve never been on that side of the octagon. With your head down walking out disappointed in yourself. If I can build on this Miller win and beat Dustin, that puts me right back in the mix. McGregor is on top of the world right now. He just fought Floyd Mayweather, one of the best fighters in the world. In the octagon fans want to see the fight. I think it will happen eventually. I’ve just got to go out there and do my job.
Q: What’s your take on McGregor potentially going to Capitol Hill to represent MMA fighters over legal rights?
AP: Mixed martial artists are afraid to speak out because they’re just thankful for the crumbs they’re given. Lucky for me I’m in a position where I’ve made a lot of money for the UFC and they’ve treated me very well. I feel like I’ve always been straightforward with the UFC. They’re fair people. They’re not trying to take advantage of their fighters. These fighters just have to educate themselves a little more and understand the business side. It’s all about selling fights. Look at Mayweather fighting McGregor. That’s because McGregor put his name on that same level – not just in fighting but in terms of being popular and people wanting to see him fight. The fighters have got to understand that this is a fans sport and if the fans don’t want to see you fight then there’s no money to be made from the UFC having you fight. You have to go out there and promote yourself and make sure you’re hustling just as much as the UFC is hustling to make this sport grow.
Q: Where did the ‘Showtime’ kick come from?
AP: We used to jump off walls and break boards for demos when we were kids. That’s where that came from. It was just a playful move. It wasn’t something we drilled. I practised it maybe four or five times. That was a clean kick. I hit him (Benson Henderson) with my foot. If I’d been a little closer and my shin hit him, I think he would have been done, for sure.
Q: What’s on the horizon for you once you hang ’em up?
AP: After my time is done in the octagon I’m not sure where my life goes. I definitely feel like I will be coaching but I don’t know if I will have the passion Duke does. Duke is so focused on building new guys. He’s bringing them up from fighting in bars in Wisconsin to fighting on the main stage in Las Vegas.
Q: Does your character change the closer you get to a fight?
AP: The whole eight weeks of my training camp I become a different person. Even now I’m about to fight this guy (Poirier), and I know the guy. We used to have the same sponsor. I’ve had dinner with him. To fight this guy you’ve got to get yourself in this dark state of mind. Not dark like a murderer dark, but it’s me or him. Little by little I slowly become that guy who shows up in the cage that night. It’s not just a quick switch that happens in the back room. You’ve got to become a different person and not make it where it affects you. It has to be a conscious nervousness where everything flows together.
*** PIcture: Tom Bear ***