Anthony Pettis: 'I'm entering my prime'

BY Elias Cepeda • December 11, 2014

It had been nearly a year and a half since UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis had made that walk from the back to the Octagon. Even so, as he made it last Saturday at UFC 181 to fight Gilbert Melendez, it felt as right as it ever had.

"Man, I felt at home, I felt so comfortable," he told FOX Sports while back home in Milwaukee, days after his successful title defense.

"I thought I would be a little nervous because it had been so long, that I would have some jitters, but I was just so comfortable. Warming up in the back, I felt exactly how I was supposed to. I guess it was because I was injury free, and my mind was ready."

That feeling carried over once Pettis stepped into the cage, as well, and the fight began. Even though Melendez got off to a fast start against the champion, landing big punches and take downs, "Showtime" insists that he felt great from the start, and was confident that he'd eventually land his own shot.

"I felt great right away, from the moment [referee] Big John [McCarthy] told us to go. I felt comfortable. Gilbert connected with some decent shots, for sure, but I wasn't fazed," he remembered.

"I felt him fading. The game plan was to stay patient, not overcommit and pick my shots. I knew that the longer a combination went, the more likely he'd be to get a takedown. The plan was to stay off the mat at all costs in the first round, wear him out, and land shots when there were openings. He got me down but I fought hard. I'm only getting better with my takedown defense. I feel like I was on the cage a little too much in that first round, but I'm still maturing as a fighter."

That's a scary thought for the rest of the lightweight division. In his previous two fights, Pettis hurt opponents on his feet before finishing them on the ground with submissions.

In addition to showing that he can handle himself off his back on the ground, the Roufussport protege showed that he can handle a great deal of pressure. Even though he hadn't fought for well over a year because of knee injuries, Pettis had a busy time of it.

He coached opposite Melendez on season 20 of "The Ultimate Fighter", signed an endorsement deal with Reebok, and made the box of Wheaties.

All the while, his would-be challengers taunted him in interviews and on social media. Pettis wanted to make a statement with his return fight, because he knew that if he didn't, his many detractors would revel in his misfortune.

That's a lot of pressure for a young champion to deal with, but the lightweight showed heavyweight focus. "All of that is actually a huge reason why I thought I'd be nervous," he acknowledged.

"I got picked up by Reebok, was on the Wheaties box with my belt. If I would have lost it, everybody would have talked about it like, 'Haha, those brands didn't pick the right guy.' It was a good pressure, though. It made me not only want to win, but win impressively."

In addition to that "good pressure," Pettis faced potential distractions in the form of former teammates Pat Barry and his fiancee and TUF finalist Rose Namajunas lobbing allegations of violence, bullying and disregard for fighter safety at the champ's coach Duke Roufus and his gym.

Though Pettis wouldn't talk much about the allegations as they arose, shortly before his UFC 181 fight, he now says that the claims by Barry, Namajunas and others, like former Roufussport grappling coach Red Schaefer, didn't shake his belief in his coach or team at all, or distract him. "Not at all," he says.

"I know the truth and no one can change my opinion of Duke. I don't care if it were his mom saying bad things about him, my opinion of people is based on my relationships with them and my experiences with them. Duke is a genuine guy, those guys had a falling out with him, and it's unfortunate that they now have negative things to say about him, but it didn't disturb me at all."

Of course, Barry, Namajunas and others didn't just criticize Roufus, but also claimed that the gym on the whole had a dangerous culture, with certain people being picked on for beatings, others being favorite while some were ignored when they lost or needed help.

When pressed, Pettis acknowledges that these claims bothered him. "They attacked the culture of the gym, which is really what pissed me off," he said.

"They said that certain people are favorite, and others are picked on. I don't know, man, we've got some of the best people in the world at our gym, from Sergio Pettis to Chico Camus, and many others. We've got a mat full of happy guys."

One of the happiest parts of the past year for Anthony was the ability to be in camp at the same time as his younger brother, bantamweight Sergio. One might think that fighting on the same card, as they did at UFC 181, would be stressful and distracting.

Once more, the elder Pettis only saw the positives from a potentially nerve-wrecking situation. "It was fun, man," he said.

"It was the best part about my training camp. To share camp together makes it a little easier to go through the process. We got ready together, we dieted together, we trained together. Plus, he's my lil' bro and I like to stay close to him."

Both brothers got wins last week, and Anthony says that Sergio is already back in the gym, training. "He's hungry, man," he gushes.

"I think we have the potential to become the best brothers in MMA, and establish that Pettis name."

If both Pettis brothers keep winning, it will be hard to deny them that title. After a long layoff, the champ does indeed want to get back in the cage as soon as possible.

He injured his hand fighting Melendez, and though he received a precautionary medical suspension for six months, Pettis hopes to see a doctor soon, have it X-rayed and get the news that he says he already feels he knows: that his hand will be fine.

"I've broken my hand before, and I know what a broken hand feels like. My hand isn't broken," he promises.

"I'm looking to get back in there ASAP. It is still very early to talk about that, but I want to fight as soon as I can, again. It's been a busy year for me but I can't build my legacy without fighting more. I'm 27 and I feel as though I'm just entering my prime. I lost a whole year of my career, already."