UFC champion Anthony Pettis (R) puts a lot of work in behind closed doors to become "Showtime" on fight nights.
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It was a routine scene made exceptional by timing. Two teammates sparred together inside a matted cage area inside Milwaukee’s Roufusport gym on a Monday afternoon this past January.
That happens often enough at the famed mega-gym, of course. What was remarkable was that these two worked sharp combinations on one another, round after round, long after the final bell had sounded and head coach Duke Roufus had officially ended the afternoon’s team training.
For two hours, UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and welterweight contender Tyron Woodley drilled and sparred at Roufus’ direction, along with the rest of their teammates. After hours of punches, kicks, takedowns and submissions against some of the world’s best, the end of the team practice was eagerly welcomed and accepted by just about everyone.
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Fighters left the mats, unwrapped their hands and chewed the fat with one another. Some showered, got dressed and left the gym to rest before their next training.
Yet, there were Pettis and Woodley, still sparring, still working. Woodley was a month and a half away from his UFC 183 fight in Las Vegas against Kelvin Gastelum.
Pettis was just several weeks removed from successfully defending his title against Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181. Many fighters, even champions, are nowhere to be found at the gym in the days, weeks, and sometimes even months following a tough training camp and fight.
That’s what made this scene worth watching – in addition to the high level of skill on display. Pettis wasn’t just in the gym sharpening his sword and helping teammates right after his own fight, he and Woodley were working harder and longer than anyone else, that day.
Pettis, with his flamboyantly creative kicks and lightning-fast submissions, is known as "Showtime." There is no denying that the lightweight’s fights contain plenty of flash, but it is important to understand the work ethic and all the grinding behind closed doors that makes all his highlight footage possible.
The man leading the training that day, Duke Roufus, has trained Pettis since the fighter was basically a boy. Pettis’ extra work on that day didn’t surprise the coach in the least.
"He’s a leader," Roufus said, simply.
Indeed, even though he may have begun his time at Roufus’ gym as one of the youngest athletes in the ring and on the mats, the defending world champion now finds himself in a lead role. That leadership would appear to stem just as much from his daily work ethic as his professional success, however.
A little more than a week before his next fight, a defense of his 155 pound belt against Rafael Dos Anjos in Dallas at UFC 185, Pettis reflected on his position as a gym leader. With only a weight cut and the fight itself left, Pettis was relaxed and thoughtful as he looked back at his development.
"Yeah, man, I’ve been at the gym since the beginning. I was a kid when I started," he recounts.
"I started out as one of the youngest guys there. So much has changed at the gym, over the years, but the important stuff hasn’t. We work hard. I definitely feel the responsibility of being a team leader, but I don’t think about it much. I don’t talk or give speeches. I just try to lead by example."
Pettis may also finally feel like the full world champion that he is, as well. After winning the belt in Aug. 2013, he had to wait nearly a year and a half due to injuries before he could defend his belt for the first time.
Pettis (R) has embraced his role as a team leader.
While he sat out, healed, trained and improved his skills, Pettis secured lots of attention-grabbing endorsements, but he also had to hear his lightweight rivals snipe at him without being able to get his hands on them. Leading up to his comeback, Pettis promised that everyone would get their chance to see what he was all about, again, and admitted to being irritated by all the trash talk.
After getting back in there and winning again, however, the fighter was less caught up in proving people wrong and more in the simple enjoyment of doing what he loved once more. "I loved being in there again," he says.
"I love fighting and it felt good to get to do it again. That’s why we’re getting right back in there again, so soon. I plan on this year being a very busy year."
Dos Anjos is up next, but there is no shortage of contenders waiting for Pettis, should he retain his title on Saturday. Familiar foes like Donald Cerrone and Benson are in the wings, as are new, trash-talking challengers like the undefeated Khabib Nurmagomedov.
For all his unorthodox and high-flying tactics, Pettis insists that he focuses on the fundamentals and shoring up his weaknesses in the gym. He takes a similarly straight-forward approach to training for specific opponents.
That is, he works on himself and lets his coaches, and hopefully his opponents, worry about the rest. "I don’t really focus too much on what my opponent might do," he explains.