While most guys his age are still finding themselves, WEC lightweight Anthony Pettis knows exactly who he is. The 23-year-old Milwaukee native takes on Ben Henderson at WEC 53 on Dec. 16 for the WEC Lightweight Championship. For the guy known as “Showtime,” it is exactly that.
Sitting in a black leather lounge chair at the MMA-themed bar in Milwaukee that he owns—aptly named Showtime—Pettis has a kinetic energy to him. His attitude is laid back, but his body and speech say otherwise. He is constantly on the move with his training, entrepreneurial spirit, and even motivational speaking. It’s haughty stuff for a guy who came from such humble beginnings.
Pettis and his older brother Reynaldo have been practicing martial arts nearly since they could walk.
“My mom was going to school to get her degree, so when she was at class, we would go to a Tae Kwon Do class,” Pettis says. “It was almost like karate was our babysitter.”
After earning their third- and fourth-degree black belts, respectively, Anthony and Reynaldo eventually opened their own YMCA dojo. It wasn’t fancy, but it was constructive. However, tragedy ground everything to a halt.
“Two policemen came to our house one day,” Pettis recalls. “I remembered what my dad told us—keep your mouth shut if cops ever come to the house. But they pulled out a picture of my dad lying there. We had to identify his body.”
On Nov. 12, 2003, his father, Rodney Pettis, was found murdered in an apparent robbery of a friend’s house.
Pettis stopped practicing martial arts. He didn’t even go to school for months. But a nun at Dominican High School helped him realize he needed to activate his life. He needed that fire to burn within him again. Ironically, the nun recommended that Pettis enroll in the Kenosha Fire Academy. Within 18 months, he became a firefighter. Still not completely satisfied, Pettis searched for an MMA gym in Milwaukee and found kickboxing legend Duke Roufus.
Pettis had found that fire.
“It was then that I realized what I wanted to do,” Pettis says. “In my family, seven people have been murdered. Growing up on the south side of Milwaukee, it was tough. After my dad died, I realized I needed to use martial arts for something. Mixed martial arts saved my life.”
Pettis fought in Roufus’ Gladiator Fighting Series, going 8-0. In his third fight, Pettis separated his shoulder but still went onto win by first-round TKO with a vicious shin kick. The video of that fight made its rounds on YouTube, but the most important people who saw it worked at the WEC, and they eventually signed Pettis to a contract.
Moving at a Different Speed
Today, Pettis has taken the lessons he and his brother learned from running their YMCA dojo and applied them to his new bar, as well as developing the business acumen needed to jump start other ventures.
“I really started becoming interested in how businesses work and how to run one successfully,” Pettis says. “Now, I go to all of these different seminars to continue to learn.”
Pettis and Roufus are also acutely aware of how to build Pettis’ fighter image. “In the end, we’re in the entertainment industry, so yeah, we know that there’s a bit of showmanship you have to put into this business,” Roufus says. “He’s doing a good job of building that persona.”
There is no slowing Pettis down. He has been the star of his own reality show, as MTV’s The World of Jenks followed Pettis for a week leading up to his fight with Danny Castillo. In addition, Pettis continues to teach Tae Kwon Do to at-risk Milwaukee youth. If his fight career is any indication of his business shrewdness, one might expect a chain of Showtime bars in the not-so distant future.
In his WEC 50 bout against Shane Roller, Pettis displayed evolving ground skills that allowed him to clamp a triangle on a highly decorated wrestler and raise his record to 11-1. For those who think that Pettis can’t swim in the deep waters of ground fighting and grappling, Roller was a good test to prove critics wrong.
Against Henderson, Pettis will have to do the same and more. The mental edge might make all the difference. Like Roller, Henderson is an accomplished wrestler, but he also has a Tae Kwon Do base.
“Pettis is ferocious,” Roufus says. “Pure ferocity. He’s got that thing inside of him, that hunger—that fire. He carries a picture of his dad with him before every fight. He knows what he’s fighting for.”
Most of all, Pettis is using his mind. He’s taken a different route than many people, but he’s savvy in ways that schooling doesn’t teach.
“It’s the mental game that makes all the difference,” Pettis says. “When you see in your opponent’s eyes that you’ve outlasted them and you know they’ve given up—that’s when they hand you the fight.”