It requires a ballistics team to track Anthony Pettis while he’s getting his kicks—and now (at long last) he’s aiming for UFC titleholders.
The Soka Gakkai International Buddhist Center wouldn’t seem to fit neatly in America’s Dairyland, but then there it is—right where Duke Roufus’s gym should be on the GPS. Across the street is the more prototypical Milwaukee. That’s where Brewski’s Bar and Grill sits, with full rows of proud local taps, not far from where Roufus’s old gym was. For years Roufus—a national treasure in the world of eight limbs—pummeled heavy bags while envisioning human rib cages at that location. But not anymore. To the side of the Buddhist center is an ATM drive-thru, and in that very ordinary area of strip mall, through a side door and down some stairs, is the place where Anthony Pettis walks on walls as if rehearsing Chinese wire fu stunts.
The new Roufusport is a house of game-changers and ass-kickers. Inside is Chico Camus, who laughs when people pronounce his name like the French writer Albert Camus. “It’s KAY-Muss,” he says, “not Kaw-MOO.” He’s a hissing live wire of a bantamweight. Then there’s Pascal Krauss, the German. In a few minutes, he’ll kick Bellator Welterweight Champion Ben Askren in the balls while sparring, and this will crack everybody up (including Askren, who, I’m told, has a psychopathic threshold for pain). There’s Sergio Pettis, the kid brother and next prodigious Pettis we’ll hear from. “He didn’t get to live much between the ages of 16 and 19 years old,” Anthony says, “because he’s always in here training.”
Chico, Pascal, and Sergio. Such “other era” names would seem better suited for a French parlor than a Midwestern training facility. At the center of the room is Anthony “Showtime” Pettis, a Milwaukee original from the south side. The man who ricocheted himself off the fence to down Benson Henderson en-route to winning the WEC Lightweight Title in late 2010. He’s strutting around at 175 pounds. “My size right now is not big for a 155-pounder,” he says. “But it is for a 145-pounder.” To make it to featherweight, he’d have to lose nearly one-fifth of his physical being. His skin is so perfect that it appears airbrushed. He has barbershop good looks, with no distortions of the nose…no scar tissue on the brow…no vegetation on the ears…no gnarled knuckles. The posters on the wall tell you he plies the grim trade, but you wouldn’t know it from looking at him. Through 18 pro fights, he’s still in near mint condition.
Noticeably, Roufusport doesn’t have an Octagon like so many gyms these days—instead, it has a large blue and yellow rectangle. This is the playpen of innovation in which Pettis and company do work. On this day, it’s where Askren demonstrates “bundle wrestling,” in which he has Krauss wadded against the fence where he can “sneak in three or four punches” before breaking. It’s also a tract of fencing that Pettis treats as a human springboard when the opportunity presents itself.
“I play around with using the fence,” he says. “I do it all the time in practice, and I’m sparring with some really good guys, we get a lot of good guys coming to the gym. It’s just different—guys don’t expect it. Even though they’ve seen it, they don’t expect you to do it again.”
We’ve all seen it. It’s perhaps the single most talked about strike in the history of MMA, the one moment when modern martial arts came damn close to our collective 1970s kung fu fantasy—that beautiful pinball kick off the fence that whiplashed Benson Henderson into the ages (and, it could be argued, greatness). It has been played and replayed so often as to become one of Pettis’ greatest peeves. “It used to annoy me when people brought it up,” he says, “but I’m over it.” Not that he blames them for bringing it up, either. It was an action sequence that was almost too perfect to be anything other than choreography.
And yet, it wasn’t. It was Pettis being Pettis, and Pettis is a product of the Thai-trained boxer Roufus, and Roufus is—if anything—a man of spacious ideas. He’s a man who can watch films like Ong Bak and bring out its concepts, or Dogtown and Z-Boys and say, Hey, you know what? In a situation where velocity, gravity, and force are in play, there’s a practical way to walk on the walls around you in a fight.
Roufus is a fanciful visionary who just happens to have a protégé in the room capable of carrying out his most absurd flights of fancy. Pettis, of course, ultimately hones his craft. But he and Roufus—who can also be a strict disciplinarian—have rare synergy.
“This gym’s not a fit for everybody,” Roufus says. “If you don’t show up for practice, I’m on your ass. My grandfather was a Sergeant Major in the Army, from World War II to Vietnam. Growing up around here, my mindset is it’s the Holy Trinity—Lombardi, Patton, and MacArthur—at least in coaching. Outside the gym, I’m a pretty chill guy. But let’s face it, it’s fighting. No one remembers second place.”
The space between first and second place is where Pettis has hovered off and on for a couple of years. He won the WEC belt just as the promotion merged into the UFC. “Now, I keep it at my house in a display case above my fireplace,” he says. Yet, he never got to defend it in the blue cage. Pettis has been trying to get his shot at UFC gold for the entire FOX-era of Zuffa.
This year, it’s been more of the same. For four long months in 2013 he was slated to face the one man who could match him reel-for-reel in ridiculous highlights: Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo. That meant a cut to 145 pounds and a monkey wrench in the structure of the 145- and 155-pound divisions. But then the curve ball (yet again). Pettis suffered a knee injury while doing some light training with Phil Davis in Brazil, and that plan was scotched.
Which means Pettis’ sights are set back on the man whom he says never lets his name cross his lips…the man carrying around the UFC Lightweight Title…the man who plans to smash all of Anderson Silva’s records—Benson Henderson. Pettis stands in his way. We’ll never know where the sidewalk ends until those two paths cross each other again.
“I see it happening the same way,” Pettis says of the rematch. “I think my style is one of them styles that’s hard to prepare for. Henderson likes to strike, and he likes to be at a distance. That’s all me. That’s what I dominate at.”
Pettis has a reason to be confident in a repeat with Henderson. He was able to win a unanimous decision where he thwarted many of the things Henderson likes to do. He matched Henderson’s cardio, a tough feat in itself, and picked him apart on the feet. One of the things Henderson told FIGHT! Magazine he’d do in a rematch with Pettis is to take away that range and use his grappling and wrestling more.
“The thing is, he did wrestle me in that first fight,” Pettis says. “I stuffed takedowns, and I took him down. It’s going to be another match-up—we’re both the top guys at 155. I decided to go down to 45, but got the knee injury, so we’ll do it again.”
Pettis is a little unnerving in how eager he is to perch himself headlong into daunting circumstances. Had his fight with Aldo happened, it would have been in front of a partisan crown in Aldo’s native Brazil. In other words, Pettis would have been lowered into the cauldron to take on a top five pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. At this, he never balked, because that’s just how he rolls. Remember when he fought Henderson the first time, it was in Arizona, where Henderson lives and trains. It’s safe to say that a crowds’ rooting interest doesn’t carry sway with him.
“I have that tunnel vision like crazy—I kind of know where things are coming from,” he says. “Here’s how I know I’m on for a fight. When I walk out, I get into this zone when I look into the Octagon and things just blur. I zoom in on my opponent, and I don’t take my eyes off him until my hand’s raised. I feel it when I’m in there, but then when I watch it, it’s crazy. I see it before it happens. I train so much for it, I can break my opponent.”
Pettis himself is not so easily broken. This stems from a childhood spent in urban Milwaukee rooting for the Packers and doing taekwondo from the time he was five years old. By nine, he began boxing, at first with his cousins. “My mom wouldn’t let me box for real because she didn’t want me to get hit in my face,” he says. Smart move. That face stayed so endorsement fresh over the years that Roufus, a decade later, tried to stick him with the nickname “Pretty Boy” Pettis. It didn’t take.
But before he found Roufus—and maybe unconsciously because of it—Pettis lost his father to a neighborhood homicide. “My dad was stabbed in the chest in a street robbery across from my house, right before I turned 16 years old,” he says. “I kind of gave up on everything after that. I didn’t want to do taekwondo, I didn’t want to do anything. I barely graduated high school. I was just going through the motions—in life too.”
He went to the fire academy and worked as a paid on-call fireman for six months after high school before realizing it wasn’t for him. At loose ends and teaching taekwondo locally, he made the fateful decision to call on Roufus, in large part to pick up kickboxing and expand his curriculum into the burgeoning world of MMA.
The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.
“Duke always said, from the moment I walked in I had something different,” Pettis says. “From day one, he said, ‘You’re going to be a star—you’re going to be a champ.’ I always played it off, like maybe he says that to everybody. But I got my first amateur fight after three months of training, and I won in like 20 seconds…and won the next one in 20 seconds, and the next one in 20 seconds. Duke said, ‘You know what, let’s go pro.’ It all happened in maybe nine months, from the time I walked into Duke’s to the WEC contract.”
A year-and-a-half after debuting in the WEC against Mike Campbell, Pettis was the promotion’s last standing champion. In a space of less than four years, Pettis went from anonymous taekwondo teacher in the Land of Leinenkugel to one of MMA’s great lightweights. Better yet, along the way, Roufus found the nickname to suit his emerging star.
Pettis became “Showtime.”
“Anthony was fighting Mike Lambrecht, a wrestler, and he got slammed and his shoulder was dislocated,” Roufus says. “He popped his shoulder out, but he somehow found a way to stand up, with his shoulder dangling. Then—boom!—knocks the guy out cold with a head kick. That’s how I came up with the name. When the lights come on, he just comes to life. Anthony trains well, and he gets even higher on fight night. He likes to compete.”
He does. “Showtime” is the stormy sky sitting over Henderson’s reign. He is 1-0 against the champ. Before he got the chance to duplicate the feat in the UFC for everybody to see, Clay Guida derailed him, using blue-collar wrestling to nullify Pettis’ range game. That set Pettis back behind a pack of contenders, just as Henderson began his run. He rebounded with a conservative victory over Jeremy Stephens at UFC 136. “Had I been coming off a win, it’d have been a totally different fight,” he says.
What’s the difference between Pettis coming off a win and Pettis coming off a loss? Ask Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone, two top 10 lightweights who found out the hard way how Pettis performs without pressure. Both were knocked out by the halfway point of the first round. Both were posterized—Lauzon via a head kick and Cerrone by a liver kick that crumpled him where he stood.
“That’s the dangerous Anthony Pettis,” Pettis says in the unrestricted third person, flashing a row of pearly teeth. “That’s when he jumps off walls and kicks people in the head and hands out knees.”
Heading into his next fight, it should be noted that he’s coming off a win.
Before fighters owned gyms, they owned bars. In this way—and perhaps in this way alone—Pettis is a throwback to Jack Dempsey. He co-owns the Showtime Sports Bar, which is part of a compound meant to bewilder the senses. Downstairs is Jokerz Comedy Club. Right next-door is The Silk, a gentlemen’s club with a million marquee bulbs. It’s one-stop shopping for multitasking Midwestern heathens: it’s laughs, libido, and Jager shots. The central attraction on fight night, though, is Pettis’s place, where the sharp-dressed celebrity owner is known to have a good time when not training.
Inside, the walls are painted black, but they are heavily muraled with figures that look drawn from rising smoke—Erik Koch, Pat Barry, Danny “Boy” Downes, and Ben Askren are part of the action-hero artwork. Then there’s Duke Roufus, and the Pettis brothers, and their late father, Eugene, hovering over Milwaukee’s best like a protective spirit. When Pettis fights, the bartender Ashley says, “It’s a madhouse in here.” When he took on Cerrone in Chicago, the bar ran busses down I-94 to the event. On the flat screens, MMA fights are playing continuously. During any live UFC pay-per-view, they run specials, five cold longnecks for $15. “The happy hour is the longest in the city, from 3 to 8 p.m.,” says a daylight patron. In the “no skimping” Midwestern mindset, the plates aren’t big enough for the portions, which makes you wonder how Pettis maintains his weight.
“Easy, I don’t eat here,” he jokes.
Pettis’s also memorializes his family on his body. He has a tattoo of his father Eugene (a Puerto Rican), his mother Annette Garcia (of Mexican heritage), his two-year-old daughter Aria Idalis Pettis, and the word “SHOWTIME” square across the shoulder blades. “Askren always jokes that I should save room in case I have another baby,” Pettis says. “That any new family might get jealous.”
Around him are all the hallmarks of success. He owns a bar. He owns area taekwondo gyms with his brother. There’s a replica WEC belt above the bar, along with other mementos. In a short time, he became a big fish in a small pond off the banks of Lake Michigan. Once again, here’s a case where MMA became a route to “something more” for a kid who needed it—and for a man who still does.
“When you get in taekwondo, it teaches you the life skills of respect, self control, discipline—that’s why I love it,” Pettis says. “I really attribute those skills to really getting over my dad’s death. If I didn’t have that, I would have lost it.”
Milwaukee’s where he’s from. Later on this evening he has to catch a plane to Hawaii to fulfill sponsorship appearances. In a week, he’ll be in New York City getting the VIP treatment from the UFC. By the end of 2013, he hopes that he can add a UFC belt to the display case above his fireplace and a replica to sit on display in his bar. He is a man on the move.
“My career from the local shows to the WEC went by like that,” he says. “My WEC career to my title shot was a year. I had four or five fights in one year. In two years, I went from never doing anything in the sport to champion, and it happened just like that.”
And here, as if testing to see if it’s all a dream, Showtime snaps his fingers.