HOUSTON — The requirements of a UFC champion has added many a burden to the life of Anthony Pettis.
Pettis, who won the title from Benson Henderson at UFC 163, meets me in the lobby of my downtown Houston hotel on Friday morning. He's just come from an engagement at the MetroPCS store nearby, where fans—some of whom drove more than 11 hours to attend UFC 166 on Saturday night—began lining up to meet Pettis and secure his autograph early in the morning. I should note here that "early" means "6 a.m.," which is quite mind-numbing when you consider that Pettis was not due to arrive for his autographs session until noon.
Pettis is ready to get past all of the sponsor engagements and watch the fights. There's one fight of particular interest for him: former Strikeforce champion and UFC title challenger Gilbert Melendez facing Diego Sanchez in a fight that might determine one of Pettis' opponents for 2014. He's already scheduled to face Josh Thomson in December, and he's certainly focused on that, but both Melendez and Sanchez could thrust their way into Pettis' life with a win on Saturday night.
Melendez had his shot, earlier this year, when he lost to then-champion Benson Henderson by a controversial split decision. He may have been one of the few, but Pettis says he agreed with the two judges who awarded the fight to Henderson.
"I thought Ben Henderson won that fight. I think that when you're the champ, you have to take the belt from the champ," Pettis says. "You can't squeak by and win the belt. You have to take the belt away from the champ."
This is not true, of course. At least not according to the official rules. Champions are not awarded some kind of special status once they step in the cage. They are a fighter, and they must beat the other fighter. "To be the man, you have to beat the man" may have worked as a catchphrase for The Nature Boy, but it doesn't mean much in the world of mixed martial arts. Challengers must defeat the champion, sure, but they must defeat the champion the same way they would any other man.
Melendez is a heavy favorite to defeat Sanchez on Saturday night. It's a strange thing; Sanchez is just 31, and his only career loss at lightweight came at the hands of B.J. Penn, back when Penn was one of the best and scariest fighters in the entire world. That's how good Sanchez is.
And yet, he's overlooked; bettors have made Melendez a near 9-to-1 favorite in some markets. That's the kind of numbers typically reserved for the Ronda Rouseys and the Jon Jones' of the world, when they're facing opponents who don't really have much of a chance.
It's the first time Sanchez has been a significant underdog going into any fight, but Pettis says it's not indicative of a permanent career slide for the Greg Jackson product.
"Diego is as tough as they come. He's the Mexican warrior. You've seen him in wars with B.J. Penn, with Clay Guida. So I wouldn't say this is his last opportunity," Pettis says. "But he has his hands full. I'll say that much. Gilbert Melendez is a great fighter. He's very well polished."
Pettis makes his official prediction.
"Diego has his hands full with Gilbert. I see that fight going the distance, with Gilbert Melendez winning," he says.
He'll be watching closely on Saturday night. After all, he might have his own hands full with the winner in a few short months.