Former UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis has hit the MMA equivalent of a brick wall in the last 15 months. Showtime, the sure-thing future star who graced a Wheaties box and inspired a whole season of UFC fights under the moniker "Welcome to the Show," has now lost three in a row.
Rafael Dos Anjos, a substantial underdog, knocked him around the cage for 25 minutes and took his title in March 2015. Eddie Alvarez ground him against the fence for three rounds and took a close decision in a lackluster fight where Showtime was nowhere to be found. Most damning of all, in April, Edson Barboza cleanly outstruck the former champion, beating him in his wheelhouse, to run the losing streak to three.
Following that last loss, Pettis' move down to 145 pounds is the only way to reinvent himself not only as a contender, but as a once and future star.
There are three reasons why this was a good move for him. First, in terms of his future matchups, things weren't going to get any easier for him in the stacked 155-pound division. Second, stylistically he matches up much better with the elite competition he'll face at featherweight.
Finally, this represents a fresh start for a fighter whom the weight of injuries and expectations has done nothing to help his in-cage struggles.
Take a look at the landscape of the lightweight division and Pettis' struggles begin to make more sense. From top to bottom, this is the most stacked division in the UFC. The former champion is currently seventh in the UFC's official rankings, and he holds only one win over a fighter ranked above him. That victory over Donald Cerrone came back in January 2013, more than three years ago.
A murderers' row of elite fighters who present an array of difficult stylistic matchups stands between Pettis and another run at a title. Edson Barboza already beat him with volume and striking fundamentals, while Nate Diaz's length and constant offensive output likewise make him a difficult test. Next up is Cerrone, perhaps the only fighter ranked above him Pettis would be favored to beat.
Things don't get any easier as we move up the rankings. Tony Ferguson's pace, diversity, killer instinct and funky style make him a nightmarish matchup for Pettis. Alvarez barely beat the former champion, but the ease with which he forced Pettis to the fence and held him there doesn't bode well in the future.
Even if Pettis could get through this selection of fighters, all of whom pose real challenges for him, the division's top dogs are even tougher.
The former lightweight champion has never been a great wrestler, and there's no more effective takedown artist in MMA than Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Dagestani has been taking shots at Pettis for years, calling him "pretty boy" and "very beautiful"—he didn't mean that as a compliment—in an interview with MMA Junkie back in 2014. To put it mildly, that's not a fight that favors Pettis.
As bad as all those matchups are for Pettis, the champion is the worst-case scenario. Dos Anjos' pressuring style, toughness and sheer aggression are kryptonite to Pettis' need for range and reliance on the one-hitter-quitter to win fights. The Brazilian can eat Pettis' best shots and keep pushing him back, where he has little to offer.
Even the fighters ranked behind Pettis at lightweight are troublesome opponents. The oddsmakers might favor Dustin Poirier to beat him, while on the right night Michael Chiesa, Rashid Magomedov or Al Iaquinta could all give him trouble.
The featherweight division isn't a cakewalk, but it's not lightweight. From a stylistic perspective, Pettis matches up much more favorably with fighters like Cub Swanson, Charles Oliveira, Brian Ortega, Chad Mendes, Ricardo Lamas and even Jose Aldo than he did with the 155-pound elite.
The top of the lightweight division is full of fighters who can both push a quick pace and pressure effectively. Pettis needs space and time to work his lethal but low-output kicking game, and his opponents at 155 pounds have been able to take that away from him. By contrast, his featherweight opposition is less inclined to play relentlessly aggressive and high-volume games.
Take Cub Swanson, the sixth-ranked featherweight, as an example. He's a striker by trade, and a dangerous one with big power in his hands, but he likes to stick and move at long range and won't overwhelm opponents with volume. Fifth-ranked Ricardo Lamas is dangerous in every phase, but he's not an overpowering wrestler and is fine with a slower pace.
Mendes has the takedown acumen to give Pettis fits, but he too works slowly and isn't the kind of top-control grappler who has been able to hold down and do serious damage to Pettis in the past.
Even Aldo, despite his fundamental soundness, power and underrated wrestling skills, would be likely to give Pettis the kind of open-space striking matchup he prefers.
There are still difficult stylistic opponents for Pettis at 145 pounds. Max Holloway's length, constant stream of volume, killer instinct and angle-based striking game make him a difficult test, while Frankie Edgar's ability to blend his striking and wrestling while pushing a quick pace likewise pose a stiff challenge.
Still, both Edgar and Holloway are more appealing than the Nurmagomedov-Dos Anjos pairing, which combines tough stylistic matchups with overwhelming physicality.
Dropping to 145 pounds doesn't solve the fundamental issues with Pettis' game. He doesn't have the tight footwork necessary to efficiently avoid opponents who try to pressure him, and his reliance on landing a fight-ending strike makes it difficult for him to score and win rounds. That doesn't mean he can't improve these things, but they've been issues for years.
Still, if giving up less size makes it easier to defend takedowns and extra height relative to his opponents allows him to set a longer range, he'll be better off. Facing fewer opponents dedicated to pressure and pace is a bonus.
All of those are good, rational reasons for Pettis to drop to 145 pounds. What's harder to examine or quantify is the sense that Pettis is leaving behind the crushing weight of expectations as he moves down.
The specter of future stardom has haunted Pettis since he landed the Showtime Kick on Benson Henderson in December 2010. The final WEC lightweight champion at the tender age of 23, Pettis was set to challenge the winner of Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar for the UFC belt and would have if not for a draw in their second epic meeting.
Since then, Pettis has experienced one derailment after another. Clay Guida beat him in a grinding decision that highlighted Pettis' lack of wrestling skills. Injuries kept him out between February 2012 and January 2013. After he won the title in August of that year, finally seeming to fulfill his potential, another set of injuries and a gig coaching The Ultimate Fighter 20 sidelined him until December 2014.
He submitted the veteran Gilbert Melendez in a fight that was much more difficult in hindsight than it seemed at the time, but Pettis looked to be ready for his long-awaited step up. But then Dos Anjos brutalized him for five rounds, Alvarez held him against the fence and Barboza soundly beat him in his range-striking wheelhouse.
At lightweight, Pettis will always be the former champion who couldn't live up to the potential he so tantalizingly flashed over the years.
At featherweight, he's just another former lightweight contender looking for a fresh start. He might never escape the weight of what he was supposed to become, but Pettis will never find a better opportunity to evolve free of expectations than he will at 145 pounds.
This is a great and probably long-overdue move. The lightweight division is so stacked with contenders that Pettis will barely be missed, while featherweight gains a marketable name and a series of compelling matchups. The fans won't be disappointed.
For Pettis himself, it's an opportunity for reinvention.