(Photo courtesy of Sherdog)
By CagePotato contributor Matt Kaplan
2003: 46-year-old Eugene Pettis has separated himself from gang life and is working to keep his family away from the violence that he ultimately could not escape. On November 13, he is stabbed three times in the chest and killed at a friend’s house across the street from his Milwaukee home.
2004-5: Eugene’s murder remains unsolved. His son Anthony turns his back on years of martial arts training and spirals out of control: “I was a lost cause,” he remembers.
2006: Anthony works his way back to martial arts, taking a job as a tae kwon do instructor at his brother’s academy. He is captivated by MMA and rededicates himself to competitive fighting.
2007: Anthony begins training with kickboxing legend Duke Roufus in November and wins his amateur MMA debut in 24 seconds on January 27, his 20th birthday. He wins his pro debut on December 1 in 36 seconds.
2009: Two days into a January vacation in Cancun, Mexico, Roufus calls Anthony (6-0) with the news that he’s been signed to a five-fight deal with the WEC and is scheduled to make his debut at WEC 40 in April. Vacation’s over.
2010: Anthony (9-1) is one of the WEC’s top lightweights. He’s finished Mike Campbell, Alex Karalexis, and Danny Castillo, and a win over Team Takedown’s Shane Roller at WEC 50 on August 18 could bring a title shot. On a hot August afternoon, Anthony Pettis talks to CagePotato.com about fighting, family, and food. Showtime, playa.
CP: Before we get into your upcoming fight, talk a little about what dedicating yourself to fighting has done for your life, especially after November 2003.
AP: I was kind of a lost cause for a bit there when I lost my pops, and fighting was the way out. Once I lost my pops, nothing else mattered. My mom did her best to keep me in line, but I was walking the edge. I was just going through the motions of life for the next year or two, and I was still in high school. When you’re in high school, you’re still finding out who you are and who you want to be, but when he died, it was hard for me to even finish school and figure out what I was going to do with myself. But I committed myself to fighting two or three years after that, and from where I was at that point — I was at my lowest low — and to see where I am now is just crazy.
What’s been your biggest motivation throughout everything?
I’ve got a little brother, and he looks up to me. He wants to be an MMA fighter. He’s only 16 years old, but he has three amateur fights; they’re all first-round knockouts. What drives me the most is my little brother. I want to be a role model for him and show him that you can do it. In Milwaukee, there was really no big-name MMA fighter until me and Pat Barry came along, so I want to prove to my little brother — and everybody else — that I’m gonna do this.
One person who’s played a big part in helping you realize your dreams and your potential is your trainer, Duke Roufus. What part of your game has improved the most under Duke?
My mental game has changed the most. If you’re a fighter, you understand that being mentally prepared is probably the most important thing for a fight. The physical stuff can be done in the gym. Some fighters lose before the fight because they’re mentally lost. Duke definitely gets me mentally right. He’s a fighter himself, so he knows how to build someone up right before a fight.
A few months back at WEC 45, you suffered your first and only pro loss. I hear plenty of fighters say that their first loss is the best thing that ever happened because of what they took away from it. Do you feel that way about your loss to Bart Palaszewski?
It wasn’t the best thing that ever happened to me because now I have a loss on my record, but it definitely woke me up and helped me realize that I’m not invincible. The reason why I say that is because I was supposed to fight “Razor” Rob McCullough in November, but I fell off a motorcycle and separated my shoulder; it was like a type V separation, so I needed surgery. I got surgery in September and took a fight in December, which was stupid. No one can recover that fast. I’m young, so I figured, “I could win the fight. I don’t need my left shoulder.”
It was a dumb decision, and I have a loss on my record because of it. I’ll never take a fight when I’m not ready and when my body won’t let me. Bart got — I’m not going to say lucky — but he didn’t fight 100% Anthony “Showtime” Pettis. If we fought again, things would be way different.
Ok, now let’s talk winning. What edge do you feel you have against Shane Roller?
Shane is definitely a solid opponent. He’s got some big wins in the WEC already; his only loss is to Ben Henderson. He’s a Division I wrestler, an All-American. I think his fight style is that he’s a grinder. If he can bully you and beat you up, he’s going to eventually win the fight. But, like, when Henderson caught him early, he kind of panicked and turned into a different fighter. When you’re the one putting the aggression on him, he’s not the same fighter.
He has a really good rear naked choke and a really good guillotine. Everybody’s asking me, “Are you afraid of him on the ground?” I’m not really afraid of his jiu jitsu and ground skills; I want to focus on his wrestling skills. He’s going to try to take me down and grind me out, but I feel that my jiu jitsu is doing to be dangerous. I think that he’s going to be so concerned with not being submitted, he’s not even going to hold me down.
I’m going to get right back up to my feet, and I feel that on the feet, I’m a way better fighter than he is. I have a way better boxing background than his, a better basic stand-up than his. I’m not looking to get too flashy with his guy. Whoever wins this fight is in line for a title shot, so I’m looking to win this fight and win convincingly.
You just mentioned fighting “flashy.” With a nickname like “Showtime” and having finished 10 of the 11 pro fights you’ve won, do you ever feel the pressure to live up to your nickname, to put on a show?
Coming from a tae kwon do background, a lot of my kicks and strikes are flashy to other people. Most mixed martial artists now are either, like, kickboxers with jiu jitsu or wrestlers with boxing. I’m a tae kwon do guy who learned kickboxing and has some good ground skills. I don’t feel the need to be flashy, but once I know I got the other guy, that’s when I can do my regular moves: my jump kicks, my spin kicks. They’re my kind of regular stuff that’s been working my whole life.
But in this fight, I’m focusing on not getting taken down and controlling the fight, so I’ll keep it a little more basic until I feel I’m ready to open up on him. I love to give the fans a show, but for me, a win’s a win. This is one I need to win. I’m trying my hardest not to look past this fight, but it’s so close to a title shot, and every fighter’s dream is a title on his waist.
You’ve stated publicly that you hope to be in the UFC within a year or so, even though you’re as close as you are to fighting for the WEC championship. Right now, would you rather be a WEC champion or a UFC contender, all things considered?
My goal right now is to get the WEC title, but my overall goal is to prove that I’m one of the best 155-pounders out there — and I think I need to be in the UFC to prove that. The way I see my future playing out — the perfect scenario — is that I get the [WEC] 155 title, defend it until there’s no one left for me to fight, and then I’d be happy to go to the UFC. Or they’d do a [WEC] champion vs. [UFC] champion offer or something.
In just a few years, the lost teenager nearly consumed by street life has become an elite WEC lightweight. You’re a role model for your brother and making life better for your mom. Isn’t that satisfaction enough, even if you don’t become a champion?
I think I’ve proven that I’m doing good in WEC. People recognize me all over the place, and I’m making a living off of fighting. I think I’ve accomplished a big part of what I want to do. But I don’t think about “What if I don’t make it?” The only option is to make it. I think that when you have a back-up plan, stuff doesn’t happen right. I’m putting 100% into fighting, so there’s no other option.
Anthony Pettis, we’ve come to the Lightning Round. I say something, and you respond however you’d like. There are no wrong answers. These are coming in rapid fire, so be prepared…
The first Duke Roufus protégé to win a championship: Anthony Pettis.
The first Milwaukee sports team to win a championship: I’m hoping the Bucks, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Hopefully, once I win the belt, MMA will be the big sport in Milwaukee.
Assault one celebrity of your choice with one shot of your choice: With, like, a punch?
A punch, a kick, a hammer, whatever: The Situation from The Jersey Shore. I’d just have to smack the dude. He’s a funny dude, but he just says the weirdest shit.
Patt Barry idolizes Cro Cop the way you idolize: Nobody.
I’m thinking of a color: Um…black.
That’s correct. Change one thing about MMA: I would add more weight classes. There are a lot of 125ers that are great and should be exposed.
Best thing about being a fighter: Training.
Toughest thing to give up before a fight: Food.
OK, build for me your perfect pizza: Pepperoni, sausage, bacon bits, barbecue, and a lot of cheese.
Favorite album, top to bottom: The new Eminem CD and the last Drake CD.
The best part of this interview: Lightning Round, dude.
Finally, you’re climbing into the cage on August 18. You reach the top step and hear your father say: “Never let another man put fear in your heart.”