It’s possible that it was all too much too soon. It’s more than possible, actually. It’s pretty much a fact, and Anthony Pettis doesn’t deny it.
Just think: when he showed up in Glendale, Ariz. in December of 2010, he was a 23-year-old underdog heading into the last title fight in the last event before the WEC was shut down for good. By the time he left, he was a star. His face was on SportsCenter every hour, courtesy of the kick that ESPN would later dub one of the top ten plays of the year. Who wouldn’t get caught up in that?
"That whole time until the Guida fight," said Pettis, "I was on top of the world. Everything changed. I was 23 years old, just won my first world title. I did it that way and was on ESPN. It was a big, big jump from where I was before. Nothing was the same."
No one wants to think that the best moment of his life might have come when he was 23 years old. Then again, not many people will ever pull off anything so spectacular as the "Showtime Kick" during something as important as that final title fight. Not only was the WEC belt -- now an ultimate collector’s item -- on the line, so too was a guaranteed UFC lightweight title shot. Or so both Pettis and Ben Henderson thought at the time.
Even Henderson has to shake his head in admiration when he looks back on that night.
"In the 24th minute of a championship fight, dead tired, exhausted, and what did he do?" Henderson said. "He went big. For that, I have to take my hat off to Pettis."
It was "one of the greatest all-time moves in the history of mixed martial arts," according to Pettis’ longtime coach, Duke Roufus. What followed was "a whirlwind" that the young fighter from Milwaukee wasn’t totally equipped to deal with.
"People actually wanted to watch me train," said Pettis. "There was a lot of media attention. I did all the news stations and radio shows. I was flying all over and doing appearances, doing seminars, doing a bunch of stuff. Before, I was at home doing nothing but training. I think getting adjusted to that attention was hard for me."
The decision loss to Clay Guida in his UFC debut was almost inevitable after all that. His life had changed so much so quickly. Now he was facing a savvy veteran of the Octagon who knew all the tricks of the trade and knew exactly how to put them to great use.
"Fighting a guy like Clay Guida, I think I had the wrong game plan," he said. "I was really focused on finishing with a submission. I was on my back the whole time."
He didn’t take much damage in the fight, but he lost the decision nonetheless. He also lost his promised title shot. Now the "Showtime Kick" was just a memory, replaced in people’s minds by images of Guida taking him down and keeping him there.
The loss was a learning experience outside the cage as well, according to Roufus, who noted that "the people who told [Pettis] how great he was, the girls who wanted to talk to him, the opportunities people were offering him, those all shrank up. I think then he really saw the importance of being the best and winning."
The way Pettis saw it, the win over Henderson vaulted him to new heights, but the loss to Guida "knocked all that down and brought me back to reality."
Now, after a split decision win over Jeremy Stephens, Pettis finds himself just trying to make it two in a row against Joe Lauzon on the UFC 144 undercard in Tokyo. Meanwhile, in the main event, the man he achieved his greatest triumph against is getting a shot at the UFC lightweight title before him. It’s a turn of events that he never could predicted back when he was watching himself in constant reruns on ESPN.
"Last year this time I was guaranteed a title shot, but it all happens for a reason. Now I’ve got to work my way up again," he said.
The way Roufus sees it, the highs and the lows are all just practice for riding bigger waves of fame and success in the future. Better to deal with it as WEC lightweight champ than wait until after you’ve got the UFC strap, he reasoned.
"It’s only going to get bigger. That’s the thing," said Roufus. "You grow up in the sport, and Anthony has."
If you’re looking for someone to undersell Pettis’ abilities, don’t look to Roufus. He’ll tell you that Pettis is already championship material, already the best lightweight in the UFC when he brings his best stuff into the cage. And yes, he knows how that sounds, but he can’t help it.
"I know I’m saying the same thing every trainer says, but it’s true," he said. "When Anthony Pettis’ A-game is on, it’s like watching Michael Jordan score 63 points against the Boston Celtics. When he’s on and everything comes together, he’s the most dangerous fighter on the planet."
As for Pettis himself, he lets his coach do the bragging. He focuses instead on how easily fortunes can be reversed in this sport. It was supposed to be him fighting for that belt. That it’s Henderson instead only shows what can happen when you grow from your losses rather than allowing yourself to be forever tortured by them.
"Ben was on a tear. He was killing guys in the WEC. Then I come in there, we go five rounds and I win the decision, and he was back to square one. I think a loss makes everyone a little hungrier, and that’s what it did for him."
He’s picking Henderson to win that fight, he said. Naturally, he’s also picking himself to beat Lauzon. Then, who knows? Maybe he and Henderson will eventually get a chance to do it again, this time with the belt on the line. Maybe Pettis will get another opportunity to make some magic happen.
He’s already proven that he has what it takes to achieve greatness inside the cage. Now he needs to show that he also has what it takes to live with the repercussions outside of it.