Anthony Pettis has this dream scenario. He fights UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo and finishes him. And then the UFC lets him move back up to his former home of 155 to fight lightweight champ Ben Henderson, and he stops him, too. As plans go, it's both audacious and flashy. In other words, exactly what you would expect from someone who goes by "Showtime."
See, here's the thing about Pettis: while he's got Aldo in front of him, he can't stop thinking about the lightweight division. That's at least partially because people won't stop asking him about it. Pettis, after all, is the last man to beat divisional champion Henderson, doing it in a style worthy of his nickname. Not only was Pettis vs. Henderson one of the best fights of 2010, but it also closed the curtain on the WEC, with Pettis bringing the entire sporting world to their feet with a launch-off-the-cage kick that floored Henderson and clinched the win.
As much as Pettis launched the kick, the kick launched him, too. Those lightweight roots are still visible. As much as he is reminded of them, he also doesn't hide his ambition in winning both belts, and his interest in rematching Henderson.
For example, ask him about Henderson's last win over Gilbert Melendez, and he says, "I wasn't that impressed." Inquire about which divisional championship he would value the most, and he pauses for just a moment before answering, "[One] fifty-five would mean more, but [one] forty-five is still a belt."
Why, then, is he doing this, so quickly after he was promised a shot at the belt, a chance to fight Henderson? In some ways, he is cutting off Aldo before Aldo can cut him off. He has heard rumblings in the past about Aldo moving up, and figures if he does, Aldo will cut the line for a title shot. That's something Pettis didn't want to risk. So he took the first available route to gold, even if it's not the one he wants most.
"I want to fight Ben again," he said. "I beat him once, but that was a long time ago. People forgot about it already."
That may be a slight exaggeration. Few who witnessed the "Showtime Kick" will forget it, though it is true that the division moved on from it quickly. To wit, just 14 months after that fight, Pettis and Henderson fought on the same card. While Pettis fought in the main-card opener, Henderson was in the spotlight, competing in the main event and capturing the championship.
Since then, Henderson has defended the belt three times, although two of them have been close and controversial split-decisions. The most recent came against Melendez in April, and Pettis was one of the many who watched with a probing eye. Asked for his critique on the performance, he shrugs, saying, "I wasn't that impressed."
"I think it’s his intensity, his brains," he said of Henderson's ability to squeak out close wins. "In between rounds he’s hyping everybody up looking like he's ready to go. When it actually comes down to it, he's barely landing hard punches, he's barely landing any kicks. He's doing well in the scrambles. And then you have to take in the fact that Gilbert Melendez is one of the best lightweights in the world, also. It's hard for me to watch that and just be like, 'Oh, it was a close fight because they're both good.' I come in here to finish my fights. I've proved it in my last two fights and I can't wait to do it again."
Whether his last statement is intended for his next opponent Aldo or a future rematch with Henderson goes unmentioned.
While it may seem he's got Henderson heavy on his mind, this is the week where his focus truly shifts towards Aldo. On Tuesday, he traveled to Rio to train with Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belts Daniel and Diego Moraes, and begin to acclimate himself with the city where he will eventually fight the champion. That home-cage advantage for the Brazilian featherweight dynamo will be significant, as Rio has hosted some of the most raucously supportive crowds in UFC history. But again, Pettis' history with Henderson comes up here, as Pettis notes he beat Henderson in front of a home crowd.
"I don't think it's going to be a problem," he said. "I don't mind it at all. I think I have fans in Brazil also, so it should be fun."
Pettis expects no problems making his new weight class. Last week, he was walking around at 168 pounds, about 10 pounds lighter than when he competed at 155. He also plans to try a practice cut in the first week of June, and recently exchanged numbers with health and dieting coach Mike Dolce. Between all his preparations, 145 seems comfortably attainable. It's just not a weight he envisions hitting too many times. If Pettis wins the belt, at most he plans to defend it a couple of times before he heads back to lightweight.
"There's nobody else at 145 that intrigues me," he said. "Jose Aldo is the reason I'm moving down to 45."
He views the lightweight division differently. With so many longtime stars and the recent influx of Strikeforce talent, the division "got interesting again," in his words. For now, though, he'll try to channel himself into tunnel vision. While the rest of the featherweight division doesn't excite him, he admits to being "amped" to fight a decorated champion with a lengthy 15-fight win streak.
Aldo's style adds to the intrigue. Pettis' taekwondo background gives him a singular style that is unlike most of what we see in the octagon. Throw it into the pot with Aldo's kickboxing acumen and sprinkle in the finishing abilities of both, and you've got a recipe for something special.
"One of us is going to finish," he said. "Both of us come hard. He dies out in the later rounds but I’m coming hard right away. I’m not trying to get him tired or coast him out. We’re both going to come in there and going to strike."
No fooling around for Pettis. No time to waste. When you have his ambition, you already know what's next, even when something else is blocking your vision.