Anthony Pettis' message to Benson Henderson: 'I'm not the same fighter you fought in Arizona'

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Anthony Pettis was unwinding at his coach's house, surrounded by friends, heaping plate of hot food in his hands, the summer sun beating down on another Milwaukee afternoon. He had no idea how quickly his life was about to change.

"Actually my phone was on the charger inside Duke (Roufus') house. I didn't even know I had like four missed calls from Dana (White), four missed calls from (manager) Mike (Roberts)," Pettis recalled on Monday's edition of The MMA Hour.

"They called Duke's phone. ... I knew it was Mike Roberts so I didn't pay no mind. I thought he was talking about Chico (Camus) or Pascal (Krauss) or Erik Koch, one of these guys on the Milwaukee card. And then Duke turns and looks at me with this big smile and is like, ‘You want to fight in Milwaukee?' I didn't even think twice; I was like hell yeah, send me the contract. He was like, ‘Ben Henderson.' Man, I couldn't even believe it."

That plate of food? Yeah, it went uneaten. Before the news could even set in, Pettis was already gone, years of pent-up excitement bubbling through his pores. Pettis snagged his younger brother and promptly went for a six-mile jog passed his father's grave.

"It was just one of those moments," Pettis said. "Everything in my head, it was just like, everything happens for a reason. I went from being so down to, even now, I'm excited to go train right now. Everything I wanted is right here."

Pettis' long-awaited rematch against Benson Henderson at UFC 164, made possible by a concussion to T.J. Grant, is now the culmination of a impossibly up-and-down UFC tenure filled with promised title shots, failed expectations, and injuries galore. Even the way this opportunity came about, with Pettis unexpectedly available after a knee injury thwarted yet another shot at a belt, is somewhat fitting.

"The injury wasn't that serious. It was serious but it wasn't like I needed surgery, it wasn't like I'd be out for months. It was a couple weeks off and I felt like I could make it [to Aug. 3rd against Jose Aldo], but the UFC doctors said it wasn't going to happen," Pettis said, before joking.

"I even thought to myself [afterward], ‘Damn, was I really hurt? What even happened?' Just the way it played out is crazy. It looks so fake, you know? It just looks fake. But I mean, on my end, I was really hurt. My knee popped. You can ask Phil Davis. Phil Davis was the one there rolling with me when it happened. And it just worked out so that I'll be ready in time for Milwaukee."

Pettis is right. It's a scenario so far-fetched, a vocal minority of internet conspiracy theorists are having a hard time believing the fix wasn't in and Grant isn't off counting his thick wad of bills at some Nova Scotia casino. After all, it was just weeks ago that Pettis publicly campaigned for Grant's spot in UFC 164's main event, which takes place just minutes from Pettis' Milwaukee home.

Back then Pettis' brashness didn't sit well with some, including Grant, who viewed the entire situation as "low class," "dirty" and "incredibly disrespectful." But looking back in retrospect, "Showtime" simply felt it was worth a try.

"Put it in like a regular job scenario," Pettis explained. "If you and your [co-worker] both are up for promotion, are you going to compete to get that promotion? You're damn right you are. It's the same situation here. He's the No. 1 contender, I feel I'm the No. 1 contender. Unfortunately I took a shot at featherweight, it didn't work out for me. I don't feel bad about it, but I do feel bad for T.J. Grant. I mean, I've been in his position and all I have to say is, keep your head up and don't let it get you down, man, because it really does get you down. You're at the top of the top, and then injury takes away all of that. You've got everybody is saying ridiculous things like it's conspiracy and he got paid to fake an injury. No one in their right mind would do that."

It took a while, the date on Pettis' calendar may have changed, and the marquee may list a different opponent, but Pettis finally has the opportunity he always wanted, even if it came in a roundabout way. He won't say he's 100-percent recovered just yet -- mentally, knee injuries take some time -- but give it one full week back in training, and Pettis is confident he'll be right back into the groove.

"I was super ready for the Aldo fight. I was down to 160, I was cutting weight already, so my weight is perfect for 155," said Pettis. "A seven-week training camp is more than enough time. I'm always in shape so that's not an issue for me. I just feel like I have what it takes to beat this guy, man.

"I always knew this fight was going to happen. I've been thinking about this guy for two years now, so I go through this gameplan all the time -- how I'm going to fight him, how I'm going to beat him.

"[Henderson is] a whole new fighter, a way different fighter than he was in the WEC days. But I am, too. It's not like I'm the same Anthony Pettis you fought in Arizona. This is a totally different Anthony Pettis. It's funny because my last two fights, the world only got to see me perform for like two minutes, so no one really knows how much I've evolved as a fighter. I'm excited to get out there and show what I've been working on."

Pettis has been through so much already, it's easy to forget he's only 26 years old. While injuries ground his career to a halt, the scant two times he's been able to perform over the past few years, magic happened. Two meetings against gritty, game contenders, and two ‘Knockout of the Night' checks for mere minutes of work.

It's been 31 months since Pettis banished Henderson to a nightmare highlight reel, leaping off the side of the cage and dethroning the WEC king in front of his friends and family. Since then much has changed, yet the roles of both men remain the same, their fates intertwined once more. Champion against challenger, perhaps it was inevitable.

"All I know is that, if I lost to somebody and I'm the champ, I would want to avenge that loss," Pettis finished. "I think he's excited for the fight. He should be. It's my hometown now. He knows what I did to him in his hometown. Everybody saw what I did to him in his hometown. I'm sure he's going to bring it.

"All my fights before the WEC and UFC were in Milwaukee. I think it's time for me to have my homecoming."

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