UFC 164 Aftermath: Anthony Pettis' perseverance pays off

Esther Lin

Mixed martial arts stories don't usually end with storybook finishes.

The sport is a cold, brutal business which proceeds at a breakneck pace. The beast needs constant feeding. One day, you're the hottest fighter in the division on the verge of the biggest break in your life. The next, you're injured, and someone takes both your spot and the belt you've spent the last several years of your life making insane sacrifices to attain.

For every hometown hero bathing in glory, there seem to be a dozen Karo Parisyans, who pulled out of a 2005 UFC welterweight championship match against Matt Hughes with an injury and then never came close to sniffing another title shot as his career went on a slow, painful downturn.

All of which made Anthony Pettis' victory over Ben Henderson for the UFC lightweight championship Saturday night in Pettis' hometown of Milwaukee a truly remarkable moment.

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Over the past three years, Pettis was given as many reasons as any fighter in the business to develop a sour attitude toward the fight game. You know the litany of events by now: The promised UFC title shot shot after he beat Henderson for the WEC title. The split-decision loss to Clay Guida. The bitter pill that was Henderson walking around with the UFC title for the past year and a half.

By the time Pettis talked his way into a shot at Jose Aldo's featherweight title, only to lose the opportunity due to a knee injury, you couldn't blame Pettis if he felt the fates were conspiring against him.

"When I had to pull out against Jose Aldo, my dreams were crushed," Pettis said. "I thought I was never going to get a title shot. But you can't write a better story."

Indeed. When things finally started rolling Pettis' way, events dovetailed in a manner few would have thought possible. First, T.J. Grant, who was originally penciled in for the title shot, had to pull out of the fight after a concussion. Then Pettis was offered the slot in Milwaukee (if you believe this was a setup of some sort, please do us all a favor and go chase after UFOs or something). Then, despite suffering a knee injury during the fight, Pettis softened up Henderson with vicious body kicks, then recovered from the mistake of a missed kick and executed as high-level an armbar as you'll see executed in an MMA fight.

Which set off a wild celebration in the Bradley Center.

"I've visualized this a lot," Pettis said. "I went through this in my mind a lot. I saw myself getting my hand raised. I saw the belt going around my waist, so I tried to really keep them nerves aside. Focus on the game plan, focus on what I had to do to win this belt, and I went out there and did very well."

If Pettis' recent performances are any indication -- the head kick of Joe Lauzon, the dismantling of Donald Cerrone, and last night's stirring win -- then fans could be in for a treat, after several years of lightweight title fights being equated with going the distance.

But Pettis has also provided a service for his fellow fighters. The next time your fight career seems to be headed down the wrong path, you can can curse your fate and blame everyone except yourself ... or you can stick with it and become the next Anthony Pettis.

UFC 164 Quotes

"Henderson threw a kick and I went to check with my left leg, and he hit like right in the crook in the knee. I felt it go back and forth and I stepped on it, it was hurting a lit bit, when he had me against the cage I was going to put my leg down because it was starting to lock up. I'm not sure what happened yet, I'll get an MRI." -- Pettis on his knee injury.

"We had the fight with Ben and Frankie where some people thought he won," White. There's no f--- denying who won this fight, and it was a first-round annihilation, kind of like the Vitor-Anderson thing, you know what I mean?" -- Dana White, no longer trying to sell Ben Henderson as a dominant champion who all but cleaned out his division.

"We're fighters. If all the fights were stopped on any kind of flash shot or anything like that - actually, I took the knee, and I remember going, 'S---, I'm in a bad position.' So that's why I dropped my other knee from out under me, so I could drop to the ground to make sure I didn't take a second one. I didn't belly out. I didn't flatten out." -- Frank Mir's take on what happened during his stoppage loss to Josh Barnett.

"That was fight was embarrassing. That looked like a Toughman fight." -- White on the Soa Palelei-Nikita Krylov fight

Stock up

Can we agree that as 2013 hits the homestretch, the title of Camp of the Year is Team Alpha Male's to lose? Urijah Faber's Sacramento gym long had a deserved reputation for conditioning, wrestling, and toughness. New coach Duane Ludwig has added the missing piece of the puzzle to several of these fighters and made them killer strikers, as well.

Case in point at UFC 164, of course, was Chad Mendes, who not only scored his fourth consecutive KO/TKO victory, but became the first person ever to finish Clay Guida with strikes in the process. Mendes, who lost to Aldo at UFC 142, has made the picture-perfect case on how to rebuild for a title shot within the same division when the guy who beat you the first time is still champion. That's both a credit to his tenacity and a reflection on his team.

Stock down: Frank Mir

We'll get into the stoppage of the Barnett-Mir fight in "Bad Call" below. But for now, let's focus on the fact that Frank Mir is clearly hitting the career skids. This marks three straight fights in which Mir has looked slow, listless, and at times disinterested. Granted, Mir hasn't exactly been taking on easy opponents. The losses were to Junior dos Santos, Daniel Cormier, and Barnett. But he hasn't even looked like he belongs in the same cage as his opponents. And unlike his career turnaround several years ago, he's in his mid-30s now. I'm guessing Mir gets one more chance -- maybe a "loser leaves town"-type match with Alistair Overeem? -- but even so, it feels like we're postponing the inevitable.

An honorable mention here for Guida, who is now 1-2 since he transitioned to his "smarter, more mature" version. Using his loss to Henderson in a fight of the year contender of a bout at UFC on FOX 1 as the line of demarcation, the "old" Clay Guida was 8-7 in the UFC. Four of those losses were fights of the night and two were fights of the year. While neither version of Guida was a real title contender, at least the old Guida was more likely to pick up his win money or make bonus cash when he didn't.

Good call

Usually, this spot is reserved for what goes down when the cage door is locked. But was there any better call last night than Pettis staying true to his roots in his moment of glory? First, in his post-fight interview, Pettis gave a shout-out to the people up in the cheap seats at the Bradley Center, the spot from where he watched Bucks games as a kid. Then he went straight from the arena to his father's gravesite to pay homage. That's a better call than anything that happened during the fights.

Bad call

Saturday was one of those nights which remind you that it's always a roll of the dice with local commission referees and judges as the UFC travels from state to state. Sometimes, you're going to get officials like Midwest referee Robert Hinds, who called the quick halt to Barnett vs. Mir. That made Hinds 2-for-2 on bad calls this week, as he was also responsible for the no-decision in Wednesday's Abel Trujillo-Roger Bowling fight. You'd like to think we wouldn't see Hinds at a UFC event again any time soon, but in a lot of these states, it's a tight-knit fight community and commissioners are loyal to their boys.

Then there's judge Rick Winter, who has already piled up a handful of odd choices in his relatively small sample of fights. Winter scored Phil Davis over Lyoto Machida and Hatsu Hioki over Guida, among others. Add to that a doozy in the Chico Camus-Kyung Ho Kang UFC 164 encounter, as Winter was the only person in the building who saw the fight 30-27 Camus.

Fight I'd like to see next: Anthony Pettis vs. Jose Aldo

Yes, I understand the consequences of matching the champion of the sport's deepest weight class, lightweight, against the champ of a rapidly deepening division at featherweight. Yes, I know Pettis has not established himself as champion yet. But at its heart, the fact this is an awesome fight, one of the most exciting style matchups in all of mixed martial arts, remains. If you offer an immediate title shot to Aldo, who's been having difficulty getting to 145 for years, as an inducement to go to 155 once and for all, you free up the featherweight division to move forward and give the fans a hell of a fight in the process.

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