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Anthony Pettis has emerged as the fight game's quiet spectacular

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS – If the old belief that you don’t really become a champion within this sporting fringe until you’ve defended the belt at least once is true, then Anthony Pettis is finally the legit UFC lightweight king. He can no longer be called a "paper champion," which has long been the ammunition of his haters. Not only did he defend the belt against Gilbert Melendez in the co-main event at UFC 181 -- nearly 16 months after winning it at UFC 164 -- he became the first man to finish "El Nino." 

And if you don’t know by now, that’s what Pettis do -- he beats people and looks damn good doing it. Realistically, that’s all he’s ever done. It’s just that…you know…he’s done it so infrequently that you sort of forget.

Maybe that’s why it felt a little premature when UFC president Dana White declared him the best pound-for-pound fighter in the game before he’d defended the belt. Even with his likeness on a Wheaties box, Pettis always felt like a great fighter in pending going back to the WEC days. Just as he won the title there, the promotion slipped into the past tense. That strap, which he keeps in a display case above his fireplace (along with a replica over his bar in Milwaukee), was never anything more than ephemera. And when he came to the UFC, ready to marry up some belts, he lost in a stay-busy fight to the singlet-minded Clay Guida. That forced him behind the eight ball for what seemed a small eternity.

But…but…take a look at what Pettis has done since that time, even if he took his sweet time doing it: He quietly rediscovered his mojo against Jeremy Stephens on the UFC 136 prelims, which was a modest regrouping, and then put together four finishes, taking home four end-of-the-night bonuses, a new Harley, a souvenir head (Joe Lauzon), a Budweiser-soaked liver (Donald Cerrone) and an arm (Benson Henderson). In between there were some injuries, and a stint coaching TUF, where he very unloudly outcoached Gilbert Melendez. And in his latest showing, after another long layoff, he took Melendez’s best shot in the cage. After some "Showtime" theatrics -- that included a spinning body kick, a flying knee and other fancy maneuvers, all fine for audience astonishment as he created space -- he forced Gil to tap with a guillotine.

Not bad for a "youngster," as Melendez called him afterwards.

At this point, the 27-year old Pettis is everything the UFC wants in a fighter, never mind one of its champions. He’s fun to watch, he finishes people, and, right now, as of 10:43 a.m. on Sunday, Dec. 7, he’s healthy. In fact, in the post-fight press conference on Saturday night he said he was ready to go again whenever needed. When the name Khabib Nurmagomedov was brought up -- indeed, even when Nurmagomedov stood up and made his own earnest pitch -- Pettis didn’t hesitate to say bring it on. One might even say he seemed "gung-ho." If we’re comparing promotional hyperboles, that fight is actually very compelling. The game’s "Best P4P Fighter" against "The Man that Nobody Wants to Face."

(Remember that one?)

And that right there’s the thing. Pettis isn’t nobody. Pettis is one of those guys whose career has been as spectacular as it’s been frustrating, for all its circumstantial setbacks and held-back potential. It’s not that he ducks fights, it’s that he can’t get to them (or they can’t get to him). He detests life on a shelf. He was the guy in the wings while Frankie Edgar played out his rematches with Gray Maynard and Henderson, and now he’s finally to a place where it’s his roost to rule.

It’s Pettis’s time to show that he is the best P4P fighter in the world. If ever there was a guy interested in making you a believer it, it’s him.

His work against Melendez, though so very long in the making, proved that he’s a special fighter with far, far more than the dynamic striking label he’s grown to actively defy (I’ve gone this far without even mentioning the gotdamb "Showtime Kick," after all). Pettis does well in a scramble. Pettis can take a punch. He can adjust a game plan on the fly. He’s deeply confident. He shows up on cereal boxes. And, though I was hesitant to believe his wrestling coach Ben Askren’s "mark my words" talk this week, he’s a monster to budge. Melendez wanted to take him down, and did take him down, but he couldn’t keep him down -- and he couldn’t keep Pettis from being Pettis.

So far, very few can.

And there’s is something special about the way Pettis puts the whaps on people who are otherwise sublime. He’s like a well-kept secret every time he gets in there, even though there’s enough evidence by now to know there are no secrets. He’s going to do what Pettis does, which is put on a show while either knocking somebody unconscious, or making them quit.

If after UFC 181 he’s not the best pound-for-pound fighter in the world, he’s at least the best pound-for-pound prototype of Everything You’d Ever Want In a Fighter, by all standards. He’s the Exhibit A of what the UFC wants in a fighter.

Now the only trick seems to be this: Can we keep him fighting long enough where this becomes obvious to everyone.

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