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How a chance encounter with ‘Cowboy’ helped the Pettis brothers find new fire at Jackson-Winkeljohn

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

LAS VEGAS -- For better or worse, the wickedness of the fight game tends to show itself in waves. Just ask Anthony Pettis. A little over a year ago, Pettis was the guy in the UFC lightweight division. The guy on the Wheaties boxes. The guy with the portfolio that oozed star potential. The guy who looked good in gold. But then came his back-to-back losses -- a first for an otherwise brilliant career -- and suddenly Pettis was just another guy, one among many gifted but incomplete talents jockeying for space within the sport's most crowded division.

In retrospect, Pettis knew after the second of those losses -- a listless decision against Eddie Alvarez -- that something had to change. In a game where creativity is king, nine years spent retracing the same steps can make even the best minds grow stale. But this? An eight-day USO tour across the world alongside old rival Donald Cerrone leading to a major career redesign? Yeah, Pettis never expected this.

But wouldn't you know it, something about riding sidecar with a straight shooter like "Cowboy" tends to play funny tricks on a mind stuck in the mud.

By the trip's end, any lingering animosity from the time Pettis nearly kicked a hole through Cerrone's torso was gone, so Cerrone invited Pettis out to New Mexico for a few days of friendly sparring at Jackson-Winkeljohn. Somehow a three-day stay turned into a three-week retreat.

Before Pettis knew what hit him, Albuquerque was starting to look awfully lovely as a potential second home.

"I met the coaching staff, I met the team, and man, I just loved it," Pettis told MMA Fighting. "It was just an environment where I could feel like I could get better and grow. In Milwaukee, I feel like I can definitely get better there, but growing mentally and all of that, it's a slower process because I know everybody. It's comfortable. I've done that gym routine for the last 10 years of my life. Changing it up and doing something new is good."

Pettis wasn't alone. His younger brother, UFC flyweight prospect Sergio Pettis, tagged along for the trip, and together the Pettis brothers spent the final three weeks of their camps for UFC 197 at Jackson-Winkeljohn, rather than the gym they've called home their entire careers, Milwaukee's Roufusport Academy.

With training partners like Cerrone and Jon Jones and Holly Holm and B.J. Penn and John Dodson (and the list goes on) at their disposal, both men emerged from the experience with a renewed fire for the game, and both now hope to make Albuquerque a permanent fixture of their camps moving forward.

"Duke (Roufus) has always given me freedom to do what I want to do," says Anthony. "He's never that guy who is like, you've got to stay here or you're not on my team. We're family, man. I told him I needed to clear my head and I needed to get some new looks. He didn't agree with it, he was like, ‘you're not getting paid to spar, let's not spar all these guys. You're getting paid to fight, so let's get ready to fight.' I just felt like it was a good decision. I tried it for three days and it was the best decision I made.

"Not to take anything away from Duke. Duke is an amazing coach, he always will be my coach, but having bodies like that and training partners like that and the mindset of Greg Jackson and Israel Martinez, there's four jiu-jitsu coaches, four wrestling coaches, there's so much information I could get."

That doesn't mean Anthony and Sergio have abandoned their homes at Roufusport. Far from it. Both have made lives for themselves in Milwaukee and both remain heavily invested in the Roufusport team. But to know that Jackson-Winkeljohn is always there to spend a few weeks at a time immersing themselves in something new, something different -- that has made all the difference as UFC 197 approaches.

"Greg Jackson's mindset is ridiculous, man," says Sergio. "He's got such a different perspective on fighting. It's more than fighting. It's like a battle, it's like a war. The breathing. The emotions going in there. A lot of people don't know that. These fights, they're tough, man. You go in there and you're fighting another human being. You get in uncomfortable positions and you've got to find a way out and still take control of your emotions. That's the hardest part."

"He has this gift of speaking," Anthony adds, "maybe that he can relate to us. I've heard the things he said a million times, but the way he said it was like, damn. The way he made me see it and believe was just different."

The jury is still out on whether the changes in this camp will make a difference for the Pettis brothers once it matters. Anthony is slated to face striking savant Edson Barboza on Saturday in Las Vegas, while Sergio looks to get the night started off right against Chris Kelades. Victories would propel both brothers into the proverbial mix for their divisions' respective titles, and that focus was clear on the faces of both men all throughout fight week.

But that's what you get when you're sparring with the best fighters in the world on a daily basis.

"Oh, it was pay-per-view quality," striking coach Brandon Gibson says of some of those gym sessions. "There was some good stuff. I don't think there's any video of it, but in one of the fourth or fifth rounds where [Anthony and Donald Cerrone] had been going straight with each other, ‘Cowboy' went for a Showtime Kick off the cage. Pulled it off. The whole gym just erupted in laughter. It's so cool to have those guys in the same room, pushing each other and building that bond together.

"We just all clicked right away. We vibed well together, and they came in very humble, very focused, and very motivated to make the most out of each practice and each day."

This is the second fight in a row that Anthony has spent most of his time talking about major corrections made in camp. That fact is not lost on him. The difference this time though is that after his loss to Rafael dos Anjos, Pettis committed nearly all of his efforts to retooling his worst attributes, while ignoring what made him so successful in the first place.

He did not make that mistake again, and now hints of the swagger that made him a living video game character have returned just as strong as they were the night he captured UFC gold.

"The key is that pressure," Pettis says. "I felt uncomfortable sparring and that's how I feel in the Octagon. Most fights aren't comfortable where you're like, 'oh, this is easy'. It's an uncomfortable feeling where this guy has good moments, I have good moments -- but that's how it was when I sparred. It was good.

"I'm always going to one of those guys who is very close to a title shot with good performances, but at the same time, I'm focused on Edson Barboza. This guy is dangerous. He has good striking. I just feel like I need to focus on him and get through him first. Then I can think about everything else."

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