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‘Showtime’ rebuilt: Anthony Pettis finds unexpected new passion in the weight room

Anthony Pettis fights Jim Miller on July 8 at UFC 213.
Esther Lin/

LAS VEGAS — The last time Anthony Pettis thrust himself into the middle of a UFC fight week, it wasn’t a pleasant experience.

Back in December, Pettis forfeited his opportunity to fight for the UFC interim featherweight title when a nightmarish weight cut went horribly awry. Then, once UFC 206 rolled around, things grew even worse as Pettis suffered his fourth loss over his last five fights, a grisly third-round TKO setback against the now-undisputed UFC featherweight champion, Max Holloway.

Seven months after that fateful week, the former lightweight king can only shake his head when he thinks back to his ill-fated featherweight experiment. Instead of the husk of a man who struggled to get through his day-to-day in Toronto, Pettis showed up to UFC 213 looking “Showtime” reborn, the same fighter who once seemed to be on the verge of stardom, one full of energy and excitement ahead of his reentry into the lightweight ranks against Jim Miller on July 8.

“It’s been amazing, honestly,” Pettis told MMA Fighting at UFC 213 media day. “Not eating for six months, seven months, I felt like I was weight cutting for my whole life. It was horrible. I’d kind of gotten used to it, you get down to lower weights and you’re taking the smaller meals, a lot more cardio, but it’s not fun. That’s not a fun thing for me. I like to come show up like this, happy, talk freely to you guys and get ready to fight.

“I did my little water cut. I’m eating amazing meals still. I had a great lunch before I came here, and I get to just do a hard workout tonight, get the water off, weigh-in and go do business.”

Pettis said the process of rebuilding his body began as soon as UFC 206 ended. By that time, his decision to return to lightweight had already been made. So he took a couple of weeks off, spent some time with his family, enjoyed a few hearty meals, then threw himself back into the gym with a newfound, singular focus: making fighting fun again.

Through that goal, Pettis discovered a love for weight training that he had never truly explored. Soon, the pounds flew back onto the 30-year-old former titleholder.

“(I feel) stronger than I was before I was a champion,” Pettis said. “My body feels way stronger than it was when I was a champion. I have a lot more explosive muscle, because I lifted. I’d never lifted before. I did strength and conditioning, but it was like sport specific, a sprint here or there. This time, I went and lifted. I had a five-day lifting routine, and I never did that before.

“It was a fun time. It was like a different kind of training, different goals to set. I was maxing out bench press at like 305. I never — I think could bench like 185 pounds or something, I never really tried, so it has been good.”

Pettis says he worked through that routine for the better part of the past six months, gradually rebuilding the frame that once dominated the WEC and UFC lightweight divisions. Now he feels like himself again, and the experience has been a revelation.

“I never needed [weight training],” Pettis said. “I mean, I was killing these guys without weight lifting and I was like, you know, ‘I’m faster and I’m quicker and I don’t need this strength.’ And I feel like now they’re trying to neutralize that speed by pushing me into the cage, and I’ve got to have an answer for that.”

The other primary focus of Pettis’ throughout 2017 has been to rediscover his roots. Once he decided he was ready to return to the gym, Pettis says he stuck himself into kickboxing class after kickboxing class, “kickboxing only, and I just had fun kickboxing.” The decision helped to relight the fire that brought Pettis so much success throughout his martial arts career.

“I still have my wrestling coach, but I focused so much on the wrestling after RDA, my striking started lacking,” Pettis said. “I’m like, I’m Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis, the striker that you don’t know what’s going to happen. And these guys, they come out expecting that — and then when they don’t feel that, then that pressure comes (from them). If I can come out quick and put them strikes on them, them shots are going to be a lot less likely to happen.”

Pettis says with confidence that he expects the hard work to pay off. In Miller, he meets an opponent he specifically asked to fight for his lightweight return, one as respected and tenured as any lightweight the UFC has on its roster. It’s a tall task, but Pettis says that’s exactly the type of challenge he wanted.

“He’s a tough dude, man,” Pettis said. “I mean, I wasn’t going to fight nobody outside the top-10 or top-15 like they were trying to give me. I’m like, nah, that’s not who I am, bro. I’m not going to go fight a new guy or (a rebound fight). No, f*ck that. I want to fight the best in the world. I want a guy that’s going to get me right back on track or fighting the top-five in the world, and Jim Miller’s that dude.”

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