That may come as a surprise to some, considering both men are longtime lightweight contenders. But for Pettis’ coach, Duke Roufus, who watched his protégé successfully debut in the welterweight division this past March with a highlight-reel knockout of Stephen Thompson, the extra weight is a welcome addition to an already enticing fight against one of the biggest stars in the sport.
“I think it’s great for both guys,” Roufus said recently on The MMA Hour. “I’m being a little goofy with my metaphors, et cetera, but Nate Diaz is a beast, and he’s going to be a beast at 170. But I’ve found Anthony is really strong [at 170]. One thing I know from being a coach in this sport, I see these guys have incredible performances in the gym at their normal weight, and that’s what I’m trying to get a lot of my guys to dial into, being at the weight that they perform the best at in the gym. So that being said, it’s going to be a great fight. Stylistically, Nate is an incredible boxer, tough as nails, resilient, got the heart of a champion and incredible jiu-jitsu.
“I just think Anthony brings more tools to the fight. Ironically, a lot of people don’t realize, one of my longtime students … was the coach of Josh Thomson, who helped manufacture that win over Nate Diaz. So that goes back to old-school Roufus gameplan.”
For Roufus, the gameplan against Diaz will be a straightforward one. Like Thompson, the younger son of Stockon presents a much more striking-centric challenge than the wrestlers that have historically given Pettis trouble.
But make no mistake, Diaz is still a tough out.
As Roufus noted, the only knockout loss of Diaz’s career came in a 2013 contest against Josh Thomson — and Roufus is confident that the same tactics that worked for Thomson can still apply to Diaz today.
“The up-down game,” Roufus said. “Getting him worried about the low kicks then going high, going to the body, et cetera. The thing is, kicking defense is one of those things you just don’t pick up in a training camp, and that’s what we just saw this weekend — two fights that were strongly effected by the low kick. Anderson Silva, and then as well, another fight was Michael ‘Venom’ Page got off-balance with a low kick and then knocked out by (Douglas) Lima. That’s why I was so confident coming into the ‘Wonderboy’ fight.
“You don’t always see the effects right away of the low kick, but they throw incredible fighters’ timing off. People who have the ability to kick all targets are very hard to beat, and that’s something that Anthony has embraced recently, especially when we don’t fight wrestlers, it’s a lot easier to kick more. It becomes truly a kickboxing fight.”
In many ways, it feels as if Pettis’ victory over Thompson and subsequent booking against Diaz represents the start of a new chapter for “Showtime.”
From 2015 to 2018, the former WEC and UFC lightweight champion fell into a slump that saw him lose six of nine contests, including a disastrous run at featherweight that caused his body to balloon up to 205 pounds as it tried to recover from the tough cut. And for Roufus, one of the worst moments came in 2016, at the start of that featherweight experiment, when Pettis was in desperate need of a win against Charles Oliveira after suffering the first — and only — three-fight losing streak of his professional career.
“If he wouldn’t have won against Charles Oliveira, I was going to quit,” Roufus said. “That’s how desperate I was, because it was hard. It wasn’t that he was lazy. It wasn’t that he wasn’t working hard. He just didn’t have his mojo. The other thing I think that Anthony [dealt with], he had such a meteoric rise in the sport, I don’t think he handled a lot of things that — he never really dealt with the death of his father. Because I went through the same situation. Ironically, I found my sister dead at the same type of age as him.
“I had a very dark area of my career because, I think, the beginning of your career, when you catapult from bad experiences, you’ve got that angst, you’ve got the fire, you hate the world, you hate your opponent. Well, what happens? You become champion, we meet girls, we get better lives. You’re not as angry as you once were. You’re forced to get better. You’ve got to win by getting better, and that’s what Anthony’s done.
“He’s dug so deep, found a new passion, a new motivation. It has nothing to do with all the bad things that happened to him. His motivation is all of the great things that are next to him and ahead of him, and that’s why I’m super happy about him, because sometimes as tough as we are, we do a good job of guarding the things that we should address. Because I’ve stayed up many late nights thinking about all this stuff for him, relating it to my life, and he just dug deep and reinvented himself, 2018 on. And it takes a special person to do that.”
After scoring one of the year’s best knockouts against Thompson, Pettis now finds himself in position to catapult his newfound momentum even further at UFC 241.
Though he may not have fought since 2016, Diaz remains one of the biggest names in the UFC. His two-fight series against Conor McGregor shattered pay-per-view records and cemented Diaz as a mainstream star. So Roufus thinks big things could be in store if Pettis can succeed against the fighting pride of Stockton on August 17.
“Just more marquee fights,” Roufus said. “I think that’s the stage of the career he’s at right now is superfights. I know that’s an overused term, but the fights that the fans want. Anthony loves making the fans happy. He lives through the fans. That’s why I gave him the ‘Showtime’ moniker from his first fight. It’s not that he was a pretty guy with his style. When it was time to fight, he flipped the switch on, he ran out there and just whooped the guy.
“He loves fighting for the fans. There’s not a lot of fighters left like that. He’s a special one that way, and when his mind is right, he’s a very tough guy to beat — and right now he’s a happy fighter, which Mike Tyson says is a dangerous fighter.”