Anthony Pettis’s last fight for the WEC was always going to be memorable.
A month shy of his 24th birthday, Pettis was lined up to face Benson Henderson in the main event of WEC 53, the final show for the promotion before it merged with the UFC. Henderson was one of the WEC’s biggest stars and had yet to lose inside the confines of the blue cage.
Not only that, but one of the two men were expected to go on to face the winner of a UFC title fight between Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. So however victory was achieved, Pettis and Henderson were already marked for stardom.
At the end of a 25-minute thriller it was Pettis who saw his hand raised. But he didn’t just win – he authored one of the most incredible moments in combat sports history.
With just over a minute left in the fight, Pettis saw an opening, an opportunity for a move that nobody had landed before much less in a high-stakes title fight. He leapt forward, sprung off the cage, and caught a retreating Henderson with a flying head kick that rocked the champion and put an exclamation point over what was then a career-defining performance for Pettis.
Wednesday marked the 10-year anniversary of the “Showtime Kick,” and MMA Fighting spoke with Pettis to discuss the legacy of that incredible maneuver.
“I remember everything.”
While the kick itself has been replayed countless times, the rest of the fight and the events leading up to it are as fresh as ever in Pettis’ mind. He remembers how the Glendale crowd was dead silent as he walked to the cage, showing no love to the challenger as he prepared to face Henderson, a beloved Arizona native.
They’d ended up at Jobing.com Arena (now known as Gila River Arena) only because of a fan promotion in which they could vote on WEC 53’s location; the choices were the Phoenix area, Nashville, or Pettis’ hometown of Milwaukee. Henderson fans won, and Pettis made a mental note to himself that if their fight went to a close decision, it would be Henderson who was more likely to leave with the title.
“I remember walking out to the arena, and it was like crickets,” Pettis said. “No one’s cheering at all for me because it’s his hometown. In the fight there were so many great exchanges, so many great moments. I remember I took his back, in the second round, I rode him like a backpack, put a body triangle in and I’m attacking to the neck. I had him there for probably two, two-and-half, three minutes. I jump off his back, it’s the start of the third round, and my legs were shot. I was like, ‘Oh sh*t.’
“I started massaging them out, I’m like, I’ve got to figure out how to get these legs back, that was a long time squeezing on that dude’s body. Then he takes my back, I reverse him. I remember I had him in kimura lock, I had his arm to the back of his head and I’m like, ‘Yeah, there’s no more submission attempts on this guy. He’s like Gumby, it doesn’t hurt him.”
Fortunately for Pettis, his striking was as sharp as ever, and he at least felt confident that he was winning the battle on the feet, even if all hope of tapping-out the malleable Henderson had gone out the window.
Unfortunately for Pettis, he just couldn’t land that one big shot he’d been looking to set up.
“My striking was doing well, but I couldn’t find a good hole to his game,” Pettis continued. “I was landing with a 1-2-1 combo and I was trying to get a high kick off of that, I was finishing with a left hand-right kick, but he was hip to the game. He kept blocking it and that’s when I found my idea for the ‘Showtime Kick’ came.
“I was like, he’s blocking that right kick pretty well, so I had to change it up a little bit. A different timing. He was on the cage and I’m like, ‘Yo, let’s go for it.’”
So it was a strategic move?
“I’d like to say it was a strategic move, but I mean, when I was in that flow, my mind was just in such control and my body was just in sync with my mind, and the way I was moving was just like, I found my zone,” Pettis said. “You could see it. I hit him with an Ali shuffle and then he backs up and falls on the floor, and that’s when I knew I had him. My timing is on-point and I started landing these punches, but I couldn’t land the kick. That’s why I kind of had the idea, I gotta do something different if I want to land this kick.
“I remember he backed up to the cage – I’m like, ‘Go for it.’ I didn’t even think I hit it. I remember I threw the kick, and I turn around and I see him on the ground. [I thought], ‘Oh sh*t, it actually worked.’ And I tried to go finish him off, but Ben’s a tough dude.”
The fight went to the scorecards, but Pettis had nothing to worry about. If the judges were on the fence heading into the final round, then the “Showtime Kick” was more than enough to sway them in Pettis’ direction.
Those in attendance weren’t the only ones wowed by Pettis’ daring strike. Messages came flooding in from fans and fighters alike, especially after the highlight ended up making ESPN’s Top-10 plays that night, a rarity for an MMA fighter at the time. The extra attention even got Pettis some major kudos from an idol if his, light heavyweight great Quinton “Ramage” Jackson.
“That move was on ESPN Top-10, I remember seeing it that night or the next night, we were in the airport, a bunch of my friends were like, ‘You’re on ESPN, you were on the Top-10,’” Pettis said. “This was before UFC was even talked about on ESPN, so it was crazy to get the WEC brand on ESPN and then my name and everything that I did with it.
“At that time, Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson was one of my guys I looked up to. He worked for Toyo Tires, and I’d just signed with Toyo Tires and we did a shoot together. He’s like, ‘Bro, you’re the guy I want to fight like.’ To hear him say that was humbling. I’m like, ‘Bro, I’ve been watching you since I was a kid.’”
Pettis’ championship opportunity would have to wait, as a classic rematch between Maynard and Edgar at UFC 125 ended in a draw, resulting in an immediate trilogy booking. Instead of a title fight, Pettis wound up making his UFC debut against veteran Clay Guida, and he dropped a decision before recording a trio of victories to make it back to the top, where Henderson was waiting. He defeated Henderson again to finally claim the title of best lightweight in the world.
This Saturday, Pettis makes his 20th UFC appearance when he fights Alex Morono in a welterweight bout at UFC Vegas 17. It’s been an eventful decade for Pettis, with a UFC championship run under his belt as well as a brief stint at featherweight (where he holds a submission win over current lightweight contender Charles Oliveira), plus notable wins against the likes of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone, Stephen Thompson, Gilbert Melendez, and Jim Miller among others.
But to this day Pettis still takes great pride in the “Showtime Kick.”
“It’s amazing, honestly,” Pettis said. “When I threw that kick 10 years ago—It’s crazy to say that, 10 years I’ve been in this game at the highest level, it’s amazing. I think the way it was thrown, the last round, the last WEC fight, it kind of won me the fight, it’s just that much more iconic that all that stuff leading up to it, that way to finish my career in the WEC. It’s something I look back at and I’m proud of.
“A lot of people ask, ‘Do you wish you never threw it?’ ‘Is it something that overshadows all the rest of your career?’ No, it’s part of my story.”