The Rizin champ had never lost his belt, being forced to give it up due to injury, and so Pettis didn’t consider himself a real champion until he beat the previous man to hold the title.
More than that, Pettis saw the fight as a chance to step out of a big shadow. For most of his career, he had been seen as a follower of his older brother, Anthony Pettis. Perhaps he’d also been measured by the former UFC lightweight champion’s success.
By the fourth round of the bantamweight champ’s Bellator 272 headliner, those goals were quickly slipping away. Horiguchi moved in a way Pettis couldn’t match. The Japanese vet attacked quickly and retreated the same way. There wasn’t much to stop the American from hitting the mat on his back.
“Man, I’m frustrated,” Pettis told his longtime coach Duke Roufus before the fight went into championship time. “This guy, he’s ahead of me in every way possible.”
“I ain’t going to lie to you, you’re down three rounds,’” Pettis said of Roufus’ response. “We’re going to need a finish this fight.”
It was one of those moments where Pettis had to decide, quickly, to do something different – or at least not be afraid to do what he wanted to do, which was to get inside and throw hands. Up until that point, he’d been worried about the repercussions of his aggression.
“I watched his highlight video, so I was a little bit nervous on the entries,” Pettis said. “He’s been dropping a lot of people, and I don’t want to make his highlight reel.”
Things didn’t get any better, at least initially. Again, Horiguchi snatched a leg and shoved him to the canvas to gain top position. But this time, instead of lunging in and working for ground and pound, he backed up and gave Pettis the chance to slug it out. And that’s just what happened – only Pettis took almost as many as he gave.
Back at Roufus’ gym, Pettis had a solution for elusive fighters. To catch them, he’d follow big attacks with secondary shots. One example was a head kick followed by a spinning backfist. It wasn’t something unseen in MMA. With the momentum created by a kick, all a fighter needed to do was extend his arm and level it toward the opponent’s jaw.
Horiguchi had just tried a takedown and was standing up when Pettis saw the opportunity for the head kick. When that missed, he followed with the spinning backfist, and the Rizin champ fell to the canvas, out cold.
It took a second for Pettis to realize what he’d done.
“I thought it was fake,” he said. “It felt like a dream. He fell out, and I ran up, and I had that thought in my head – ‘hit this motherf*cker, he just beat your ass for three rounds straight.’ Once I saw the damage that spinning backfist had done, that switched turned off. I’m not there to destroy people’s lives.”
Horiguchi spent several moments on the canvas and was taken out of the arena in a stretcher. Pettis said a prayer for his opponent. Although it felt good to be on the giving rather than reiceiving end of such a finish, he was concerned for his opponent’s health. He also figured there would be consequences for his career.
“It was cool to have that outcome, and the best moment of my career, but it showed me and everyone else the guidelines to beat me, so I’ve got to adjust and make sure I’m ready for that,” Pettis said.
In 2022, that means a bantamweight grand prix with challenges such as Juan Archuleta, Patchy Mix and Raufeon Stots. Archuleta and Stots he knows quite well, having beaten the former for the vacant title and the latter as a training partner at Roufusport for six years. All of them will be looking to exploit the gaps they saw at Bellator 272.
And yet, Pettis managed to do something quite spectacular in snatching a highlight-reel victory from the jaws of defeat, a “Knockout of the Year” candidate that came out of nowhere. Arguably, it also one-upped his older brother, whose most famous highlight reels – a “Showtime Kick” of Benson Henderson and a second-round knockout of Stephen Thompson – weren’t as lopsided before the spectacular end.
You could say Sergio Pettis is a chip off the old block, but you can definitely say he’s his own fighter.
“After three rounds getting beat up, [I thought] maybe that thought isn’t real,” he said. “But after I landed that, I was like, wow, this is the fight that breaks me out of my brother’s shadow.”