UFC 181, Dec. 6, 2014, was a memorable night for a number of reasons. Robbie Lawler won a close split decision over Johny Hendricks to finally claim the welterweight title, Pettis authored what would turn out to be the lone defense of his lightweight championship when he submitted Gilbert Melendez, and for Collard, it was the night he picked up his first (and to date, only) UFC victory.
At the time, Collard and Pettis couldn’t be farther apart in terms of prestige. Pettis was positioned as the next great champion at 155 pounds, having received a major promotional push from the UFC that led to him becoming the first MMA fighter to ever appear on the front of a Wheaties box.
Collard, just 21 years old at the time, was the opening bout on the early preliminaries.
He remembers briefly crossing paths with Pettis though a couple of days before fight night. And he didn’t like the vibe he got from the champ.
“I remember all of us sitting on the bench, chit-chatting the night before weigh-ins, kind of goofing around hanging out with our teams and he was standing off over in the corner with his arms crossed, like he was a superstar,” Collard told MMA Fighting.
It was a passing meeting, hardly the stuff of blood feuds, but would Collard go as far as to say that there was a genuine sense of animosity?
“I didn’t like it,” Collard continued. “I’m from a small town, I’m that small town kid that—He just seemed so big time to me and that’s just not my attitude.
“I feel like you can either let [the fame] get to you and let your head blow out or you can stay the same, down-to-earth person, and that’s just the kind of outlook I see. I’m gonna try to stay that down-to-earth person, that small town kid.”
Friday marks Collard’s return to MMA action after a two-year hiatus, but don’t think he hasn’t been busy. In the interim, Collard dove into the pro boxing world, where he picked up entertaining wins over prospect Raymond Guajardo and fellow MMA convert Lorawnt-T Nelson. The 28-year-old focused on boxing primarily for financial reasons and it worked out as major promotions like Top Rank signed him to compete on their cards.
Though he took a break from MMA competition on a two-fight win streak, most fans probably still recognize him from his 1-3 stint with the UFC, which included making his debut on short-notice against future featherweight champion Max Holloway (Holloway defeated Collard by third-round TKO).
Pettis has been involved in numerous high-profile fights even after his lightweight title reign ended, so there’s a reputation gap to overcome heading into Friday’s fight. Not that Collard cares.
“100 percent,” Collard said when asked if he can ignore expectations surrounding his matchup with Pettis. “I’ll take being the underdog every single time just ‘cause I like proving people wrong. Do I feel like the underdog? No, not at all, not whatsoever. It will be nice to derail the champ, to derail Anthony Pettis the big-time superstar right off the bat.”
“Maybe we’ll meet twice, who knows,” Collard added, considering the possibility of knocking Pettis out of the PFL playoffs.
It’s been a while since he last put on the four-ounce gloves, but Collard is eager to return to cagefighting. A lifelong boxer and wrestler, Collard never stopped mixing techniques and keeping his training well-rounded even when he wasn’t competing in MMA.
If anything has changed, it’s his mentality. He was 21 when he made his UFC debut, 26 when he last fought in MMA. When he faces off with Pettis on Friday, he expects to show a different person than the kid who had a brush with “Showtime” all those years ago.
“It’s night and day,” Collard said. “My maturity level is probably the biggest thing. I’m a grown man now. It will be night and day, I’m not even close to the same fighter, the same person I was even a year to two years ago, so I’m just ready to bring it.”
And if he runs the table and snags that $1 million PFL tournament prize?
“I’ll finally get to get the backyard my dog deserves,” Collard said. “He’s tired of living in my little apartment, man.”