It was the UFC 249 fight that snuck up on MMA fans, the one they didn’t know they needed until it was announced. Then again, that’s no surprise when the names involved are Anthony “Showtime” Pettis and Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
And though Pettis is still intent on making a second run at a title at 155 pounds, facing Cerrone at 170 in a rematch of their 2013 clash was a no brainer. It’s a fight, it’s high-profile, and it’s against a fellow member of the “Best in the Game” club. Sign him up.
As for the impact his Knockout of the Night win over seven years ago has on this Saturday night’s pairing, Pettis says, “Mentally, I already think I have the advantage on him. Skill wise, I don't think Cerrone changed much. He's always been one of the toughest guys in the division, always ready to fight, great everywhere.”
He’s also looking to snap a three-fight losing streak while Pettis tries to rebound from back-to-back losses. Of course, those combined five losses need to be put in context, as they came against Tony Ferguson, Justin Gaethje and Conor McGregor (Cerrone), and Nate Diaz and Diego Ferreira (Pettis). That’s a murderers row for anybody, and in this sport, if you’re off a hair with your timing or lose a second’s worth of focus, it can be a bad night against that crowd.
Pettis knows it. He’s been the hammer and he’s been the nail throughout his WEC and UFC career, but win or lose, he never did it against less than top-level competition. That’s a long way without an “easy” fight.
“The only ones I want to fight are killers,” said the Milwaukee native, who won championships at 155 pounds in both the WEC and UFC. “That gets me up. Once I start fighting lower level guys and it becomes competition, that's when it's time to call it quits or figure something else out. Right now I'm not winning every fight or losing every fight, but I’m finding that recipe that makes it all right.”
And at 33, Pettis is still young enough to make it all right again. Some would say his best chance to do that these days would be at 170 pounds, where he knocked out Stephen Thompson last year and gave a solid effort in a decision loss to Diaz. He’s not convinced, though.
“I'm not sold on it yet,” he said. “I like 170 because I can do it quick. But if I want to be competitive and be the best in the world, it's gonna be at 155. I know the teammates I have and I know how Tyron Woodley feels when I spar with him, I know how Ben Askren feels when I spar with him, so I've been in with some of the best in the world at 170, and it's a different fight. It's not competition, it's a different fight.”
That’s the wisdom that comes with experience, and that’s something the young gun version of “Showtime” didn’t have. He got by on pure talent and determination back then, and while the talent and determination remains, having experience on his side as well makes him a dangerous fighter, especially when he finds the groove he’s been searching for. And that search keeps him motivated, even though he’s already built a resume any fighter would envy.
“There's more to do,” Pettis said. “I did it at a young age, winning the WEC and UFC belts. Now that I'm where I'm at now and getting these tougher fights and more experience, I'm trying to put it all together and find what's missing and what I'm doing different. And that's what I'm trying to find. I know I can win these fights and I'm right there. I'm super close and very competitive with the best in the world, but I am coming up short, so I gotta fix that part and that's what I'm figuring out. How do I win again, how do I keep winning and be invincible like I was? I'm starting to find it again, but it's a process. And I don't take easy fights, so it's always somebody tough.”
Cerrone can probably relate to Pettis’ dilemma.
“For him too, it's a matter of putting it together,” said Pettis. “I think when you get guys like me and him, we're tested so much against so many good guys, the results are mixed. There are guys that get easier fights than what me and Cowboy have had.”
It’s tough on the win-loss record and the ego but, at the same time, that willingness to take on all comers night in and night out have made Pettis and Cerrone who they are and why fans will watch them fight whenever they’re on the marquee. As for Pettis’ reason for continuing in this toughest of sports, it’s all down to the love of the game.
“I love it, and I'm getting better at it, honestly,” he said. “That's the thing about MMA. You do something for as long as I did it and at the level I did it at, you're gonna get burned out, you're gonna get bored, you want to change stuff up, you want new training partners. There's a lot of stuff that I've done repetitively for my whole life. I was a champ at 23 and 26 and I'm 33 now, so I've been doing this for a long time. But I still love it. When I go to the gym, I'm still learning, and as long as I'm still learning, I still love it.”