Title shots are nice, but they’re hard to come by in the UFC’s lightweight division. Anthony Pettis knows. Since coming over as the reigning WEC champion a little more than two years ago, he has lived in a world of obstructions.
There was the Frankie Edgar bottleneck situation, when every title fight extended into a classic title series. There was the Clay Guida setback (which exposed some wrestling deficiencies) and the Jeremy Stephens rebound fight (which showed he fixed some wrestling deficiencies). There was the ridiculous head kick to Joe Lauzon, which re-revved the title talk. Then there was a shoulder injury that docked him for a year.
And even now, as Pettis returns for his bout with Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Chicago, his path to a title shot looks more like a frontage road detour. Defeat his fellow WEC alum Cerrone, and the reward is to wait and see. That’s because Strikeforce’s longtime champion Gilbert Melendez has been expedited into a title tilt with Benson Henderson, which takes place in April.
Melendez gets the immediate shot, and Pettis’ world remains complicated. It’s limbo. It’s contention. It’s relevance. It’s ring rust. It’s trying to re-establish his bearings.
“It’s weird right now,” Pettis told ESPN.com's MMA Live Extra. “I’ve been promised title shots; I’ve been guaranteed title shots. So really [beating Cerrone] doesn’t put me anywhere. I’m right at the top of the top. I’ve just got to keep my performances clean and sharp and strong and a title shot will come when it comes. But right now I’m just focusing on getting back in there. It’s almost been a year.”
Let’s face it, UFC on FOX 6 is a kind of layered phenomena. You’ve got a flyweight title fight at the top between Demetrious Johnson and John Dodson, which is electric but not suited to everyone’s tastes. That’s why Quinton Jackson is in the co-main. Jackson is making his final Octagon appearance (allegedly) against the intrigue of the light heavyweight division, Glover Teixeira. Wheelhouse brawl, right? Maybe. In any case, that fight should be sad, fierce and brutal.
And it’s not even the heart of the card.
The heart of the card is, of course, the one in the middle. Pettis-Cerrone is the fight. Pettis always brings it. Cerrone always brings it. If Pettis wants to stand and bang, Cerrone will oblige -- “Cowboy” never shrinks from the terms. And so long as Duke Roufus’ protégé Pettis isn’t fighting a determined wrestler, he recreates Chinese “wire fu.” That’s just what he does.
So even as the implications are up in the air, so will the kicks come fight night. And that’s just about as far as Pettis is willing to look.
“For me, man, it’s just to get back in there and mix it up,” he said. “It’s been almost a year since I fought and I want to stay relevant and show people that ‘Showtime’ has skills -- that I’ve got talent. Fighting a guy like Cowboy [Cerrone] is definitely going to give me that chance. He’s a tough, tough guy, and it’s not going to take one or two shots to drop him -- it’s going to take a couple.”
Cerrone, who has won eight of nine fights, is in contention, too. He called out Pettis because Pettis was the man in his way. Each fighter sees the other as an obstacle to reach what has become a far-off kingdom: that elusive chance at a title shot in the UFC’s lightweight division.
That could be what’s at stake. But when you’re dealing in the Pettises and Cerrones of the world, the journey is just as much fun as the destination. As far as Pettis’ ongoing journey goes, the future can be shaped by a simple objective come Saturday night.
“Make a statement,” he said. “I’m tired of not getting the respect I deserve. Guys calling me overrated, ‘one kick’ this and that. I’m in my position for a reason, and I’ve got to show everybody why I’m right there at the top.”