The first victory was sweet -- a unanimous decision in December 2010 to capture the WEC belt -- but the second was even sweeter. When Pettis returned to his house (just a stone’s throw from the Bradley Center, host of UFC 164), early Sunday morning, he had the UFC 155-pound championship belt in his possession. There is no comparison.
“[UFC] is the NFL, NBA of mixed martial arts,” Pettis said. “Winning the WEC title meant a lot to me. I was very young. I fought Ben a year and half into the WEC. So I didn’t have a lot of time, a lot of experience to fight someone like Ben Henderson.
“Now, we’ve both grown in this sport. The guy is a great champion. I mean he’s a very respectful guy; he never does dumb things out there. Now we’re both in the UFC and I win this belt. It’s amazing. It’s something I really tried hard to achieve and now I’ve accomplished it.”
What occurred Saturday night was more than two years in the making. Pettis always believed he would become UFC champion, it just took a little longer than he planned.
When he entered UFC in 2011, Pettis was slated to face the winner of then-lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard. Both those two fought to a split draw on Jan. 1 of that year, putting Pettis’ UFC title showdown on hold.
Injuries would delay the Edgar and Maynard fight. Rather than sit idly, Pettis opted to face Clay Guida in June 2011 -- he would lose by unanimous decision. Pettis hasn’t lost a UFC fight since.
But all that is neither here nor there; Pettis is the UFC lightweight champion now, and that’s a good thing. You see, Pettis is a very athletic, confident and physically strong fighter, who is still maturing as a mixed martial artist.
“I’m not even in my prime yet,” Pettis admitted. He’s only 26 and his body is still growing.
And he already has developed a reputation for putting on exciting fights. You never know what move Pettis might pull from his large bag of tricks during a fight. He keeps fans and his opponents guessing what his next unorthodox maneuver will be. Pettis is fun to watch.
Add to all this the fact that Pettis competes in the talent-rich lightweight division and UFC fans are going to enjoy this ride for a while. Guys like TJ Grant, who Pettis replaced Saturday night, and Gilbert Melendez make their residence at 155. And let’s not forget Henderson, as he remains a threat to one day reclaim the belt.
But there are also potential challenges to Pettis’ reign lurking at featherweight. There’s champion Jose Aldo, who Pettis was slated to face in August at 145 pounds before an injury forced him out of that bout.
And does anyone really believe Edgar will never resume his quest to again place the lightweight title around his waist?
There are several potential high-profile fights awaiting Pettis. And each one looks like it would an action-filled affair. The fun has yet to begin.
But, in what seems to be the case often these days whenever Pettis is involved, there is a downside. Pettis has struggled with injuries the past year. In 2012, he suffered a shoulder injury that shelved him for several months. He later sustained a shoulder injury during a training session for his showdown with Donald Cerrone; a skin infection in his elbow further postponed the Cerrone bout.
Then he was forced to pull out of his featherweight title fight with Aldo due to a right knee injury, sustained during a training session. All was forgotten, however, the past few days as Pettis and Henderson appeared physically primed for their rematch.
But just when it seemed the worst was over, Pettis left the cage Saturday night, belt in hand, with another injury. This time it was his left knee.
“Henderson threw a kick and I went to check it with my left leg and he hit it right in the crook of my knee,” Pettis said. “I felt it go back and forth, but I don’t know yet.
“I was stepping on it and it was hurting a little bit. When he had me against the cage I was standing on one leg because it was starting to lock up.”
Injuries now seem to happen quite often to Pettis. For all the dangerous opponents lining up to dethrone him, staying physically healthy might pose the greatest challenge to the newly crowned champion. Maybe it’s just part of a growth spurt. Perhaps. We can only hope so.
Pettis is an exciting fighter, who is poised to thrill UFC fans for a long time. Let’s keep our fingers crossed that his recent run of injuries is nothing more than a weird coincidence.