Anthony Pettis: 'No more holding back'

As lightweight champion Benson Henderson and top contender Anthony Pettis head into their showdown Saturday night at UFC 164 in Milwaukee, much attention has been paid to their 2010 WEC title bout.

The fight was as an action-filled, closely contested affair, highlighted by Pettis’ off-the-cage kick that floored Henderson in the fifth round. Pettis would win by unanimous decision, lifting the WEC 155-pound belt from Henderson. With images of that bout still fresh, it’s reasonable for fans to expect much of the same in the rematch.

While Henderson-Pettis II is a safe bet to deliver in the action department, the bout could look quite different than their initial encounter. One major difference is Pettis: He is a more aggressive fighter than the one Henderson faced nearly three years ago.

As hard as it is to believe, Pettis has evolved as a fighter in more ways than one. He is not just prepared to become lightweight champion again, but to hold the title for a very long time.

“My mindset is different; my experience, my striking, my wrestling, my jiu-jitsu, everything is top-notch. My dieting, too,” Pettis told ESPN.com. “This [mixed martial arts] has become a lifestyle for me. When we first met, I was only 22 going on 23 years old. Now I’m 26 and I’ve made this my lifestyle. I’ve learned a lot and I’m way more experienced as a mixed martial artist. I’m definitely a whole different Anthony Pettis.

“There’s no more holding back for me. When I go out there, I’m letting loose. When I hold back, I’m thinking about the other fighter, what’s the game plan and what he’s trying to do and how I’m going to finish him.

“I just need go out there and be myself. When I’m being myself, I’m dangerous. And everybody knows it. That’s why I’ve done so well in my last two fights.”

Pettis put on a striking clinic against Joe Lauzon in February 2010 and against Donald Cerrone on Jan. 26. He finished both fighters by first-round knockout.

In each of those fights, Pettis showed patience and great balance when delivering kicks that sent Lauzon and Cerrone to the canvas. He finished both downed opponent with punches.

While his striking was impressive, it’s what Pettis did before unleashing his offense that stands out: He controlled the distance. Pettis is athletic and light on his feet.

In the past, he would use that athletic ability to offset deficiencies in his game. But he has tightened up his technique and put his speed and power to better use. This has come in handy in the larger UFC cage, though Pettis doesn’t expect it to be a big advantage against Henderson.

“The WEC cage was about 5 feet shorter than the UFC cage,” Pettis said. “The more room for me, the better. I’m a rangy fighter, I like to fight at a range.

“But it plays well for both of us. Henderson is a rangy guy. He doesn’t like to be in exchanges much and he uses his footwork well to get out of situations.

“The bigger cage benefits both of us. But I’m not going to base my game plan off the size of the cage. I know what I have to do to win this fight.”

Whether in a WEC or UFC cage, where this rematch takes place doesn’t matter to Pettis; his No. 1 priority remains the same: to become lightweight champion again. And having to go through Henderson again to do it isn’t an issue.

For Henderson, the first fight remains fresh in his mind, especially with that now-famous kick repeatedly shown in prefight promos. But for Pettis, a rematch with Henderson was not on his to-do list until the UFC lightweight title changed hands on Feb. 26, 2012. That’s when Henderson unseated then-titleholder Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision.

“Ben’s an amazing fighter; he’s the champ for a reason,” Pettis said. “But I never had my sights set on fighting Ben Henderson again. Once he won that belt, that’s when I said I want to fight him again.

“I beat him once already, so it wasn’t my place to call for a rematch. Since he’s the champ, that’s the key for me. I want to be the champion, so whoever has the belt at this time, and it happens to be Ben Henderson, that’s who I’m going after.”