Nearly six years after winning the UFC lightweight title, Anthony Pettis will move up to 170 pounds and face former welterweight title challenger Stephen Thompson in the main event of UFC Fight Night: Nashville (ESPN+, main card 8 p.m. ET). The two fighters share multiple stylistic quirks, which results in a rather even stat sheet. However, there are a few key disparities that could signal a path to victory for either Thompson or Pettis. One of the following statistical categories could be the difference on Saturday.
Thompson and Pettis are dynamic strikers and they share a variety of similarities, most notably in terms of striking position and striking target. They both do the majority of their striking at distance, 87 percent for Thompson and 82 percent for Pettis. Both prefer to land against their opponents' heads, with 67 percent of Pettis' landed significant strikes coming to that target and 63 percent for Thompson.
However, there is a meaningful divergence when it comes to striking differential. The stat, which is composed of significant strikes landed per minute minus significant strikes absorbed per minute, heavily favors Thompson. His striking differential after 13 UFC fights currently stands at +0.94. While that is only fifth best among ranked welterweights, it is well ahead of Pettis' striking differential, which checks in at -0.31 for his UFC/WEC career.
Pettis' negative differential means he has absorbed more significant strikes from his opponents than he has landed on a per-minute basis. In fact, his striking differential has been worse recently. In his past five fights, his differential has been -1.73.
The former lightweight champion's inability to outland opponents in his recent fights could really spell trouble against Thompson. Even though Pettis is an accomplished striker, "Wonderboy" normally does a good job of managing range and winning rounds with his karate-based style. If this fight ends up resembling a point-fighting contest, Thompson should have the advantage.
The biggest contributor to Pettis' substandard striking differential is his defensive performance. Over the course of his past five fights, he has absorbed 5.55 significant strikes per minute and avoided only 49 percent of his opponents' significant strike attempts. For his UFC/WEC career, he has only been slightly better as he has avoided 54 percent of his opponents' attempts. That rate is still below average for ranked lightweights and welterweights (56 percent).
On the other hand, Thompson is above average in terms of striking defense. He avoids 61 percent of his opponents' attempts. This level of defense is even more impressive considering his offensive output. Thompson attempts 8.15 significant strikes per minute, which in theory should leave him open for counters. Pettis is much more measured in his approach as he has attempted only 6.29.
To win a distance-striking contest against Thompson, Pettis will need to find a way to close the distance, increase his offensive output and improve his defense. Considering he is moving up in weight, is 2 inches shorter and has to deal with a 3-inch reach disadvantage, that might be a tall task.
Even if Thompson is able to get the better of the striking exchanges statistically, Pettis will still have the opportunity to make an impact with his power striking. Thompson has been knocked down in three of his past four fights, so he is susceptible to big strikes. Through his first 10 fights, Pettis was able to register five knockdowns and appeared to have legitimate fight-stopping strikes.
In terms of knockdowns per 15 minutes of fight time, Thompson has the better rate. He has averaged 0.74 compared to only 0.38 for Pettis. While Thompson has appeared vulnerable in recent fights, "Showtime" will need to find a way to turn back the clock if he wants to put a dent in his opponent's chin.
A wild-card element of this fight is Pettis' submission ability. Despite being mostly known as a striker, he has always been a vibrant submission threat. He is one of the few fighters who actually averages more submission attempts per 15 minutes of fight time than takedowns. During his UFC/WEC career, he has been credited with 1.3 submission attempts per 15 minutes and only 0.76 takedowns.
He may not have the takedown ability to force Thompson into a grappling contest, but he is certainly opportunistic enough to pounce on something in a scramble. If Thompson gives him an opening, Pettis could pick up his eighth submission victory of his UFC/WEC career.