Clay Collard was the other guy. He was the one standing across the cage from the PFL's prized new signee, Anthony "Showtime" Pettis. It was a big moment for the emerging fight promotion, and the vibe of the introductions for this season-opening main event last month in Atlantic City, New Jersey, was part unveiling, part coronation. Pettis, the former UFC lightweight champion with the star-studded nickname, was embarking on a jaunt toward the PFL's $1 million season prize.
But once the fighting began, it was Collard who looked like a million bucks.
"People had been telling me that Anthony Pettis was the pick to win the whole season," Collard told ESPN. "I just told them he's got to deal with me first. I'm a force to be reckoned with, and I proved it."
Yes, he did. Collard dominated the April 23 bout, knocking down Pettis twice in the second round, beating him up and nearly finishing him, before winning by unanimous decision.
It was a stunningly impressive performance -- in the eyes of everyone but Collard. "Another day at the office," he said. "I should have got the KO in the second. But at least no one is going to overlook me anymore."
Indeed, the spotlight is on Collard heading into his June 10 bout against Joilton Lutterbach, which will close out the PFL regular season for lightweights. After not just preseason favorite Pettis, but also two-season champion Natan Schulte lost their opening bouts, Collard is in first place in the standings. But he's tied with four other fighters, all of whom also earned three points with decision victories. And with knockouts and submissions bringing additional points, even those who lost their first bout are still in the running for the division's four playoff spots.
"There's more work to do to solidify my spot, I know that," Collard said. "I will approach this next guy like I'm fighting a world champion -- no different than I did for Pettis."
Collard, 28, has been in MMA for a decade. After fighting 18 times in his first three years or so as a pro -- all in his home state of Utah -- he was signed by the UFC in 2014. He was welcomed to the Octagon by a then 22-year-old named Max Holloway. It didn't go well for Collard, and within barely over a year he was released from the promotion with a 1-3 record.
It would be nearly 2½ years before Collard would again be in an MMA bout. But he didn't sit idle.
"I pushed Clay into boxing," said Ryan Ault, Collard's longtime coach and himself a former amateur boxer. "He fought me on it at first, but I told him he needed to tighten up his accuracy and learn to throw punches off of angles. What better way to do that than to compete in Western-style boxing?"
"I've always been a pressure fighter, and I've always thrown a lot of punches. But now I'm picking my shots and I'm landing. I'm taking angles, I'm setting things up, I'm throwing punches to set up other punches. Whereas back in the day, it was just throw, throw, throw, and hopefully something lands." Clay Collard
The sweet science detour really gained steam last year, even after Collard had agreed to join the PFL. The coronavirus pandemic shut down the MMA promotion's season, so Collard jumped at an opportunity to box a 9-0 prospect named Quashawn Toler in Cincinnati. Collard won a decision. Within less than a month, he was in with another young, undefeated boxer with high hopes, Raymond Guajardo. Collard knocked him out in the second round, in Biloxi, Mississippi.
Collard won five straight boxing matches in 2020 on increasingly bigger stages. He fought four times in the Top Rank bubble in Las Vegas, and he also competed on Premier Boxing Champions and Golden Boy shows.
"We did the opposite of what up-and-coming boxers tend to do," Ault said. "We went after the toughest guys instead of the tomato cans."
Several years earlier, a promoter entertained by Collard's prefight talk had given him a nickname befitting boxing royalty: "Cassius" Clay Collard. That could be daunting to live up to, but Collard took it as a call to take boxing seriously, even as he continued to view himself as primarily a mixed martial artist.
"We took all of last year to focus on boxing, and that made me a better all-around fighter," Collard said. "I grew as a boxer, and I learned how to translate those skills into mixed martial arts."
When it was time to return to MMA, Collard brought with him a more refined standup style. Against Pettis, he threw 160 strikes -- more than twice Pettis' output -- and landed 71% of them. And when Collard's punches connected, they had the power behind them to do damage. He overwhelmed Pettis with his nonstop attack.
"I've always been a pressure fighter, and I've always thrown a lot of punches," Collard said. "But now I'm picking my shots and I'm landing. I'm taking angles, I'm setting things up, I'm throwing punches to set up other punches. Whereas back in the day, it was just throw, throw, throw, and hopefully something lands."
"The old Clay threw volume with no accuracy and no power," Ault said. "Now he lands at a high percentage, and they hurt. He had Pettis hurt five times. I believe Clay is the best striker in MMA right now, hands down."
That bold assertion will be put to the test against Lutterbach and, if Collard is successful next month throughout the PFL playoffs.
"What's the worst thing that can happen? We fight Pettis again in the final?" Ault said. "Well, if I was Anthony Pettis, I wouldn't want to have to fight Clay Collard again."