Coming into his first title defense at UFC 181 after 15 months off people were calling Anthony Pettis a ninja and Dana White was referring to him as the best P4P fighter in the UFC. Not much pressure. Oh yeahm he also had to deal with the man many thought had the perfect type of game to dethrone him. In many eyes Melendez was a bigger, better and more versatile version of Clay Guida. The man who had last defeated Pettis back in 2011.
Since that loss, only the second of Pettis’ career, he has gone 5-0 with four straight finishes. Two by KO/TKO and two via submissions. The list of fighters he finished in that stretch is mind-boggling; Joe Lauzon (24-9), Donald Cerrone (25-6), Benson Henderson (21-4) and finally Melendez (22-4).
The last three have a combined record of 68-14. Cerrone has been stopped twice in his career, Henderson three times and Melendez only once. Of the five combined career finishes of these three fighters Pettis is responsible for three of them. That is what makes him the leader of the New Breed of fighters.
What is the New Breed anyway?
After the fight it was Melendez that referred to Pettis as “that New Breed” of fighter. We have also all heard other younger fighters being called the “New” or “Next Generation” by announcers and in the media. It is generally just a blanket term for a talented young fighter who has been raised on MMA and is considered well-rounded.
When you look around the UFC you will find many fighters that fit that description but Pettis is more than that, he is something special. It goes beyond just being athletic, talented and well-rounded. It is something more and it has to do with the mind, will and instinct that others do not possess. It also contains a lot of fearlessness which leads to the finishes.
Risk and Reward
If you play poker or know anything about the game one of the concepts you will know is that of risk and reward. Check that, if you are a successful poker player then you will understand the concept of risk and reward.
It is more than just whether or not you are getting the right pot odds to call a bet but also about the ratio of risk to reward. Low risk sets you up for safe and steady low reward. It is what the concept of a grinder is in poker one who literally grinds out a safe and steady style of playing.
The best example of this from the movie Rounders is Joey Knish. Many poker players wear the badge of a grinder with honor, it speaks to a certain hard work ethic that is consistent and shows up everyday. Many fighters that come from the wrestling background embody this style of fighting. Melendez fits this category with Dan Henderson maybe being the best classic example of a grinder.
Relentless pressure is one of the strongest elements of a grinders fighting style. They are looking to break their opponents will. They are durable and always fight with heart. You have to beat grinders. They will not break and give up nor will they beat themselves. Even if you have a grinder hurt they are capable of winning because they are always searching for that moment. The latest Shogun and Henderson fight is a perfect example. Shogun had Henderson in trouble when he left one opening and Henderson ended it.
For grinders, greatness is possible but it is a usually a lengthy path. One that wears most people down and that is a big part of what makes the grinders so unique. It looks simple, just show each day, everyday and work hard. Anybody can do that but very few are truly capable of grinding it out everyday.
Then there is the New Breed of fighter. The ones who court and achieve greatness quickly. Fighters like Jon Jones and Pettis. Fighters who are already champions and in theory have not quite entered into their primes. The classic example of this style from the UFC is Anderson Silva. From Rounders think Mike McDermott and from the real poker world it would be Phil Ivey or Tom Dwan.
They understand that if you want to court greatness then you have to be willing to make great risks. If you want the knockout you have to leave yourself a little open to being knocked out. It is difficult against another dangerous great opponent to set up the risk free KO opportunity. All too often it is being willing to leave yourself vulnerable and getting there first. One of the examples of this that jumps to mind is Rashad’s KO of Chuck. On the replays you could see that they both went for the big punch and Rashad got there a little quicker.
Raised on MMA
These fighters have been raised on the sport of MMA and do not come from single specialized discipline. Pettis, at 27 years-old, has in theory been able to watch MMA for all but the first six years of his life. He was just a teenager when the first season of TUF aired. As he grew up, so did the sport in popularity, approaches and champions. Gone were the one-dimensional fighters who were dominant in their area. They were being replaced by more versatile fighters. The Matt Hughes’ gave way to the GSP’s. The UFC was becoming a place where you needed to be well-rounded if you wanted to contend for the title.
Today the UFC is a place where fighters like Pettis and Jones thrive. They and other fighters who are familiar with training in all of the disciplines are pushing the sport. They are essentially creating a new style of fighting. One that is based on MMA and blends the forms together. These fighters know and understand the sport and it is their strong base in the basics of the sport that allows them to try the more creative and spectacular techniques like the Showtime Kick from Pettis.
They are also able to refine techniques and turn them into indefensible weapons. For Jones you see the spinning elbows that changed the direction of his fight with Alexander Gustafsson. While Pettis has his rear leg kick that he used against Lauzon, Cerrone and Henderson. These are not flashy moves but effective ones.
For Pettis, even his flashy moves are often effective ones like the famous Showtime Kick. Attempting a kick like that in the decisive fifth round of a title fight showed a lot of balls. To land it and essentially capture the title with it made it legendary. More like a scene out of movie than something you see in a real fight.
The kick showed more than just balls but also his creative mind working the moment. Against one of the best fighters in the world he saw the opening and flowed right into it. As an artist of any kind those are the kind of moments you live to create. Ones that echo, resonate and get shown over and over on highlights.
If this were Jazz he would be Miles Davis
For me there are many parallels between jazz music and fighting. They are both art forms that require hours of work doing drills to gain an understanding of the basics. The jazz musician and the fighter put their hours in perfecting their craft. Playing, practicing, and striving towards an unattainable perfection in hopes of getting close to it.
Both the jazz musician and the fighter require someone else to truly perform. They are both art forms of the moment. With jazz it is about the musicians listening to each other and what the music is telling them in that moment. A live jazz performance in a club is a living thing. One that will only happen just that way that one night.
For the fighter they need that opponent. One that will push them. One that will reveal their greatness. The last two title fights have presented Pettis with exactly those kind of fighters. In Henderson and Melendez he had two opponents that are considered to be among the best in the world today. Two fighters that are almost impossible to finish. Henderson had only been stopped once before his rematch with Pettis and Melendez have never been finished. Submitting them back-to-back is insane. It is something that again seems like it is out of video game or a movie.
The other crazy thing about the submissions is that they were basic submissions. An armbar against Henderson and a guillotine choke versus Melendez. After the fight Dana White relayed a story about watching the Pettis and Melendez fight with Marc Laimon. Dana said that when Pettis went for the guillotine Laimon thought it was a stupid move that would put Pettis in a bad position. He felt that someone like Melendez who has trained with the Diaz brothers and Cesar Gracie would easily be able to escape the submission attempt. I think that reflected the conventional wisdom by most educated fans and that is an element of what makes Pettis so special and reminds of Miles. They both were willing to try something because they saw it and believed in it.
Miles changed jazz music with his style of playing. He was the leader of the Cool jazz one that many misunderstood. People would walk about how it was almost aloof, and without the passion of bebop but that was their inability to really listen to the music. Miles’ passion burned deeply and it came through in his music. It was just that it came from one of those intense fires that burn inside. One that is so hot that it burns blue making it look cooler in temperature. If you are going to change the face of anything then you must have a belief in yourself and your techniques.
We see that in Pettis who is changing the sport of MMA with his fighting style. He is putting his twist and spin on the techniques and ending fights with them. The amazing thing is unlike most fighters who start out finishing the less talented and experienced fighters as they work their way up the ranks. Then as they get into the top ten or top five the finishes vanish and the UD start to happen. Not Pettis, he is finishing the best fighters at the highest level by using simple techniques in an almost flawless manner.
Lets take a look at his KO of Lauzon. First we see Pettis distract with his lead right hand and then go to the body with the kick.
That help set up the KO. Here we again see him distract with the lead right hand and Lauzon went to block the low kick to the body.
When Pettis goes to the head instead of the body there is nothing Lauzon can do about it because of how Pettis set it up. In the Henderson fight we saw him use excellent timing to deliver the body kicks. Using them to hurt Henderson and then finished him off on the ground. That finish was impressive but many still thought that Melendez had the perfect style to dethrone Pettis and take his title. They were wrong.
No can defend
Here is the thing that makes Pettis so tough to beat and it goes back to jazz for me and that is ability to improvise in the octagon. One of the reason jazz musicians spend so much time practicing is to give themselves a greater range and understanding of the music preparing them for the live performances. When they play with another musician who can challenge them with their understanding, skill and range the two artists will take the music higher together than by themselves. Without the time practicing they would not be ready when those special moments present themselves.
It is the same for Pettis. You can tell he puts the time in drilling, training and gaining a greater understanding of the sport himself and his limitations. When those moments happen in the octagon he is ready to take advantage of them. He is able to take what is happening in the fight, adapt to it and find a way to end the fight. It is what we saw in his first title defense.
To start the fight Melendez got right in Pettis’ face and applied the pressure. He used his boxing to close the distance and then transitioned to his grappling. It was a smart game plan and Melendez had some success with it. He was able to get and keep Pettis along the cage for almost the first half of the opening round. During that time he also landed some strikes. There was nothing that caused much damage but they were scoring for Melendez.
Once they separated it took Melendez little time to again use his boxing to get in tight and this time he got the fight to the ground. From there he landed a couple of nice big punches. After a little more time pinned against the cage on the ground Pettis got back to his feet and launched a head kick that Melendez blocked. There was 1:39 left in the first round and it had been almost the perfect start for Melendez.
Then we see the first strike from Pettis that started to change the fight. He was back close to the cage and bounced up and down quickly. Melendez used that moment to reset himself and as he settled down that is when Pettis struck with a spinning kick to the body. The kick comes quickly and cleanly. It was also landed from much closer than the usual spinning kick. Melendez drove forward and continued to alternate in trying get Pettis down and use his boxing.
Earlier in the round Melendez was connecting but now Pettis was slipping Melendez’ strikes and landed a solid left hook of his own that backed Melendez off. That quickly brought out the predator in Pettis who just missed with another head kick as Melendez backed away. Pettis followed forward using his boxing into a flying knee that Melendez just blocked. From there he drove forward and again put Pettis against the cage. They broke off with just over 10 seconds left in the round.
At this point Joe Rogan was calling it the perfect fight for Melendez and he just needed to keep this up to take the title. Then Pettis landed a solid rear leg kick to right side of Melendez’ body and just missed with another one before the bell. The round was clearly Melendez’. He had used his pressure to out strike Pettis and control him for 3:43 of the round. The game plan was working for him but Pettis was making his adjustments and we saw the results in the second round.
Now as Melendez tried to come in behind his boxing Pettis slipped, slid and backed away avoiding the strikes. He did this while continuing to strike making him very dangerous. Usually a fighter that is retreating is defensive but Pettis is good about striking in those moments turning them into offensive ones for him. He was also catching Melendez with punches both as he came in and when he tried to exit. The other thing he was able to do was get Melendez to chase him around the cage in the second round even as his corner was telling him not to chase.
As the round unfolded at a quick glance it looked similar to the first except now Melendez was the one getting hit more than Pettis. He was still applying the pressure only now it was working against him. Pettis was now comfortable on the inside and was consistently getting the better of the exchanges and when Melendez did get close enough to grapple he struggled in that area.
The end came right after Pettis hurt him with some punches. Melendez was pressuring Pettis against the cage. Pettis moved laterally to his left and Melendez countered nicely with a right kick to the body but when he went to throw a left hand Pettis’ right got there first. Another quick left, right and left hands followed. Melendez did not look hurt but he did dive in for a takedown. In the process he left his neck out there for a second. Pettis quickly snatched it and locked Melendez in his guard at the same time securing the guillotine. A few moments later Melendez was forced to tap.
It was not flashy. Pettis did not get lucky. Nor did he submit a chump. What Pettis did he his first title defense was fight Melendez’ fight and then submitted him. It is almost unbelievable but that is what makes Pettis so special. He is able to do what other fighters cannot. I know many are predicting him to lose the belt next year. They will be disappointed when he ends 2015 with the lightweight strap around his waist.
I know many people think the Khabib Nurmagomedov will be the one to bring him down literally and figuratively but I have some bad news for those fans. It will not happen. Look for a full breakdown early in 2015 from me as to why it is a bad matchup for Nurmagomedov. The Cliff Note’s version is that Pettis is just too good.
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