UFC 181: Anthony Pettis versus Gilbert Melendez, an in-depth preview
I cannot wait for this fight featuring the two coaches from TUF 20. They are also two of the more exciting fighters in the lightweight division. The Gilbert “El Nino” Melendez’ fight with Diego Sanchez was one the most captivating fights in the UFC’s history. Of course, Anthony “Showtime” Pettis has provided some of the more indelible highlights in the sport. The most famous is of course the showtime kick he landed in his first fight with Benson Henderson. In their rematch he became the first fighter to submit Henderson in the octagon to take the title.
Now Pettis, after a long layoff, will make his first defense against Melendez who is getting his second shot at the UFC gold in just his third UFC fight. As well as being two of the more exciting fighters to watch in the octagon they are also two of the more likable fighters in the UFC. Pettis lives up to his Showtime nickname and is more outgoing while Melendez is a little more quiet but has shown a very engaging personality on TUF this season. They are both able to bring the fierceness when it is time to fight. This will be like a battle between a wolf and a mountain lion.
I want to look at each fighter’s key weapons, some of their tendencies and how each fighter could win or lose the fight and finally my prediction for the fight. We will start with the champion – Pettis.
Pettis rear leg meets Joe Lauzon’s head
Pettis has a background in Taekwondo. As a martial art it emphasizes kicks and he has some of the best in MMA. In his last three fights it has been the rear leg kick that has been responsible for doing fight ending/altering damage. Against Joe Lauzon it was a beautifully setup rear leg kick to the head that ended the fight.
It started in the opening moments of the fight when Pettis launched the first kick.
First Pettis used his hands to distract Lauzon and then followed it up with a hard kick to the body. Lauzon blocked it but did not seem sure if it was going to the head or the body. A little later in the round Pettis threw a combo with his hands.
This is all done for distraction purposes by Pettis. He feinted, then feinted again, and again. When he does attack it is done at less than full speed and a couple of strikes appear to be openhanded. Clearly Pettis is not trying to damage with these strikes and is just using them to setup the head kick that is about to happen.
Here Pettis started with the feints with his hands. Then a little slide forward to build a little more energy while still distracting with the hands. Lauzon read the kick but blocked the body based on the earlier kick. This time the hand feints from Pettis forced Lauzon to keep his left arm up to guard against the punch. On the first kick Lauzon read it cleaner and got both arms around for the block. This time the Pettis’ kick goes over the righthand and dropped Lauzon. Perfect timing and accuracy from Pettis.
Next for Pettis was Donald Cerrone who was known for his legendary chin. In the fight with Nate Diaz he absorbed 238 strikes and was still standing at the end. Cerrone had never been stopped via strikes in his career coming into this fight and had traded blows with some heavy hitters. No one was expecting him to lose by TKO. Again, it started with the rear leg to the body but this was a little different.
In the Lauzon fight we saw Pettis come out in a southpaw stance versus his orthodox opponent. This opened up Lauzon’s right side to Pettis’ rear leg kick as Lauzon’s lead leg is clear. In a more traditional fight where both combatants are in orthodox that side is closed off by the lead leg making it harder to land a rear leg kick to either the body or the head. The open stance worked perfectly for Pettis in the Lauzon fight but against Cerrone he started out in orthodox.
At first it might seem strange for him to start out in orthodox after having such great success against Lauzon in the southpaw stance. It is the difference in the two opponents. Lauzon is most dangerous on the ground with his submissions and while Cerrone is also dangerous on the ground he is also a very dangerous striker with real KO power. The one glaring opening in the southpaw stance is the straight right hand and it opens up Pettis’ left-side to kicks. Against Lauzon this was not much of a threat but with Cerrone he had to be a little more cautious.
When Pettis did switch about 45 seconds into the fight it did not take Cerrone long to launch a kick.
Now compare that to Pettis’ first kick a little later.
When Cerrone threw his there was distance between them, Pettis was ready and saw the kick coming. It is easy for him to avoid and block it. Then when Pettis threw his, they were closer, it caught Cerrone as he was coming in and he could not avoid it. Also, Pettis had virtually no windup to his kick at all. He knows that instead of trying to load it up for more power it is more important to be accurate and fast giving him a better chance to land it. The power comes from Cerrone who is moving forward at the time of impact.
Once Pettis senses that his opponent is injured he is like any predator – he zeros in on their weakness and pounces. He is also an expert at timing. We see a perfect example of his second kick in that fight that follows the first one.
Here Cerrone has his arms down trying to protect his body after the first kick hurt him. Pettis is able to land the kick because of the angle he takes on it combined with the speed and timing of it. By itself this kick is not much but it landed in almost the exact spot as the hard one just seconds before. Moments later Pettis landed a third one that just caught Cerrone.
The final one came a little later in the round on the heels of a left to the solar plexus from Pettis. Here are two looks at it.
You see Pettis use perfect timing, accuracy and again uses the momentum of the fighter’s movement to increase the impact of the kick. With Pettis closing the distance he gets the kick around Cerrone’s attempt to block it as well as increasing the power of the strike. Cerrone had no choice but to crumple to the ground. In his next fight with Henderson the body kick would lead to Pettis getting the submission win.
No can defend
If anybody would be ready for Pettis it seemed like it would have been Henderson. They had already gone five rounds in a back and forth battle that came down to Pettis’ famous showtime kick being the difference in the fight. Add in that Henderson also has a Taekwondo background to match Pettis’ it made sense that Henderson would be able to defend the rear leg kick. The second fight with Henderson showed that Pettis has a weapon that just might be impossible to defend.
For this fight Pettis came out and stayed in the traditional orthodox stance as Henderson fights as a natural southpaw. This opened up Henderson’s left-side instead of his right. This is slightly better for Henderson as his liver is not exposed like Cerrone’s but Pettis showed that hard kicks to the left-side of the body can do damage.
In the rematch Henderson started by putting pressure on Pettis and not giving him much space to strike by either forcing a clinch or attempting a takedown. When Pettis did get a little bit of space he filled it in nicely with this first kick to the body.
Again, it is timing and accuracy. First he created a slight opening with his footwork and feint. The little right hand got Henderson to react slightly breaking his rhythm for just a moment and that is when Pettis struck. The kick comes free and easy with no real windup making it too fast for Henderson to block.
A few moments later Pettis landed another kick. Only this one was harder. We again see him use movement to create the force instead of loading the leg. This time he used his own forward movement to disguise the kick and create more force.
He comes forward in his stance and the kick looked like he was still coming forward but instead of coming forward he threw the kick. Henderson tried to counter it with a right hand. The force of the kick disrupted the punch and Henderson then tried to grab the leg. The kick also was again timed to perfection and caught Henderson as he started to sit down and back.
That flowed into another punch to the stomach like the Cerrone fight.
A couple of things are going on with this punch. Pettis had just hurt him with the kick. Now the punch comes from a different angle and direction forcing Henderson to focus his attention away from the leg. It also targeted the area that Pettis had just damaged. We also see Pettis’ head movement and footwork to get in, land his strike and get out without getting hit.
A few beats later Pettis came with another rear right leg kick. Only this time he went high with it. Henderson easily avoided the kick but it again forced him to adjust his focus and Pettis flowed right into four consecutive body kicks. The first three were hard and hampered Henderson’s movement. They also put him on the defensive.
The first kick landed and you can see the impact it has on Henderson. Pettis showed excellent killer instinct and timing to land the next two hard shots.
The fourth one was a glancing one as Henderson scrambled away. As Pettis is landing the kicks to the body Henderson still has to be concerned about the head kick. By planting the seed with the one missed it might have slowed Henderson down just a fraction of a moment but at this level that is all it takes for a sniper like Pettis.
The kicks hurt Henderson and changed the momentum of the fight. When they went to the ground about twenty seconds later Pettis secured the submission win. It was a perfect MMA win for Pettis. He hurt Henderson with his striking in the standup and then finished him on the ground with a slick submission.
Pettis is dangerous anywhere with many different weapons. It is the ability to put together creative strikes and combinations make him one of the most fun strikers to watch in MMA. In his last three fights the rear leg kick from either orthodox or southpaw, and either to the head or the body, has proved to be unstoppable. Melendez is a different challenge than his last three opponents but will he be enough for him to take the title from the champ?
Melendez’ straight right hand and Diego’s left eye
Diego Sanchez is a southpaw and in his fight with Melendez they illustrated the danger of the straight right from an orthodox fighter to a southpaw one. Melendez punished Sanchez’ left eye throughput the fight using many different weapons. The right hand being the main one. It started with a body punch.
This is just a minute into the fight and Melendez first landed a hard straight right to the body. Then he continues to follow Sanchez as he retreated. Melendez used a little feinted jab and then slickly snuck in the right hand to the head. It was not a straight right down the middle but instead had just enough curve to get it in the little window that was open.
In the next round Melendez landed one of his basic but beautifully effective one-two combos.
Like Pettis, you see Melendez use different levels to create his openings the difference is that Melendez does it more with his hands. His boxing is excellent and he used it to pick Sanchez apart in this fight.
Here Sanchez slipped the first couple of punches but Melendez stayed balanced, slid forward and caught Sanchez as he came up. Melendez displayed nice timing and patience in this extended combination. He took advantage of the opening and pressed forward but he had to be careful to not rush in recklessly against Sanchez who was looking to turn it into a brawl.
Melendez’ answer to Pettis’ kicks
The questions are not about Melendez’ heart, toughness or fight IQ. He has shown those throughout his career. The question is can he do enough damage early with his right hand to keep Pettis in an orthodox stance? If not then he will be open to body kicks. We saw Sanchez land several hard ones and his are not nearly as fast and powerful as Pettis’.
Here is one from Sanchez’ front leg.
Melendez countered with the right hand and caught the kick with the left. Later Sanchez landed a harder one from his rear leg.
Again Melendez looked to catch and counter. Here is another example of him catching and countering the kick against Henderson.
This is a kick to the leg and Melendez read it easily, caught it smoothly and landed the right hand. Melendez showed great timing on catching the kick and landing the counterstrike.
This worked against Sanchez and to a degree with Henderson but it is not the best approach with Pettis’ body kicks. We saw Henderson try this himself against Pettis but the kicks were too powerful. Even when he did get his hands down to catch the kick the force of them made it impossible for him to hold on to the leg. Pettis’ kicks come much faster than Sanchez’ and without any windup making them much harder to read.
Melendez’ best defense against the kicks will be his own offense. He will have to get Pettis going backwards in this fight and control the space and pace. If Melendez spends the fight at the distance he did in the Sanchez fight then Pettis will pick him apart.
When you watch Melendez fight he is almost the opposite of Pettis. There is very little flash and dash to his game. A wrestler who has developed a strong boxing game over the years built behind the basic but effective one-two combination. This is all backed up by great cardio, a strong will and a fighter’s heart. He does not end up on the highlight reels very often but just keeps winning. Melendez is 10-2 in his career in title fights.
Who wins and why
The only fighter to really control and beat Pettis is Guida. The loss Pettis suffered to Bart Palaszewski was a SD and a back and forth competitive fight. While Guida just shut Pettis down by taking him down and controlling him on the ground. It was not easy for him though and in a breakdown for this fight, Guida had this to say about Pettis and his game plan for their fight. “I didn’t let Anthony be Showtime. I got in his face and kept him backpedaling. If you notice, most of the times when I got my takedowns, I would get him backpedaling, I’d give him a split-second, he would throw a strike and I would just duck underneath him and get my single or double leg and blast right through him.” He also added this; “And though Anthony is still a very skilled and dangerous striker, I tell people this to this day – of all the black belts and world-class jiu-jitsu guys that I’ve fought, Anthony Pettis has the best, most dangerous guard I’ve ever been in. The whole time I was on top I had to keep repositioning and defending triangles and armbars. It was crazy. I could never really get set up for dominant ground and pound. People know how to beat him by watching him; people don’t know how to beat him by getting in there since I fought him.”
The last part of the statement is key for me. Guida did lay out the blueprint for beating Pettis but in order to pull that off you need a similar style to Guida’s, and Pettis has made adjustments himself since that fight. He has been a little less flashy and more focused on damage. It is one thing to watch the Guida/Pettis fight and think that is the way to beat him but you have to get inside. Then once you are in there you have to take advantage of it and get the takedown. Once it goes to the ground you have to protect yourself at all times because Pettis will be looking for the submission.
The problem for Melendez is that his style is very different from Guida’s. Over his career Melendez has come to use his boxing more than his wrestling. He has excellent hands, good speed and timing but he cannot just stand in front of Pettis at a distance. He has to find a way to get in close and make the fight ugly. He has excelled in those situations in his past fights but they will be hard to create with Pettis who does a great job of landing his strikes and getting out. Somehow Melendez will need to be aggressive but careful.
The conventional wisdom is sometimes stupid
I have seen a lot written about this fight and breaking it down simply to favoring Pettis early and Melendez if the fight goes the distance. I guess if you just look at their records Pettis has three finishes in his three most recent fights and Melendez only has three finishes in his last nine fights and they all came in Strikeforce and were over three years ago.
I agree that Pettis has a much better chance of getting an early finish. I also think he has a just a good of chance to win this fight by decision. It is just a bad matchup for Melendez. For him to win this fight I think he has to be almost-perfect and fight differently than he normally does. Somehow he will have to get inside and take Pettis down to score some points and then let him back up. Henderson had success early in the first round of their second fight by getting in Pettis’ face with pressure. As soon as Pettis got a little space he started to land the body kicks.
Even if he cannot get the fight to the ground Melendez will still need to get inside. Pettis is still dangerous but not as much so and it will create some scrambles and Melendez like many wrestlers excels in them. Here is one where he caught the kick against Sanchez.
After Melendez drove him backwards he landed the nasty elbow. You see Melendez always looking to strike on breaks and entering into clinches. It is one of the areas that he needs to consistently win to take the title away from Pettis.
The more I watch the past fights and look at this matchup I have a tough time seeing Melendez winning this fight. If he stays at distance then Pettis picks him apart and if he comes in Pettis hurts him on the entry. The other thing working against Melendez is time.
While Melendez is only five years older than Pettis with only six more fights, he has a lot more mileage on him. In two fights in the UFC he has gone eight full rounds. While in five UFC fights Pettis has barely gone eight full rounds himself. In those fights Pettis was struck 78 times while Melendez absorbed 110 blows in his two UFC fights. Throughout his career Melendez’ chin has been one of his strengths but time can damage it and we saw some signs in the Sanchez fight.
This uppercut dropped Melendez and Sanchez is not known for his power. If Pettis catches him clean like that the fight will be over and that is what I think will happen in this fight but not early.
Look for Pettis to come out in orthodox to open the fight like he did against Cerrone. Then when he gets comfortable with Melendez’ timing and power Pettis will switch to southpaw. From there he will use the rear leg kick to the liver to hurt Melendez and start to wear him down. In the fourth round Pettis will find the liver with one kick and then go to head with the next one as Melendez retreats ending the fight, retaining his title and becoming the first fighter to finish Melendez.
cover image via Getty
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