Last weekend, a former champion four years removed from holding UFC gold returned to the cage and captured another belt. The story of Georges St-Pierre is a singular one; no one in UFC history had ever undertaken such a lengthy sabbatical and then returned to win a championship.
As he waits to headline this weekend’s UFC Norfolk event, Anthony Pettis might take heart in the unlikely achievement. It was just over four years ago when Pettis captured the UFC lightweight championship.
It was a shockingly short reign. The man who awed the fight community with his innovative Showtime Kick, who pulled off armbars so blindingly fast that a whole arena once missed it, suddenly and inexplicably crashed and burned, sending his career into a dizzying tailspin. At one point, Pettis lost four out of five and looked dangerously close to careening toward irrelevance.
In July, however, Pettis regrouped, returning to his old lightweight stomping grounds and emerging with a bloody win against Jim Miller. Now ranked 13th in the division, Pettis hopes to leapfrog a few contenders with a win over No. 8 Dustin Poirier.
Make no mistake, Pettis wants to win the UFC lightweight title again, joining a short-list of two-time division champions that includes names like Randy Couture, Cain Velasquez and Matt Hughes, among others. But to make history, he—like GSP before him—will have to defy it. No former UFC champ has ever gone through a 1-4 stretch and then came back to win a UFC title. The most similar rough patch was Couture, who went 2-3 over his last five fights prior to his UFC heavyweight title win over Tim Sylvia. Still, even that is not a true comparison as Couture was thrust into the Sylvia fight without even requiring a win in the heavyweight division; Pettis will have to earn his way back the old-fashioned way: with at least a few more wins.
It’s hard to think of Pettis as old, but in two months, he will turn 31. In UFC lightweight history, only two champions won the undisputed belt at an older age: Sean Sherk, who captured it at age 33 years, 2 months when the division was re-started in 2006 and Eddie Alvarez (32 years, 5 months).
Not surprisingly, age appears to be a major factor among lightweights. It’s believed that this is because the division, with its lighter fighters, puts a premium on speed, and speed is often the first thing to go as the body begins to age.
Pettis’ body has suffered its share of wear and tear. He’s had surgery on his knee and elbow. He’s suffered a broken orbital and injured his right hand. He’s struggled through camps with other nagging injuries that have never been publicly disclosed.
Pettis has said in the past that injuries are what hampered his success more than anything, and that staying healthy would be his biggest key to rebounding. But isn’t that a big “if?”
There is still a quiet hope that Pettis can regain his spectacular form. On most sports books, Pettis is either a slight favorite or a pick ‘em against Poirier. That should come as something of a surprise. While Pettis has gone 2-4 since March 2015, Poirier has gone 5-1 with 1 no contest during the same amount of time. He’s both younger and on a better run of success.
Still, Pettis’ history can’t be forgotten. His flashy wins over Donald Cerrone, Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez are clearly more impressive than Poirier’s best wins, which came over Max Holloway, Jim Miller and Bobby Green.
His losses? They’re not as easy to explain. Putting Pettis under the microscope, you can’t pinpoint just one thing that has gone wrong for him. There are times he simply lets himself get out-struck; in his four losses, he was out-landed 440-389, according to FightMetric. There are times he gets out-wrestled; in his loss to Alvarez, he was taken down six times, a critical factor in a close, split-decision. His move down to featherweight was ill-advised; he missed weight his last time out and looked horrific on the scale. It is a collection of errors that has gotten him here.
At least one of those problem has been corrected; he’s back in the division he once ruled. Everything else is in the wind.
Old legacies die hard. Pettis’ glory days aren’t so far behind that they can’t be remembered, even if they are far enough behind him to have no bearing on his present. And nearing his last months as a 30-year-old, Pettis’ legacy is just that: old. The challenge in front of him? It’s soberingly clear. In attempting a second run at the top of the lightweight division, he’s going to have to defy age, opponents and history.