Ask anybody from the hardcore mixed martial arts fan to the guy on the corner barstool. They’ll all tell you it’s just about the coolest thing they’ve ever seen in a cage.
In the waning minutes of a title fight nearly three years ago, Anthony Pettis put his right foot on the fence, launched himself airborne and kicked Benson Henderson in the face, toppling him onto the canvas. In one sublime motion, Pettis lived every gravity-defying kinetic fantasy of every kid raised on video games, parkour and Jackie Chan movies — and he won a championship belt, too.
For the first time since Pettis landed what’s now known as the Showtime Kick, he’ll be back in the cage with Henderson on Saturday night at the Bradley Center in Milwaukee at UFC 164.
Both fighters realize their careers have been partly defined by that single moment of acrobatics, but neither fighter is thinking much about the past before a key bout for both men’s futures.
“I’m not going to live off of it,” Pettis said. “It happened. We’re past it. I’ve got to fight him again, and he’s the champ. So even with that kick, I’m still not the champ, so I’ve got a lot to prove.”
Their long-anticipated rematch is headlining the first major card on the UFC’s packed fall slate. Veteran heavyweight Frank Mir will take on Josh Barnett, who returns to the UFC after an 11-year absence, while featherweights Chad Mendes and Clay Guida also will meet.
Pettis’ hometown crowd can’t possibly expect something to top the Showtime Kick, but this bout means more than the lightweights’ first meeting. Henderson (18-2) is the UFC’s 155-pound champion, while Pettis (16-2) is the only man to beat him in more than six years.
But Pettis’ kick has lost none of its luster in the time since that WEC bout in Phoenix, Henderson’s hometown, in December 2010. One version of the highlight has nearly 5 million views on YouTube, and it’s a staple of MMA highlights packages.
Even after 18 months as the UFC’s lightweight champ, Henderson is still stung by his only defeat in his last 21 fights. Henderson wasn’t knocked out by the kick with 65 seconds left in the final round, but it clearly swung an exciting, tight fight in favor of Pettis, who claimed the belt with a unanimous decision.
“Anthony let it all out and landed a pretty cool kick,” Henderson said. “And ever since, I’ve been working to redeem myself. Beating up the next guy, the guy after that, beating up the guy after that, that was redeeming myself — working past that one moment in my life.”
Henderson has excelled by becoming an effective points fighter, battering his opponents with flurries of less-than-fearsome strikes adding up to decision victories. Henderson hasn’t stopped an opponent since April 2010, but he seized the UFC lightweight title from Frankie Edgar early last year and defended it three times — twice by razor-thin split decisions over Edgar and Gilbert Melendez.
He always knew Pettis was lurking in the background, waiting for a chance to repeat his spectacular win. The fighters are cordial and complimentary toward each other, but not friendly.
“We have never sat down and discussed it,” Henderson said of their last bout. “In my head, I knew that we’d be facing off at some point in time again, so there wasn’t a real big need for anything like that.”
Henderson’s detractors are hoping Pettis is the antidote to the champion’s style. Pettis is a crowd-pleaser, with a taekwondo background and superlative striking skills.
“It’s not like I just won the (last) fight off of just one kick,” Pettis said. “I put the work in the other rounds to be in that position. I’ve got a lot to work for.”
Pettis might have won the lightweight belt before Henderson even got a chance to get his hands on it, if not for a debatable career choice. Unwilling to wait around for the next title shot after Edgar returned from an injury in 2011, Pettis accepted a bout against Guida, who upset him. Pettis has fought just three times since, winning twice by dramatic knockout, but also sitting out most of 2012 with injuries.
Pettis would have been forced to wait even longer for his shot at Henderson, but challenger T.J. Grant pulled out of the matchup with a concussion last month. Pettis was contemplating a move down to challenge featherweight champion Jose Aldo, but he eagerly seized a second chance to take on Henderson in his hometown.
“You can’t blame me for trying to get a title shot,” Pettis said. “That’s what it’s all about. Every fighter wants to be a champion, and I was right there. I’ve been getting ready for a title shot since January, and it’s August now, so you can’t blame me for trying.”