At the beginning of March 2015, Anthony Pettis (18-5, 5-4 UFC) was on top of the world. The lightweight champion, he was a 7-2 favorite over his next challenger, Rafael dos Anjos, and had silenced critics after a 16-month layoff by submitting former Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez the prior December. The lightweight division had never seen a fighter with his combination of athleticism, charisma and sheer killer instinct.

The UFC held a press event on Feb. 28 of that year and titled its latest slate of upcoming fights “Welcome to the Show,” a clear reference to Pettis’s nickname, “Showtime.” His face even graced a Wheaties box.

Everything was in place for Pettis to become one of the faces of the promotion, a role he had been waiting for since his spectacular jumping kick off the cage against Benson Henderson four years prior. He was the most dynamic fighter in the game, a marvel of athleticism and aggression who could finish at any time, and it’s no exaggeration to say that he has one of the greatest highlight reels in the history of MMA.

Then it all came crashing back to Earth. The unheralded dos Anjos pummeled Pettis for 25 minutes to take his title. Eddie Alvarez followed that by beating him in a slogging, uninspired three-round decision in January 2016 in Pettis’s return to action. Then, given a pure striker in Edson Barboza last Saturday at UFC 197, Pettis came up short once again.

What happened? How did such a sure-thing lightweight great fall to also-ran status so quickly?

There are two issues at play, both of which were visible even before Pettis’s three-fight losing streak. The first is Pettis’s reliance on powerful kicks and quick submissions, both of which require the open space in the middle of the cage to function. Dos Anjos and Alvarez didn’t let him have that open space and forced him to the fence; Pettis didn’t have the tight footwork and command of pivots necessary to stop them from pushing him backward.

The second is a reliance on landing the fight-finishing strike or submission rather than simply throwing to score while striking at range. This is what lost him the fight against Barboza, and it has cost him before. In essence, what makes Pettis so special has a serious downside.

The takedowns and control against the cage that both dos Anjos and Alvarez used to defeat Pettis are symptoms of the former champion’s problems, rather than the underlying cause. Pettis knows how to wrestle; against the fence, though, you’re essentially giving your opponent as many attempts as they want. The key is for the fighter to use his feet to stay away from the fence in the first place and limit the opponent’s opportunities.

Pettis appears to move quite a bit. He likes to circle and sidestep at range, looking for angles from which to land a kick or a jab-cross. Against Barboza, Pettis was rarely a stationary target and spent the entire fight in the center of the cage, exactly where he wanted to be.

Barboza, however, wasn’t trying to force Pettis toward the fence, content instead to fight Pettis right there. Alvarez and dos Anjos, by contrast, wanted to push him back to the fence and had little trouble doing so. Pettis beat Melendez in impressive fashion but spent most of the fight with his back to the fence before the end. His finish disguised the fact that Melendez had successfully pressured him.

This problem was clear from the beginning of Pettis’s fight with dos Anjos. The Brazilian is an aggressive and technically sound fighter, and from the opening exchange, he never gave Pettis any space to breathe. Small forward and lateral steps steadily forced Pettis backwards, while cracking left kicks cut off his escape angles. Once his back hit the fence, dos Anjos unloaded combinations and ducked under for takedowns.

Pettis knows how to move in open space. Escaping from the fence under pressure, though, requires tight footwork, pivots and a serious sense of urgency, and he lacks in all of them.

By contrast, let’s take a look at Muhammad Ali (Cassius Clay at the time) and his effortless movement around the space of the ring against Sonny Liston.

Ali moves continuously, but he’s rarely so far away that he can’t hit Liston. When Liston does succeed in backing him to the ropes, Ali immediately ducks and pivots out. He doesn’t waste a moment longer than necessary. The pivot is essential: Ali’s front foot steps forward and turns 90 degrees, and then his rear foot follows.

It’s so smooth, looks so easy, and he does it so continuously amidst the consistent sidestepping that it’s easy to forget that the pivot is not a natural movement. It takes years of training not just to do it in a fight but to do it against an opponent who knows how to cut off the space of the ring and force his opponent toward the ropes. Ali was a master.

Here’s another example.

Ricky Hatton is pressuring Floyd Mayweather toward the edge of the ring, and as Mayweather feels his back coming close to the ropes, he throws a left hook and then pivots out while throwing another one. Another pivot follows, which leaves him facing Hatton, who’s now on the ropes and in trouble himself.

From Ali and Mayweather, who both have an exceptional command of footwork, we see what a striker is supposed to do when approaching the edge of the space. Contrast that with Pettis, whose go-to move when backed up to the fence is to brawl.

By throwing counters as his opponents come forward, Pettis hopes to scare them off. This is viable, but it’s only half the strategy: After throwing the counter, it’s better to use that brief opening to use the feet to escape — that’s what those tight pivots are for — rather than relying on the opponent to back off.

It’s even more imperative to keep one’s back off the fence in MMA than it is to stay off the ropes in boxing. The ring ropes offer some leeway for a boxer to lean back and keep his head out of harm’s way, and the boxer can place his foot under the ropes for additional space to maintain his or her normal stance. The fence offers no such leeway.

In MMA, the fighter’s head is pinned in place, and his or her feet must become square, with no chance to stay in the normal stance. This makes them easy to hit and leaves them vulnerable to cage-wrestling and clinch work. Pettis hasn’t helped himself and even tried for a high-risk wheel kick only a few steps away from the cage against Alvarez, who ducked under and took him down.

Pettis needs open space to operate, and the fence is his kryptonite.

This brings us to Pettis’s second major problem, volume. The former champion has a gift for placing the fight-finishing shot and latching on to lightning-fast submissions. His killer instinct and ability to sense when his opponent is hurt is off the charts. These are special gifts, but in Pettis’s case, they come with a serious drawback: He doesn’t score points, or at least not enough of them to win decisions.

The underlying process that guides Pettis’s actions in the cage is flawed. It sounds obvious, but the fighter who throws more strikes tends to land more, and landing strikes is what wins fights on the judges’ scorecards if the knockout blow or submission doesn’t come. Landing a single fight-ending shot is never a certainty, and Pettis doesn’t have the impulse to just throw; the perfect becomes the enemy of the good.

By any metric, Pettis just doesn’t throw very much. He’s like a hitter in baseball who makes high-quality contact and produces home runs at a high rate relative to his total number of swings, but who tends to be selective about what catches his eye. That might not sound like a bad thing — there’s nothing wrong with laying off pitches outside the zone — but there are no walks in MMA, and in Pettis’s case, it means he watches a lot of strikes go by, too.

Barboza won their fight by hitting singles instead of looking for the home run. The Brazilian landed jabs to the solar plexus and low kicks while mixing up his combinations to the legs and body to set up his shots to the head. Pettis spent the entire fight looking for that home run — 116 of Pettis’s 131 strikes were aimed at Barboza’s head, per Fightmetric — while Barboza was happy to take what Pettis gave him. In other words, Barboza scored points, and the damage came with it.

When Pettis’s game comes together, the result is spectacular. For Pettis to make his approach work, though, the fight has to take place in the middle of the cage, and it has to take place at the measured pace that he prefers. Opponents don’t have to give that to him.

Pettis is one of the greatest talents MMA has ever seen. He’s still young, only 29, and has been a professional for just over nine years. There’s no reason he can’t learn better footwork and up his volume just a bit to make himself more competitive with the division’s elite. It’s also worth noting that dos Anjos, Alvarez, and Barboza are hardly journeymen, and that Pettis has in fact made some improvements to his defensive wrestling and movement in his past several fights. As a parallel, former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos had similar issues in his losses to Cain Velasquez, and seems to have solved them in his last fight.

If Pettis doesn’t fix these fundamental and endemic issues, however, there’s no reason to expect this three-fight losing streak to turn around against elite competition. We’ll forever be left wondering what might have been.

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