Anthony Pettis walks away after crushing Stephen Thompson with a superman punch at UFC Fight Night 148

Anthony Pettis came into the fight against Stephen Thompson as the biggest underdog on the card and with good reason.

His stellar lightweight days behind him, the Rafael Dos Anjos beatdown marked a huge downswing in his career. Coming into this fight, Pettis had gone 3-6 in his last nine fights. Yes, he lost to top-flight contenders. But losing to six of them raises a lot of questions as to his place in the division. His wrestling was too weak to handle grapplers yet his striking was too weak to handle fighters like Dustin Poirier.

On the other hand, no one beat Stephen Thompson convincingly since his early days against Matt Brown. His lengthy counter-striking bamboozled everyone but Tyron Woodley and Darren Till, the latter who simply walked through him. Fun fact, I actually started writing an article called “Does anyone think Anthony Pettis stands a chance?” but scrapped it.

Thank God. So how did he do it?

Muay Thai stance

At his best, Anthony Pettis prefers a hybrid karate stance. It gives him room to breathe, move and wind up his destructive kicks. But perhaps due to his wrestling weaknesses or the fact that Thompson was the superior karate practitioner, Pettis approached this fight with much tighter Muay Thai stance.

As a result, he was able to sit down on the few good punches he landed in the first round. Even considering the higher weight, the difference showed. He couldn’t head kick as effectively, but his leg kicks (we’ll get to this later) landed harder than in previous fights.

The downside, of course, was that in this stance Pettis stood in the range of Thompson’s strikes. This is expected; Thompson is the larger man after all. But Pettis isn’t a natural boxer like his brother, and it shows. Without head movement, Thompson repeatedly split the Pettis guard with sharp jabs that bloodied his face.

But, as it turns out, the tradeoff was worth it.

Leg kicks

I mentioned that the Pettis stance allowed him to dig in with leg kicks. But what surprised fans were the types of leg kicks he was landing.

For leg kickers, the easiest target is the lead leg. It’s closest to them, offers the most angles of attack and heavy punchers put a lot of weight on it. In turn, most fighters condition their lead leg disproportionately. Even fighters who shift stances often have a preferred lead leg that they’ll protect.

Well, Pettis found a way to hack the rear leg of Thompson.  Kicks to the rear leg must be executed differently compared to those against the lead leg; you can’t kick “inside” or “outside” in the traditional sense. But what you can do is kick across the opponent’s body. If you step in deep enough, you can catch the opponent’s rear leg on the high-quad area.

Despite a couple of times where it looked like he kicked Thompson square across his cup, Pettis managed to get the left leg multiple times. Considering the fight ended in the second round, it’s hard to tell the effect they had. But Thompson disliked them regardless and he had trouble countering them.

Curse of length

Larger, lengthier fighters have obvious advantages. In a game of hitting and not getting hit, they have a range at which only they can land blows. Great out-fighters can make dangerous opponents look downright foolish by the sheer lopsidedness of the damage output.

But advantage breeds complacency, as we’ve seen in several upsets in recent memory.

Many lengthy MMA fighters escape danger by putting their arms out and skipping backward with their chin high. Their enormous stride length helps put so much distance that it’s rarely punished. But there are a handful of scenarios in which this distance goes awry with disastrous consequences.

The first and simplest scenario is if the offensive fighter explodes forward. Jorge Masvidal illustrated this perfectly last week when he dove forward with a shifting left hook to catch Darren Till completely unaware. The second is if the rangy fighter whiffs on a strike, leaving them too deep to retreat. Luke Rockhold tried to skip backward after a whiffed jab in his rematch with Bisping, but retreated into bulls-eye range for Bisping’s overhand left.

The Pettis KO was a bit of both.

By bouncing off the cage, Pettis messed with Thompson’s sense of distance. He “retreated” from the kick only to spring back into position a fraction of a second later. By the time Thompson’s brain registered the danger, Pettis exploded forward with the superman punch. Thompson didn’t retreat into the punch like Rockhold or Till; he didn’t get a chance to move at all. If you watch the replay, Thompson’s lead leg is off the ground when Pettis cracked him. He didn’t even have time to complete his backstep before Pettis advanced because of how quickly he closed the distance.

Like his submission victory over Charles Oliveira, Pettis bought himself time in a division we didn’t think he’d succeed in. While his success may be limited, it’s good to know that Pettis will sit on his heels and bang when necessary. Maybe a fight with Conor McGregor isn’t so outlandish after all.

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