May 8, 2017

UFC 211: It’s About to Get Real -- Sergio Pettis vs. Henry Cejudo (Part 1: Out of His Brother's Shadow)

By Schwan Humes

March 14, 2015 was the last time Sergio Pettis tasted defeat, in a fairly one-sided loss to Ryan Benoit at UFC 185. After that loss, questions reemerged regarding his standing in the division and his ability to meet the lofty standards set by his brother, former UFC Lightweight Champion Anthony Pettis. With a series of uneven performances in wins and clear-cut defeats in his losses, the younger Pettis was faced with some hard choices if he had any hopes of becoming a legitimate contender and taking any sort of step outside of his brother’s shadow.

Fortunately for Pettis, the decisions he made were wise, the resolve he showed was steel, and the improvement he showed was not just impressive but consistent. The fruits of his labor were demonstrated in every performance since that night, as he went from non-contender to fringe contender to legitimate contender, winning three fights in a row over an ascending level of opposition and putting himself in pole position for a title shot.

In his way is another ballyhooed fighter, a fighter whose hype and professional accomplishments have all the markers of a UFC champion, a fighter who much like Pettis has struggled with uneven performances and devastatingly one-sided defeats. That fighter is former flyweight title challenger and Olympic Gold Medalist Henry Cejudo. Cejudo has had many battles -- with the scales, with a transition to mixed martial arts, and with his peers (Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez). And while Cejudo is coming off consecutive losses to the aforementioned fighters, the sudden improvement in his focus, deliberate aggression, offensive efficiency, and defensive awareness have put the MMA world and the flyweight division on notice that Cejudo could be everything the experts said he could be when he started this journey.

This weekend at UFC 211, these two fighters will enter the Octagon to face one another in hopes of capturing the opportunity for legitimacy and championship gold. But each fighter won’t be the only opponent the other will be facing; on Saturday night they will be fighting to meet and exceed the expectations that have followed them during the length of their respective mixed martial arts careers -- Pettis as a result of being related to MMA royalty, and Cejudo as a direct result of his Olympic pedigree.

Sergio Pettis favors his brother Anthony in many ways: the confidence, the comfort in the cage, the familiarity that comes with a lifetime in martial arts, the warrior spirit, and the physical features. But in one key area Sergio is completely unlike his older brother: Talent. Now make no mistake, Sergio Pettis is a talented fighter, very much so. But while Sergio has talent, Anthony IS a talent; that adjustment in phrasing results in a HUGE difference in how they prepare, where their focus is, how developed their games are, and how effective they can and will be in the cage.

Anthony is a dynamic athlete -- strong, fluid, long, balanced, explosive, powerful, physically durable, and capable of generating huge amounts of power in spots. These traits have defined Anthony and made him worthy of the name “Showtime,” as he has been capable of making fundamental techniques devastating, and taking unrealistic techniques and making them surgically effective. Part of that is a matter of skill , patience, depth, and the awareness that comes from a lifetime of training, but an even bigger part of it, the part that allows him to do these things against the very best fighters in the world (Gilbert Melendez, Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, etc) is his talent. That talent masks clear technical limitations and a lack of disciplined strategy; it’s a luxury that made Anthony a superstar and a champion in both WEC and the UFC. On the downside it is this talent, this crutch, that has contributed to his rather precipitous downfall.

Which brings us to Sergio Pettis. I fully believe a lot of his performances suffered because of the weight of Anthony’s accomplishments; people believed Sergio to be the next “Showtime,” and more times than not he tried to the best of his ability to be that. But it didn’t work, not because of a lack of craft, IQ, and discipline, it didn’t work due to a lack of athletic talent and physical durability. The margin for error the elder brother so often leaned on didn’t exist for Sergio -- he couldn’t turn a fight around on a dime, he couldn’t soak up steady offense or big spot offense. He wasn’t Anthony, and trying to fight like him wasn’t just resulting in ho hum wins, it was creating painful and career-damaging losses, putting even more pressure on a fighter who was brought in to be the next evolution of his world champion brother.

Fortunately Sergio came to his senses and began to fight with controlled, consistent aggression. Using a patient and disciplined approach, plus a renewed focus on defensive awareness and technically layered offensive efficiency, Pettis turned his fortunes around, changing from an inexperienced poor man’s Anthony Pettis into a seasoned and effective Sergio Pettis, winning two in a row after his loss to Alex Caceres at UFC on FOX 10, and bouncing back from his loss to Benoit with his current three-fight win streak.

Sergio Pettis is a craftsman, partly due to temperament, and in large part due to physical limitation. He has developed a complete, balanced, and structured fight style, one that highlights his understanding of the subtle nuance of combat while downplaying his lack of fight-changing power and athleticism. This version of Sergio is controlled in his aggression, consistent in his offense, and patient in his application. Instead of looking for moments to explode, trying to create dynamic spots of offense, Pettis stays busy, actively using his footwork to put him in position to ply his trade. This provides him with the best options available in regards to offensive efficiency, as he exploits both the stances of his opposition and the entries and exits created by his borderline masterful use of angles.

Sergio’s most consistent weapon is his jab; it’s a multi-purpose tool that allows him to gauge distance, disrupt his opponent’s ability to press or be offensive, act as a line of defense, be used as a feint to find patterns, and be an offensive weapon independently or as a table-setter for his offense as a whole. While his jab isn’t as proven as some of the great jabs in mixed martial arts -- largely due to the fact he hasn’t had to test it against top-end talents -- it is every bit as versatile, intelligent, and flexible as the ones used by MMA stalwarts Pat Curran, Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and “King Mo” Lawal. A signature of Sergio Pettis’ style is activity, as he often sets an outstanding pace and volume while never diminishing his accuracy, technique, efficiency, or creativity. He has shown a penchant for using a variety of textbook and aesthetically pleasing kick-punch combinations that aren’t destructive, but are extremely well set up and delivered.

On top of his obvious striking pedigree and experience, Pettis has also shown a knack for a limited but consistent wrestle and grapple game, using his footwork, his angles, and his pivots to limit opportunities for opponents to cut off the cage and get in position to attempt takedowns. They also allow him clean exits that get him off the cage and into open space when forced into grappling exchanges. This forces opponents to reset and work to regain the positions necessary to attempt takedowns. More importantly, when an opponent actually attempts the takedown, the angles and pivots allow him to efficiently and consistently defend and escape shot, trip, and throw attempts. When he can’t defend them, Pettis has shown the awareness on the ground to control opponents in spots and create scrambles to get top position for ground and pound or submissions -- worst case scenario, he can get back to his feet to force the fight back to his preferred place of combat.

An often overlooked benefit of Pettis’ footwork is the opportunities it creates for grappling exchanges to disrupt an opponent’s attempt to pressure him or use physicality to overwhelm him. He has shown an ability to use trips and shots to get guys down to disrupt their pressure and volume, providing him with an extra line of defense against opponents who attempt to take advantage of his lack of durability, power, and physical strength on the feet.

Lack of physical strength, power and durability are three sources for concern for Pettis, as Cejudo is one of the finest all-around athletes in mixed martial arts. The gold medalist, Olympic athlete has few peers in regards to physical strength, explosiveness, and power, which is bad news for Pettis, who has been bullied, dropped (three times in eight fights), and stopped by athletes much less dominant than Cejudo. Although Pettis’ experience and pedigree gives him a leg up in regards to striking exchanges, the huge gap in physical talent, especially as it pertains to durability and power, level the playing field. And Pettis, for all his activity and fundamental application, has never been able to consistently or effectively damage his opponents, while being more than vulnerable to damage. This means that Pettis doesn’t want to get into a firefight with Cejudo, nor does he want to engage in a free-flowing transitional fight either. Both fights greatly favor the physical tools that earmarked Cejudo as a future champion, as both fight plans involve being engaged in a chaotic fight that will expose Pettis’ physical limitations.

What Sergio Pettis needs to use is his seasoning; though he is younger than Cejudo and hasn’t faced the caliber of opposition Cejudo has, Pettis is far and away the more experienced striker and mixed martial arts fighter. Cejudo is still developing his identity as a fighter, and while his last fight showed great strides in the right direction, it still showed that in key spots Cejudo is still more competitor than fighter and more athlete than mixed martial artist. When the pace is quickened and he is allowed to get into the spots he works best with, i.e. the clinch, Cejudo is a handful when it comes to strikes and wrestling. That being said, Cejudo hasn’t completely mastered the finer points of footwork, feints, and setups that allow him to get to those positions and stay in those positions. Much like Sergio’s brother, a lot of Cejudo’s ability to be effective on the feet and in wrestling is directly related to the physical tools he has been gifted. He is still a work in progress with regard to learning how to maximize those tools so that they are enhancers of his skills instead of crutches that make up for a lack of them.

The two things that have to be controlled for Sergio Pettis to win are pace and place. Pettis can’t allow Cejudo to force a pace that highlights his aggression and athleticism. Of equal importance is where the fight takes place. Cejudo has key spots he likes to work in or from; first off, Pettis has to limit Cejudo’s ability to get to those spots. Secondly and most importantly, Pettis must fight Cejudo at every range in every spot, as conceding any range will limit his biggest advantages -- versatility, skill, and depth of ability. Once those things aren’t factors, the fight becomes a matter of who is bigger, stronger, faster, and tougher, a fight that Pettis will lose ten times out of ten.

This weekend at UFC 211, Sergio Pettis will either fall at the hands of another bigger, stronger, and more athletically gifted opponent, and once again find himself in the middle of the pack in the division, or he will rise to the challenge and win, thereby stepping out of his brother’s shadow and establishing himself as a legitimate flyweight title contender. In Part 2, we will look more closely at the other side of this fight, the Olympic gold medalist Cejudo. It’s about to get real for both of them.

UFC 211: Miocic vs. Dos Santos 2 takes place May 13, 2017 at American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.

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