The kick is history. In every way.
Benson Henderson still thinks about the superhero ninja move that Anthony Pettis pulled off in the decisive final round of their 2010 fight. He doesn't really want to think about it -- who'd want to dwell on getting knocked to the canvas by such a stupendous maneuver? -- but it's impossible to ignore an iconic mixed martial arts moment that finds its way into pretty much every best-of-the-sport highlight reel. And in the buildup to Saturday night's rematch in the main event of UFC 164 in Milwaukee (10 p.m. ET, PPV), the "Showtime Kick" has been in a perpetual video loop, the highlight of all highlights in the hype-it-up promotional campaign.
Henderson (19-2) lost his WEC lightweight championship to Pettis on that long-ago night. He has since bounced back to become UFC belt holder. Perhaps that redemptive achievement makes it less disheartening for him to accept that the kick lives on. He's also smart enough to understand that an occupational lowlight from three years ago can actually be a good thing for his career this weekend. Good for his recognition as an athlete. Good for his bank account. So "Smooth" is fine with reexamining that damn kick as much as need be. "I wouldn't say it really bothers me watching it over and over again," Henderson said at a prefight press conference on Thursday. "At some point you have to just man up and be able to move on."
Pettis (16-2) has moved on, too. The 26-year-old who puts the art into mixed martial arts is fully aware that goals cannot be reached by living in the past.
That's not to deny that the flashy kick that back in December 2010 made him the final WEC champ, before the fight promotion was absorbed by corporate cousin the UFC, would occupy the most prominent place if "Showtime" kept a combat career scrapbook. One page would have a step-by-step sequence of photos showing Anthony leaping toward the cage, then his right foot pressing against the fence, then the foot pushing off the chain links while his torso twists in the direction of his unsuspecting opponent. You'd turn the page and there would be a shot of Pettis's foot connecting with Henderson's temple. The photo beside it would show the soon-to-be-dethroned champ lying flat on his back, stunned. Then there'd be one taken minutes later in which Pettis is wearing the shiny brass-and-leather belt as his hand is raised in victory.
Pettis can relive that ferocious ballet every day until eternity. On video. He, too, is smart enough to not get caught up in it in real time. Just as the crazy kick haunts Benson, it could have a no-less-troubling effect on Anthony, if he would allow it. You pull off a gravity-defying move at a big moment in a big fight, and people come to expect that out of you every time. Suddenly, winning isn't the only thing. Being spectacular becomes the name of the game.
But Pettis refuses to play that game. "I have a flashy style of fighting," he told SI.com earlier this week. "Things come naturally. I don't need to look for something spectacular. If I do that, the fight might slip away from me."
He knows all about things slipping away. Pettis's transit into the UFC was supposed to take place on a red carpet. His victory over Henderson earned him the promise of something more valuable than a championship strap inscribed with the name of a fight organization that no longer existed. Anthony was moved to the front of the line of contenders for the UFC belt then worn by Frankie Edgar.
The problem was, that line never moved. Edgar and Gray Maynard were engaged in The Hundred Year War, an epic fight and months later an epic rematch, keeping the rest of the 155-pound division at a standstill. Pettis is not one for inertia, though, so he took a fight with Clay Guida. He lost. So eight months later, in February 2012, when he did end up on a fight card with Edgar, Pettis was in a prelim. He finished fighting early enough in the evening that he could shower and go watch a main event in which Frankie would lose the title. To Benson Henderson.
Oh, what a tangled web.
"That was tough to see," Pettis acknowledged. "But I just kept my focus on my own goals."
You'll notice that "Showtime" used the plural when referencing what he expects out of his career. That brings us to the present day and the recent upheaval that set the stage. Pettis has won three straight fights since stumbling against Guida, and the most recent two have been eyebrow-raising. Back on that Edgar vs. Henderson card, Anthony earned a Knockout of the Night bonus for shutting down another rising contender, Joe Lauzon, with a head kick at just 1:21 of the first round. Then, in January, he earned another KO bonus by taking out Donald Cerrone in 2:35.
Pettis was now in position to ask for a title shot, and was granted one. At featherweight. He was scheduled to challenge José Aldo at UFC 163 earlier this month, but a knee injury forced him out of the fight. Then, when Henderson's original opponent for this weekend had to pull out, Pettis, his knee healed, was right there to jump in.
Feartherwight. Lightweight. Pettis doesn't care. He just wants a belt. For now.
"I have a short-term goal and a long-term goal for my career," he said. "The short-term goal is to win a championship. The long-term goal is to be a champion in multiple divisions."
Step 1 comes Saturday night. And when he takes that first stride onto the Bradley Center floor on his way to the octagon, he will be walking among family, friends and neighbors. Pettis grew up on the south side of Milwaukee and still lives and trains in Brew City. He hasn't fought in his hometown for nearly five years, and is excited to perform in front of as many members of his huge extended family who can make it to the arena. But he doesn't expect their presence to make a difference in the fight.
"I give everything no matter where I'm fighting," he said.
But won't it be an advantage to have fans cheering his every move, especially against Henderson, who has managed to win over the cageside judges in each of the seven fights that make up his current winning streak? "Nah," said Pettis. "The last time, we fought in his hometown, and I got the win." He paused. He had more to say. "The judges aren't going to matter. I go for the knockout. Every time. I'm not looking to win by decision. I plan to knock this guy out."
Maybe spectacularly. Maybe not. Whatever comes naturally.