By Bradley Popkin, SI.com
UFC lightweight champion Anthony Pettis and brother Sergio are one of MMA’s most exciting tandems. Anthony captured the lightweight strap from Benson Henderson in August 2013. Sergio, meanwhile, has been building up steam with a 2-1 record in the UFC. Both are coaches on the latest season of The Ultimate Fighter, where they coach the new women of the strawweight division, culminating in a December bout between Anthony and fellow Latin American Gilbert Melendez. The duo showed off their skills at the premier of the Reebok ZJET running sneaker at the UFC gym in FiDi, Manhattan recently and spoke with SI.com about their heritage, careers, diets, injury and the future.
SI.com: What does the Anthony Pettis/Gilbert Melendez fight do for Latin American MMA?
Anthony: Gilbert is a champ in his own right, a Strikeforce vet. He’s fought some of the best, Josh Thomson, Ben Henderson, Diego Sanchez. He’s been in some wars. [He’s of] Mexican descent. It’s going to be huge for the UFC because they’re trying to break into that culture of Puerto Rico, Mexico and Latin America. There’s so many great fighters there from boxing. We dominate; some of the biggest weight classes [had] De la Hoya, Trinidad. You’ve got so many great athletes that come from Central America and Mexico, Puerto Rico. Me and Gil are going to be pushing the fight to those areas. Letting them guys know we’re up here at the top of the division and these guys can do the same exact thing. It’s going to open that door for the UFC, and for me it’s going to put my brain into new cultures. I’m Mexican and Puerto Rican. They’ve got to get behind that and support that one of their own is a UFC champ.
Sergio: I think it’s great to have that in MMA. It’s awesome to see it grow into the Latin communities. They come from tough backgrounds, [both] Mexicans and Puerto Ricans. In boxing they’re killing stuff. They’re expanding. I think it’s going to be big in Mexico and Puerto Rico for sure.
SI.com: Your brother talked about possibly fighting on the planned Mexico card, is that something you’d like to do in the future?
Anthony: I can’t wait for that to happen, man. I wish it would’ve worked out to have my fight in Mexico, that’s my roots. Mexican and Puerto Rican [through] my dad and my mom; I rep on my mom’s side more, so I was more in touch with the Mexican side of my family. To fight in front of my heritage would be amazing. Knowing that the UFC is branching into there, it’s just amazing that the sport has grown this far. We’re all over the place, Japan and now they’re actually hitting Mexico, Puerto Rico all of these places that have these talented fighters. It’s going to be crazy to see what is produced out of there.
SI.com: When did you decide to follow in your brother’s footsteps?
Sergio: Honestly, I never thought I’d be a pro fighter. I always watched my brother fight. The first time I saw him fight was when I was 13. Seeing him perform in the Octagon was awesome. It was in the ring and then the Octagon. After that, I started training. I didn’t take it seriously until I was about 16, 17, when I got out of high school. I turned pro right away. I’m in the UFC now so I’m very blessed to be a part of this with him.
SI.com: How instrumental have you been in Sergio’s UFC run?
Anthony: I wouldn’t say I’m instrumental in it. It’s his own career, man, I don’t push it on him. His run is immature because he’s not at his peak yet. He’s only 20, he doesn’t even have his man strength. He fights on all technique and skill until he finds how good he really is. When he spars with me he’s a beast. If he finds that in the Octagon it’s going to be dangerous. He’ll be one of the guys that can be a champ real easy.
SI.com: Take us through your decision to fight at bantamweight and how your diet played a role.
Sergio: One-hundred-twenty-five [pounds] was hard, man. I was down to like 2% body fat and it was really tough for me, really dangerous. I made the decision to stay at 135. I’m only 20, still growing hopefully [laughs]. I think it’s the right decision for me. My diet is still tough to make 135, I walk around at 160 when I’m not eating clean. Diet wise I’m with Nutrition for Life; Anthony works with them as well. My energy feels great and bantamweight is where I want to stay.
SI.com: Could you talk about your next opponent?
Sergio: I don’t have an opponent scheduled. I’m with Anthony for The Ultimate Fighter, coaching that. I was supposed to fight [in] August but they canceled that just because I’m going to be training with all women, not to say that the women aren’t good, but I wouldn’t be in my usual training camp. I’m guessing either in October or November. I’m trying to get on the Mexico card in November. Hopefully that can work out for me. Performing in front of all my people there would be awesome.
SI.com: Were you cornering Anthony when he won the title?
Sergio: It was crazy, a crazy experience. He [Anthony] threw that cart wheel kick and then got to the floor and just, man, he was destroying him with body kicks. All of a sudden he pulls off this submission. You can’t hear Ben Henderson tap, no one heard it. The ref just stopped the fight and we were all confused. I look at my coach and he’s just like, ‘Oh man, he won the fight.’ Anthony goes crazy. My first time cornering him.
Anthony: It was crazy. Milwaukee is a small place, but they get behind their sports. The Green Bay Packers, the Brewers and the Bucks, and now they have Anthony Pettis. It's cool that the city is supporting. They know that I was born and raised in Milwaukee, the south side, right in the ghetto. I think they really support that. They know that I had a hard past. My dad was killed when I was 16 in Milwaukee, across the street from my house, a house robbery. They know the story, it’s motivating.
SI.com: The picture you put up on Instagram after the fight was touching.
Anthony: The night of [UFC 164], I went to his grave right after the bout. Right after I won it, I drove straight to his grave and showed him what I won.
SI.com: What would it be like for a fighter to be able to fight in the mecca of sports?
Man, Madison Square Garden, to even headline a card like that. That’s another place it needs to happen. I’m not sure exactly why it’s taking so long, but the UFC is not going anywhere. It’s a safe sport, it produces income wherever it goes. It sells out hotels and arenas. I think it’s only a matter of time. You have a UFC gym where kids are training to become UFC fighters, let’s give them a place to shoot for. Two of the champs are from this area. Let’s bring MMA to New York. It will happen eventually, it’s all logistics.
SI.com: What do you think about NFL athletes taking up MMA-style routines?
Sergio: I think it’s awesome. They kind of go hand in hand with the explosiveness. I would say wrestling and football go together. I train at a gym, Next Level in Waukesha, Wisconsin, and we have J.J. Watt there and we’re doing the same stuff he’s doing. He’s just a lot bigger than us. Actually, one of our coaches is out coaching with us on the TUF show. They do the same stuff with football players and basketball players. We’re not just MMA fighters, we’re athletes. We’re trying to get better and get to that next level.
SI.com: What’s your outlook on the future of the 155-pound division?
Anthony: It's a stacked division. You’ve got guys fighting for top spots. Donald Cerrone [fought] Jim Miller Wednesday night; Ben Henderson is fighting again; Gilbert Melendez; Khabib [Nurmagomedov]; there are so many good guys. If I look at this division as a whole, I’m going crazy because there are so many challengers that could challenge me for my belt. It’s the most stacked division in the UFC, and for me to be sitting atop of it is amazing.
SI.com: When would you drop down in weight?
Anthony: I won’t drop down anymore because I’m the champ. The only reason I wanted to do it before was because I wanted to get a belt. I wanted a belt so bad. I feel comfortable at 155, it’s my home. Unless, the UFC wants a super fight [with] me and [Jose] Aldo. If it makes sense for me financially and I’m healthy enough, I’ll do it.
SI.com: Who wins in December?
Sergio: Anthony, of course man. Melendez isn’t touching him. He’s saying he could walk through his kicks. He’s a really good guy, no bad blood. He’s a tough opponent; he’s got great hands. Good boxing, I would say, and decent wrestling. One thing I see is he really doesn’t block kicks, and that’s where Anthony is the showtime. I feel Melendez is going to have a hard time reacting to Anthony’s kicks. Anthony is very tricky. He beat the best of the best. Cerrone is killing stuff right now and Anthony made him look like a rookie out there. It’s going to be a good fight.
Anthony: I’m going first round. I’m looking for a knockout or submission. I don’t want it to get out of the first round. My last three fights have ended in the first round. Everybody’s doubting me; I have a lot to prove. I want to get in and get the job done. I don’t get paid for overtime.