December 21, 2010

Anthony Pettis stood at the center of the cage in Glendale, Ariz., late last Thursday night, his newly won WEC lightweight championship belt shimmering around his waist. He was being interviewed for the Versus telecast about how, at age 23, he'd just dethroned Benson Henderson in the main event of WEC 53, the MMA organization's final event before being absorbed into the UFC.

The inevitable question was about the stupendous flying kick he'd pulled off with about a minute to go in a close fight. Pettis had leapt toward the fence, pushed off with his right foot as if the cage were a chain-link trampoline, and swung around the same foot to floor a stunned Henderson with a head kick. The crowd, the TV commentators and no doubt many watching at home were stunned, too, as have those who've watched it on YouTube in the days that followed. The highlight-reel move secured a unanimous-decision victory -- and with it, not just the WEC belt but a guaranteed shot at the UFC title as well.

When Pettis was asked where the game-changing kick had come from, you half-expected him to credit a scene from a Jackie Chan movie. Instead, Pettis offered up a different name. "Duke Roufus," he said, citing his trainer. "We practice that all the time, just having fun in the cage. That dude's the man."

Forty-year-old Jeff "Duke" Roufus is a former world kickboxing champion who heads Milwaukee's Duke Roufus Martial Arts Academy, home base of Pettis, Alan Belcher, Pat Barry, and Matt Mitrione, among others. It's a gym full of deadly strikers.'s Jeff Wagenheim caught up with Roufus to get an insider's perspective on the kick heard 'round the world. You were still in Arizona the morning after the fight, I'm sure, but did you get a call from your gym back in Wisconsin saying there were guys lined up around the block, all wanting to train with you?

Duke Roufus: We did get some inqueries from people wanting to come down. People are excited about Anthony's success. When you saw that kick, what was the first thought that went through your head?

Roufus: Oh. My. God. I cannot believe he had the courage to pull that off. In the fifth round of a title fight! It was amazing. I can teach people all sorts of moves in the gym, but you have to have the heart to do it in the arena. And that's why, years ago, we aptly named Anthony "Showtime." You mentioned the courage it took to pull off that move. What about the creativity? How do you teach that?

Roufus: I credit my students, many of whom are black belt strikers. They listen to what I have to say, and they also bring their ideas to the table, their special skills, their creativity. We're like a think tank. We're all very well versed in striking, and we put stuff together. Anthony said that kick of his was something he learned in the gym. So you guys actually work on crazy stuff like that?

Roufus: Yeah, we do. That kick was inspired by the movie Ong-Bak, an old school Muay Thai movie. The star is Tony Jaa, who does a bunch of crazy stunts and strikes and tricks, all without any wires. There's another movie with him called The Protector that's also pretty cool. In a movie, though, you can pull off stuff like that because the other fighter is really an actor working off a script, and if you mess up, there's always another take. But in a professional fight? A title fight? In the fifth and deciding round? That was a surprise.

Roufus: My dad, who was my first martial arts instructor, taught me that one of the most dangerous elements in fighting is the element of surprise attack. It's very important to know when to let that surprise attack go. Anthony timed it perfectly. He sure did. And Henderson, who had done a good job of defending kicks all fight long, was caught flatfooted.

Roufus: Yeah, it was like an Allen Iverson crossover dribble. He got him looking one way, and -- boom! -- he took him the other way. Afterward, Pettis publicly gave you credit. How did that feel?

Roufus: I think the world of Anthony. He's a great martial artist, a lifelong martial artist. When he appeared on the MTV show The World of Jenks, what I loved was that Anthony was portrayed as exactly the person he is. He has great character. He's already talking about the things he did badly in the fight and what he wants to get better at to win the UFC championship. That must be just what you want to hear. You don't want your guy to be too satisfied with himself, right?

Roufus: Oh, absolutely. But he's so down to earth. He just wants to be the best Anthony Pettis he can be. I've always believed, and still believe, that he has the greatness inside of him to be a GSP-type character. That's high praise. But you've always touted Anthony as a fighter, haven't you?

Roufus: Yes, I have. If you watch the TV clip of the kick, you can see Urijah Faber sitting in the front row, and immediately after the kick he turned around was saying something to the people behind him. Well, I had told Urijah, a few months ago when he was here in Milwaukee, that Anthony was doing stuff like this. And he must have told the people he was sitting with that Anthony was going to pull off something crazy. He later told me, "I Babe Ruthed it, I called the shot." What was it about Anthony Pettis that got you excited so early in his career?

Roufus: He's always shown the skill, the hunger, the desire, and the intestinal fortitude to succeed. In one of his early pro fights here in Milwaukee -- you can see this on YouTube -- Anthony got taken down and landed on his shoulder, dislocating it. He was still able to get himself free from under his opponent and climb to his feet, his right arm dangling at his side. And within seconds he head-kicked the guy and knocked him out.

But aside from his skill and toughness, Anthony has the humility to keep learning. That's why, ever since he came onto the scene in the WEC, I've been telling people that he's the next GSP. I think people aren't going to doubt me anymore. He's clearly a gifted athlete, which has its obvious advantages. But does that present any challenges for you as a trainer?

Roufus: Some guys who are great athletes don't do the extra work. They can get by with their athleticism, so they don't work on all those little extra details that make you a champion. How detail-oriented is Anthony?

Roufus: Very. He trains like a guy who isn't very gifted or talented. He is willing to put in the work that I demand. And your reputation is that of a pretty demanding guy.

Roufus: Absolutely. You know why I don't have a lot of fighters in the big show? Because I'm a hard-driving coach. I come from a background of having a dad who was a Vince Lombardi-type coach. My grandfather was a sergeant major in the military. So in my home growing up, the holy trinity was Lomardi, MacArthur and Patton. I push for greatness. One great thing about Pettis -- although it was overshadowed by the crazy kick -- was that he got the job done not just with his striking but on the mat as well. How have you worked on his all-around game?

Roufus: People talk about my striking, because I was a kickboxer. But my philosophy of fighting is that it's like warfare, where you have to have a great army, navy, air force and marines. Having just one doesn't cut it. When I was a kickboxer, I wanted to be good at knees, elbows, punches, kicks, the clinch game, the inside game, the outside game, everything.

As a trainer, I see myself like a guy who used to play middle linebacker but now is a head coach. You wouldn't see me focusing only on the defensive secondary. You'd see me focusing on every part of the game. So you just emphasize to your fighters the importance of being well-rounded?

Roufus: It's more than that. Anthony has gone against two highly decorated wrestlers in his last two fights. He put Henderson on his butt, and he took Shane Roller down more than Shane took him down. And that plays into the psychological part of this game: There's nothing worse than when someone beats you at what you're best at. It really damages a guy's confidence. I'm a firm believer in winning the psychological war as well as the physical war. Anthony played with the psyche of not just Ben Henderson but the cageside judges too, it seemed, with that wild kick in the fifth round. That had to leave a big imprint on the judges' minds as they marked their scorecards.

Roufus: Before the fifth round, I was really pushing Anthony to have a big round. With some of the decisions we've seen recently in mixed martial arts, I wanted him to go for a finish. And he went for it. Now he gets the UFC champion. In about a week, you'll find out which fighter you'll be preparing Anthony for. What do you think of Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard?

Roufus: I think Anthony matches up even better with those guys than he did with Benson Henderson. How so?

Roufus: I'm not going to say why, but I'm more confident in either of those matchups than I was in this last one. We know Anthony Pettis will put up a fight, no matter who s across the cage. Can we expect him to also put on a show?

Roufus: His name is "Showtime," and really, that's what I train all my guys to do. I'm a big boxing fan, and no one's jumping for joy while watching a Floyd Mayweather fight, saying, "Look at that footwork! Look at that jab and grab!" People want to be entertained. Why did Michael Jordan dunk a basketball the way he did? Because he wanted to entertain the fans. Fighting is sports entertainment. Anthony's kick made a lot of fans say, "Holy you-now-what!" That's the reaction I want for my fighters. I want my guys to be human highlight reels.

You May Like