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On UFC: Anthony Pettis' surprising loss to Rafael dos Anjos

By Ben Miller (@BenMillerben_miller@mac.com)

It was all going well for about thirty seconds.  The heavily favored champion circled the challenger.  No serious strikes were thrown, but the expectation was clear: the champion would find a way -- via submission or standing -- to outclass a man who had been beaten several times before.  

Then the shot hit.  One shot to the head; cleaner than it was supposed to be.  The heavily favored champion would get hit, and he would not recover.  Not on that night; not in his career.

The champion was Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira.  He came into his fight on December 27, 2008 as the most resilient of champions.  He left as a shot fighter who would be finished four more times in his next seven fights.

The story of Minotauro has become a sad one.  Twelve years ago today (but not tomorrow, as he lost decisively to a young Fedor Emelianenko on March 16, 2003) he was one of the two most admired fighters in MMA history (with Kazushi Sakuraba being the other).  Now he is essentially being paid not to fight, as UFC President Dana White would prefer that he retires.  We are a long way from that thirty seconds before the Frank Mir uppercut in 2008.

If the story of peak Minotauro sounds familiar, that's because it is.  Countless athletes at numerous ages in dozens of sports have suffered the same fate.  They were champions, and then all of sudden they got old after one big shot.  For Andy Roddick, it was a mental failing at age 26 after Roger Federer outlasted him in a Wimbledon Final.  For Barry Bonds, he still hadn't gotten hit with that one big shot when he decided to walk away from Major League Baseball at age 43.  

Anthony Pettis -- all twenty-eight years of him -- may have taken his one big shot on Saturday night.  Rafael Dos Anjos snapped off a stiff left, Pettis's right eye took the brunt of it and the aggressive, innovative Milwaukeean who had received so much adoration among hardcore MMA fans was gone. SuperPettis was dead, at least for one night.  It is possible that he (at least, the best version of he) is gone forever.

Taking one big shot can be a career-altering experience, but it isn't always.  Boxing fans may recall the history of Miguel Cotto.  He took a relentless beating at the hands of Antonio Margarito (who, most likely, was using illegal methods to increase the impact of his punches during that fight) in 2008.  The HBO commentary team all but read the eulogy for Cotto's career as an elite fighter, but here we are.  Cotto remains a main eventer in 2015.  Same for Pau Gasol in basketball and Philip Rivers in football.  Both survived taking one (or more than one) big shot.

Maybe (hopefully) Anthony Pettis will rebound as well.  He is younger and has fewer fights than most shot fighters.  He lost a one-sided, shutout decision before (to Clay Guida), and in that case he responded with five dynamic performances in a row and a UFC lightweight championship.  Maybe (hopefully) another rebound will happen.

This one, however, seemed worse than the last one.  Guida out-pointed Pettis.  Dos Anjos beat him up.  

Pettis is a tough guy, but he also fashions himself more than just a fighter.  For a time he held interests in a downtown Milwaukee sports bar, and he occasionally sits courtside at Milwaukee Bucks games.  The gym he trains at also hosts CM Punk.  None of those facts alone proves that Pettis is an immense talent with a weakness for stardom (the types that often peak early).  But look at him.  What do you see?  Is this a guy who wants to be Floyd Mayweather, but has the talent of Adrian Broner (a guy who beats on midcarders, but will never be regarded as a top champion)?  It's easy to think so.

In an alternate universe, this discussion isn't happening.  In Bizarro UFC, Pettis moved his head a half an inch to avoid that big shot, then pelted Dos Anjos for a few rounds and won with a rear-naked choke.  We all talked about how underappreciated Pettis is compared to other dominant champions, and we wondered if he's a lighter weight Jon Jones who just took a little bit longer to assume his throne.

Maybe it is best to stay cool, then.  Maybe asking whether that left from Dos Anjos was the one shot that toppled peak Pettis is too much.  

We can draw some conclusions, though.  Anthony Pettis is not a lighter weight Jon Jones.  He is not the type of freak that can do whatever he wants and still humiliate -- not just beat -- second-best fighters like Daniel Cormier.  Anthony Pettis needs to be a grinder.  He can go to Bucks games and own restaurants and host ex-(for the moment, at least) pro wrestlers, but he has to work like Chris Weidman.  There is no shame in holding a belt because you grind harder than everyone else,  But to a fighter who fashions himself Special, it will take a change in attitude to overcome that one big shot.