For more than 24 minutes at World Extreme Cagefighting 53, Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis had fought to a virtual draw. Pettis was controlling the standup portion of the fight, while Henderson was able to take him down and work effectively from the top position. It was a thrilling fight, one that was too close to call as it entered its final minute. Both were covered in sweat, exhausted, fighting not just for the WEC lightweight title but for a UFC main event spot.
When I was in Army Basic Training we had a Drill Sergeant from Africa who was always promising to appear in the middle of the night "coming out of the ceiling like freaking Spiderman." That never happened - he just routinely barreled into the barracks like a mad rhino and made everyone do pushups. Pettis on the other hand - he was a super hero personified. Like a movie ninja or a Velociraptor, Pettis didn't wait for the bell, meekly asking the judges "Sirs, could you please render a verdict?" He leaped into the cage, pushing off with his right foot, springing into the air and landing a kick right into Henderson's jaw - with that same right foot.
When I talked to Pettis's teammate Matt Mitrione about the kick a month later we were both still buzzing. It was that kind of moment. "Bro," he asked me. "You've tried it haven't you?"
Mitrione, a 250 pound heavyweight, had practiced the kick a hundred times at trainer Duke Roufus's gym. I'd tried it to, using a baseball backstop as my personal MMA laboratory. The truth is, the kick itself isn't that hard to execute. Anyone with a modicum of athletic ability can pull it off - in a vacuum.
But to time it perfectly? To actually land it on someone not just looking to block it, but to punish you very badly if things take a turn for the worst? To knock someone down? To have the chutzpah to try it in the final minute of the most important fight of your life? Who but Anthony Pettis would dare try?
"Will I do it in the last minute of a championship fight? I don't know if I'm that creative or that witty of a fighter," Mitrione admitted. "Wasn't that kick phenomenal? It was so beautiful."
Even his opponent was in awe.
"Oh yeah, it's a once in a lifetime type of move, pretty flashy and everything," Henderson told SBNation's Luke Thomas in an exclusive interview. " Looking back on it, yeah it's really amazing that anyone could get off that type of kick, let alone fifth round end of the fight, about a minute left in the fight. Under those circumstances it's even more amazing."
Thomas credits Pettis's coach "Duke" Roufus with leading mixed martial arts striking into a new Renaissance, taking the work of legends like Mirco "Cro Cop" Filopovic and Maurice Smith to new heights. Roufus, who has trained for decades in kickboxing and boxing all over the world, was the first striker to figure out the cage can be a tool. Grapplers had determined this years prior, using their feet to turn themselves around or to push off and attempt escapes from the bottom. Strikers had used it primarily as a lean-to, resting and blocking takedowns. Roufus is changing the game.
"The cage in MMA was just a new way for me to find a way not to be bored. Stuff started coming up. I love the movie Ong-Bak and the next thing you know, we have all these new techniques. It was fun. I have a very cavalier, fun group of guys," Roufus told MMA Mania's Brian Hemminger. "...At our gym, because the guys throw so hard, they’re so relaxed that they just don’t care. They try new things in the gym."
Things didn't quite work out as planned for Pettis after his amazing debut on the world stage. His UFC title shot, promised by President Dana White himself, never materialized. Champion Frankie Edgar fought Gray Maynard to a draw and Pettis was left outside in the cold when an immediate rematch was booked.
Instead he'll be fighting UFC stalwart Clay Guida this weekend. It's not as thrilling as making your UFC debut in a title fight - what could be. And there's no way of knowing if Pettis has something special in store for the veteran star. In fact, Pettis may never top that singular moment in his entire career. It was a kick for the ages and one of the 52 things I love about MMA.