Anthony Pettis is renowned for his flashy moves. The man called “Showtime” has built a reputation of leaping, spinning, cartwheeling, and acrobatically springing off the cage with a wide variety of strikes. With moves like this, and this in his repertoire, it’s no surprise that the simpler, more understated aspects of Pettis’ game tend to get overlooked. After all, the UFC isn’t about to fill a highlight reel with subtle angles and footwork when they have material like this to work with.
It’s impossible not to acknowledge that the big, flashy, unorthodox techniques are the main reasons for Anthony Pettis’ popularity–but it’s the little things that make him truly great.
Feints are easily one of the most underappreciated aspects of combat sports–likely because they don’t look very interesting. They are, however, the building block that makes the interesting things work.
Pettis is an excellent example of the value of feints, particularly because he hasn’t always been very good at using them. Prior to his run to the UFC title, “Showtime” very often relied on his vast array of unpredictable, unorthodox attacks to surprise his opponents. Against the level of competition Pettis was facing in the first stage of his career, it usually worked: of his eight fights before entering the WEC, he won six via knockout.
Then came a man whom most MMA fans have probably forgotten: Bart Palaszewski. Palaszewski was a veteran of 43 fights when Pettis fought him at WEC 45. Now retired, his is not a name that resonates with the average fan, but those who know the name almost always remember him as the first man to beat Anthony Pettis.
If there’s one thing you don’t want to do against a well-traveled journeyman like Palaszewski, it’s expecting to surprise him. In his second fight in the big leagues, Pettis found himself, for the first time, against an opponent who didn’t even flinch at Showtime’s flashy kicks–one who could eat a spinning backfist and keep coming forward, exchange punches, and pin Pettis down without falling prey to his dangerous submission game. In Palaszewski, Pettis found his first big wake-up call.
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1. Palaszewski moves forward, and Pettis retreats, waiting for an opening.
2. Palaszewski leads with a faked low kick, which Pettis attempts to both check and counter with a left hook.
3. Palaszewski shoots in under the hook . . .
4. . . . snatches a single leg . . .
5. . . . and transitions to Pettis’ back.
So what could Pettis have done differently? You can probably guess that the answer is “feint,” and indeed Pettis has become one of the most consistent and most convincing feint-throwers in the sport. Before we look at his improvements, however, let’s first cover the basics.
WHAT IS A FEINT?
Feinting is one of those things you’ll often hear talked about but which is rarely given a thorough explanation. Essentially, a feint is a suggestion, and a question. It is the implication of threat, and the primary means of determining the opponent’s response to that threat. To see what I mean, let’s take a look at one of the best feinters in combat sports, Juan Manuel Marquez. Here he is throwing a simple feint at Juan Diaz.
This simple movement from Marquez is a question. Bringing his head forward and to the left, Marquez suggests his notorious overhand right, a punch which has knocked down and/or out such iron-jawed luminaries as Mike Alvarado, Joel Casamayor, and Manny Pacquiao. This suggestion serves to halt Diaz’s otherwise nonstop forward momentum, but it is also a question. “How do you respond to this?” Marquez asks his opponent, and Diaz, wary of Marquez’s power, answers–even if he doesn’t realize it.
Marquez catalogs the information and, after another round of questioning, puts the data to work.
This time, Marquez follows his feint with a punch. The blow is not arbitrary, but perfectly calculated to capitalize on Diaz’s reaction to the feint. Just as before, Diaz dips and rotates slightly to his right, so as to brace himself and place his left glove in the way of the expected right hand. As intended, he drops right into the path of Marquez’s left uppercut. Once it lands, Marquez goes to work, stringing together a combination as only he can, before resetting to plan his next assault.
As I wrote in my most recent breakdown of UFC heavyweight Mark Hunt, a fight is like a conversation. Every movement is both question and answer, and the smart fighter manipulates the dialogue to his advantage.
Now back to the lightweight champ.
Anthony Pettis is no longer the fighter who waited impotently for Bart Palaszewski to attack him. That approach left Pettis in the dark, a passive observer to the conversation of the fight. By waiting on Palaszewski to lead, Pettis allowed his opponent to seize the initiative. Fast and observant as he is, Pettis was still sometimes able to counter his opponent effectively, but he was stuck in a pattern of answering questions without asking any of his own. As a result, his counter strikes were mere guesses, rather than the calculated, anticipated replies he uses today.
Compare that to Pettis’ approach to his recent bout with perennial contender Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone.
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1. As Cerrone stalks forward, Pettis moves in to intercept him.
2. He attacks with a throwaway left hand, only meant to suss out Cerrone’s response. Cerrone extends his right arm and parries the punch with his right hand.
3. Pettis resets, satisfied that he has the correct response to Cerrone’s defense.
4. He steps in once again.
5. And launches into a left kick. His shoulders rotate, his left arm extends, and Cerrone bites, parrying what he thinks is another straight left (circled).
6. Pettis’ real attack slips in under Cerrone’s outstretched right arm, pulverizing his liver.
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Again, Pettis asks a question, and then plans his next attack based on Cerrone’s response. His execution is perfect, and it wasn’t long before Cerrone lay curled up at the referee’s feet, victim to another body kick.
SELLING THE FEINT
This simple set-up is the staple of Pettis’ game, and yet opponents are consistently unable to stop his rear leg roundhouse kick. This is because Pettis doesn’t just throw feints, he sells them.
Sometimes it’s not enough to suggest an attack. Tough opponents will simply hold their ground and come forward regardless of how convincing the implied threat is. But no fighter will simply allow himself to be punched in the face. This is when it becomes crucial to back the feint up with a genuine threat.
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1. As Lauzon stalks forward, Pettis steps forward to meet him.
2. A throwaway left misses the mark, and Lauzon refuses to back up.
3. However Pettis isn’t done. He peels away Lauzon’s guarding left arm with his right hand . . .
4. . . . and slips a hard left hand right through Lauzon’s arms, connecting clean.
5. As Lauzon retreats, Pettis wings another left at him.
Faced with a durable and determined opponent, Pettis made certain to sell his intentions to attack with the left straight. Lauzon doesn’t always respond to feints, but he has no choice but to respond to something real–something that hurts. He even goes on step further, chasing Lauzon with a seemingly reckless left as he retreats.
Pettis is not the first fighter to do this. The great Archie Moore once claimed to have swung wild on purpose merely to convince an opponent that he was looking desperately for a certain strike. From a 1955 interview with Sports Illustrated:
Opposing Bolo Olson, in the fight which made certain his shot at the heavyweight title, Moore threw a most un-Moorelike overhand right in the second round. He explains: “I wanted him to start thinkin’ that’s what I wanted to do. I missed him a mile. I just wanted to get him scared of my right hand. Then I went to work with the left”.
In our case, Pettis seemed a little over anxious to land his left hand, and that’s the point. After the sequence above, Lauzon no longer had any reason to doubt that Pettis was hunting for another punch.
That expectation was his undoing.
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1. Pettis leads with a throwaway jab . . .
2. . . . and follows with a throwaway left hand. Lauzon parries the punch with his right hand (circled).
3. Now Pettis circles to his left, and steps in with another attack. His body language makes it clear that he intends to commit to this one.
4. Just as with Cerrone, Pettis winds up a left kick, but Lauzon only sees the left hand that he has learned to expect. He tries to parry again (circled).
5. With his right hand committed to the parry, Lauzon has no defense to Pettis’ high kick. He goes down.
Anthony Pettis was once a random collection of flashy techniques, happy to let his opponent take the initiative and rely on his athletic talents to find the counter. Now, however, he is much more than that, and every one of the wins in his latest four-fight streak has come as the result of his solid fundamentals, and his very convincing feints. Pettis no longer throws anything without careful thought and consideration, and it shows.
If fighting is a conversation, then Anthony “Showtime” Pettis is an orator of the highest order.
For more UFC 181 analysis, don’t miss today’s episode of Heavy Hands, featuring an interview with Tristar Head Coach Firas Zahabi, trainer of Rory MacDonald and Georges St-Pierre, as well as in-depth analysis of the main and co-main events of this weekend’s marquee MMA event.
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