Pettis aims to stop four-year slide by stepping up for Thompson fight

The return of 'Showtime' Pettis (4:44)

Former UFC lightweight champion Anthony 'Showtime' Pettis is looking to regain the form that once had him on top of the UFC world. (4:44)

When Anthony Pettis challenged Benson Henderson for the UFC lightweight title in 2013, his coach, Duke Roufus, publicly compared him to Michael Jordan.

Roufus' comparison understandably drew some skepticism. Michael Jordan? As in, that Michael Jordan? At the time, Pettis was 26 years old and vying for his first UFC championship. Comparing him to one of the best athletes of all time felt a little ... premature.

But looking back on it, Pettis remembers why Roufus said what he did.

And he remembers buying into it.

"I wish we had this on tape," Pettis told ESPN. "I was warming up that night, and I could not miss [on the pads]. Like, could not miss. I was so on point. I could just feel it. My body was on autopilot. I didn't have to try. There was no hesitation, no fogginess, no doubt -- there was nothing. That warm-up, I think, is why [Roufus] said that.

"He told me, 'You look like Michael Jordan.' It was perfect."

Pettis destroyed Henderson in a single round that night at UFC 164, in front of a hometown crowd in his native Milwaukee, no less. He went on to successfully defend the 155-pound championship once in 2014, against Gilbert Melendez, but he has mostly dealt with failure since. He lost the lightweight belt to Rafael dos Anjos in a crushing five-round defeat in 2015 and has stumbled to an overall record of 3-6 in his past nine.

Many have wondered in recent years whether Pettis will ever return to his former self. Will the world ever see the true Showtime again, the one who once leapt off the side of the cage to land one of the most famous kicks in combat sports history? Does that version of him still exist somewhere?

"I don't think so," Pettis said. "No. That guy, that guy is gone. That version of Anthony Pettis was fearless because he didn't know what he was doing. He was just making it up as he went along."

As Pettis (21-8) prepares to move to welterweight for the first time in his career on Saturday for a main-event fight against Stephen Thompson (14-3-1) in Nashville, Tennessee (ESPN+, main card, 8 p.m. ET), he's still trying to define Pettis 2.0. And he admits that the past four years of his career have not been easy.

But when asked which version of himself is more dangerous -- the fearless, invincible Pettis of old or the one who has endured the true lows of mixed martial arts -- Pettis doesn't think twice.

"Both. They're both dangerous."

It is quite fair to point out that Pettis enjoyed impeccably good luck in the first half of his career.

Talent and highlight-reel finishes were what drove his success, of course, but there was also a good deal of luck. Timing, more than anything. When an MTV series titled "World of Jenks" elected to profile a young martial artist for a single episode, it chose Pettis. That infamous "Showtime Kick" Pettis landed in 2010 happened to occur in the final round of the final WEC fight of all time.

In 2013, Pettis was supposed to face Jose Aldo for the featherweight title in Brazil, but Aldo was forced to withdraw with a knee injury. That appeared to be the worst stroke of luck of his career -- until one month later, when a lightweight title shot fell in Pettis' lap on short notice -- in his hometown.

In 2014, when Wheaties cereal held a fan contest to determine a new athlete to grace its iconic cover, there was Pettis -- at the peak of his career and ready to take advantage of the opportunity.

"My career just, boom, spring up so quick," Pettis said. "It went from being a local kid in Milwaukee just doing this for fun to people coming to the gym just to watch me train. Most guys' careers don't take off like that. I've seen guys take 10 years to get a decent opportunity. My career was just, like, everything lined up perfectly.

"Then I fought Rafael dos Anjos."

There are certain nights in combat sports when you wonder whether an athlete will ever be the same afterward. You're forced to wonder how he could ever be the same afterward. For Pettis, that night was March 14, 2015, in Dallas. He absorbed a 25-minute beating from dos Anjos and was later hospitalized with a broken orbital bone.

When asked if it might have been better if he had suffered a quick, one-punch knockout that night, rather than prolonged punishment, Pettis shakes his head and says he learned something invaluable about himself and the sport that night.

But at the same time, has he ever fully recovered from it? In some ways, probably not.

"The RDA fight, I had never got hit in the face before that," Pettis said. "I had never gotten stitches. You go to that fight, I was beat up pretty bad. It changes you. It changes everything. That confidence you used to have, to put yourself in the fire and take risks, now there's, like, a second of doubt.

"I feel like I'm building back up to that, but to be honest, yeah. It's been a while since I felt that invincible."

Pettis' first fight in MMA was in January 2007 in a ring in Wisconsin. Up to that point, he had competed only in taekwondo tournaments, and he was used to a certain schedule that didn't apply to MMA events.

He showed up at the venue in the morning, as they were still constructing the ring. He remembers being there all day, stretching, waiting for the tournament to start. When he found out there was only one ring, rather than seven or eight mats with multiple matches going on simultaneously, his eyes lit up. In actuality, that might have been the moment "Showtime" was born -- not with the kick in 2010.

"All eyes were on me at one specific time," Pettis said. "They started building the [ring], the music, the lights -- and I just, I literally fell in love. And it was a local promotion. It was so small. But I was like, 'Man, I get to perform in front of all these people?'"

That part of Pettis' game has always remained intact, even through this tumultuous, four-year skid. Pettis has never asked to step out of the limelight. Some athletes in his position surely would have and perhaps would've sought an easier run of fights to rekindle lost confidence. Pettis' losses the past four years have come against some of the best fighters of this generation: dos Anjos, Tony Ferguson, Max Holloway, Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza and Eddie Alvarez.

But Pettis' confidence doesn't work that way.

"I'm the type of guy, I don't get confidence beating a scrub or a guy that's not on my level," Pettis said. "I'm the type of guy, I have to beat a guy who's on my level. [Tony] Ferguson, for example -- that fight gave me confidence, even though I broke my hand [and lost in October]. I know where I'm at. I can compete. I'm right there. I have what it takes, and I know what it takes.

"I just have to get past this spot I'm in, and it has to be against a good guy. It can't be against -- no disrespect to anybody -- it can't be a couple 'step-up' fights. It has to be a big fight, something big at stake for me to feel confident again."

Many have questioned whether Pettis' decision to fight Thompson this weekend is a smart career choice. Thompson, 36, is a highly skilled karate fighter with a 9-3-1 UFC welterweight record. Oddsmakers have installed Thompson as a more than 4-to-1 betting favorite.

The matchup is kind of out of left field for Pettis, and it's dangerous. But maybe this fight, as much as the UFC championship in 2013, is what Roufus meant when he compared Pettis to Jordan. Maybe he has that ability to pull off something special in the biggest moment. And maybe Pettis isn't as far from recapturing that as it can appear on the outside.

"The way Michael Jordan dunked the ball, scored 63 points against the Boston Celtics -- I mean, that's special," Roufus said. "You can do the safe thing, or you can do the amazing thing, and that's what I meant about Anthony being like Michael Jordan, especially in his prime. He did some amazing things. And that's what Anthony does when he's on."