Fight of the Night: UFC 223

Whilst Anthony “Showtime” Pettis will be familiar to plenty of sports fans with his “Showtime kick” from his final WEC bout being a mainstay on highlight reels of any kind, here he is in 2018 as part of a fairly meaningless matchup of ranked lightweights on a prime UFC pay-per-view. He fights Michael Chiesa in the latest instalment of his return to the division after a particularly ill-advised sojourn down at featherweight which ended in him losing to the new headliner, Max Holloway, in an interim title contest. Pettis’ most recent fight was a loss to Dustin Poirier where all of his weaknesses were on show and he eventually submitted not to a hold as such, but to a body triangle that exploited a rib injury. This means that the former UFC lightweight champion will be hoping to erase those memories and possibly even work his way back to a title shot.

Chiesa on the other hand is coming off a somewhat controversial technical submission loss to Kevin Lee, who went on to lose to the now injured Tony Ferguson for the interim lightweight championship. In this the referee decided that Chiesa had passed out due to a Rear Naked Choke when it was unclear whether this was the case, with Chiesa then protesting vociferously after this transpired. Whilst this protestation doesn’t necessarily refute that he was momentarily out, it is all irrelevant as he was going to be out imminently anyway. That contest felt like the winner would be on to bigger and better things so Chiesa will still be somewhat bitter about the controversial loss, as before this he was 7-2 in his UFC career and instead this fight is mostly remembered for that finish and his losing his cool at Kevin Lee referring to his mother at a press conference to promote it.

“He does not have any way to force his opponents to stay back such as the side kicks you see from karatekas”

With both of these fighters looking to put their recent losses headlining minor events behind them there will only be room for one to do so. The main pivotal factor in this fight is going to be Chiesa’s ability to ground Pettis. Pettis’ 2-5 run dating to losing his belt to Rafael dos Anjos has in large part been down to opponents rejecting his slower paced distance kicking game, without the necessary weapons to enforce it, and taking him down against the fence and grinding him out on the ground where he is too willing to stay on his back. This is where being a prodigious athlete has almost worked against Pettis, he has not been forced to actually develop a game that functions technically and so now with his athleticism slipping, and the overall metagame shifting from when he was at his peak, he is now ill equipped to win fights against elite lightweight competition. “Showtime” wants a fight at long distance, where he can use his flashy kicks from his Taekwondo background. However, he does not have any way to force his opponents to stay back such as the side kicks you see from karatekas. He can then be easily backed up to the fence and then a shot takedown will ground him, and like most Roufusport fighters he is largely unable to return to his feet. This inability is further exacerbated by his willingness to sit in guard and seek out armbars and triangles, not that he is poor at these but they enable your opponent to smash you with elbows.

“He will need to march the former champion down, get inside and then clinch for a throw.”

This overall weakness in the structure of Pettis’ game is why whether or not Chiesa can take things to the ground is important. Whilst not an exceptional positional grappler, Chiesa is excellent at finding the back, something Showtime’s last two opponents have been able to do with relative ease, and then lethal at sinking in the choke. Chiesa’s striking on the other hand leaves a lot to be desired. This, along with his lack of a real wrestling background with Pettis largely being suspect against shot takedowns, is why this contest does not feel so cut and dry as some of Pettis’ others as of late. Chiesa, like other Sikjitsu fighters, largely eschews attacking the legs and body, primarily as coach Rick Little has seemingly never watched a kickboxing match or a contest like Stephens-Melendez where Melendez was rendered virtually immobile by leg kicks. Instead, Little believes that leg kicks and body shots are only effective on the weak minded, and so therefore his fighters do not really throw them and will not check leg kicks at all.

Subsequent to this the weakness Pettis does have in his propensity to eat leg kicks is largely irrelevant. This means that Chiesa is a head hunter, one with a style rooted in hard sparring more than actual technical coaching, meaning that he has fairly solid counter shots and a decent grasp of position in the cage if not good punching technique or footwork. However, this lack of technical knowledge and not exceptional speed do harm his chances here. In order to get Pettis to the mat, where Chiesa will have an excellent chance at finding the choke, he will need to march the former champion down, get inside and then clinch for a throw. This potential difficulty is further exacerbated by Chiesa being a southpaw, meaning this will be an open stance fight and so automatically dictating a longer distance to begin.

Pettis is the bigger name. However, it seems that he has been figured out at this point, so if Chiesa has been able to work on his shot takedowns this should be a fairly routine fight. The real excitement comes if Pettis has been able to work on maintaining the distance, actually using his hands on the feet and any means of returning there once the contest hits the mat. Even though at this point that seems unlikely, a victory in style for either man here could set them up well in this shark tank of a lightweight division which is headed for a time of upheaval.

Callum McPhail

Featured Image courtesy of MAZA FIGHT JAPAN via Flikr. No changes were made to this image. Image license found here. 

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