Anthony Pettis felt the pain rocket through his ribs and had moments to consider whether to fight his way out of the submission hold or tap out and roll out of the cage.
Perhaps with $1 million and the 155-pound championship on the line, Pettis would have had a harder time avoiding Steve Ray in a PFL fight in Atlanta. But Pettis — once a Wheaties box cover boy and former UFC champion — already held a PFL playoff spot and had little motivation to fight and win either way but made the decision.
Ray, who has just two wins since 2017, locks Pettis in a body triangle and puts him away.
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Pettis said bluntly, “I’m stuck in a submission, man.”
In the UFC, Pettis would have to wait months, years, for a second chance. In the PFL’s season-long format, which includes playoffs and championship fights, an instant rematch is on deck.
Pettis (25-13) takes on the Rays (24-10) in the PFL playoffs Friday night Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. In a win-before format, Pettis promised he was coming to fight this time around.
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“It’s the wrong mentality to get into that fight,” he said. “Now that I’m in the playoffs, this fight is very important to me. I have to win it. I wouldn’t call it a freebie fight, but it’s kind of like a fight and I don’t want to get hurt.”
The 35-year-old Pettis is usually an open-stance fighter. Against Ray, he was fighting for points and used a closed-stance approach.
“I’m just trying to play it safe,” Pettis said. “This fight, I’m fighting from my mouth and looking for a knockout.”
The Professional Fighters League will host Friday night’s lightweight semifinals — headlined by Petty’s fight — with two other postseason cards scheduled this month in Cardiff, Wales and London.
In Friday’s other lightweight semifinal, Canada’s no. 2-seed Olivier Aubin-Mercier takes on third-seed Alexander Martinez of Paraguay.
A fighter known as “Showtime”, Pettis is a former UFC and WEC lightweight champion, but has struggled since his move to the PFL. He missed two bouts in 2021 and is just 1-1 this season. Pettis said it was a dream to fight in New York after a previously scheduled UFC bout at Barclays Center in 2018 was scrapped when his opponent was injured in a bus attack by Honor McGregor.
Pettis, who came in at 155.6-pounds at Thursday’s weigh-in, finished the regular season as the top seed in the lightweight division. The 155.8-pound Ray, whose upset of Pettis in the PFL 5 was the playoffs’ No. 4-seeded.
Pettis is in the final year of his two-year contract with the PFL and has no immediate plans for his professional future, although he said retirement is not on the table. He is getting married in November and the couple is expecting a child. The honeymoon will have to wait — a $1 million payday is at stake if Pettis runs the table and wins the 155-pound crown in December.
In the PFL, the next fight is always weeks away.
“It’s probably the toughest style of combat sports because you don’t get a lot of rest,” Pettis said. “I’m going to win this fight, I’m back again and again. It’s very taxing on the body. You have to approach these fights a little differently mentally.”
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But he’s a fan of the format, and finds that the structure has made it easier for fight fans to follow and a more “fair fight” for the fighters in terms of matchups. Plus, he added, the pay is “fantastic.”
Pettis is 2-2 lifetime in rematches and plans to continue that undefeated streak in New York.
“I’m still 35 years old, I’m still having fun,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes at the end of the season and take it from there.”