Don’t Sweat the Technique: The What, How & Why of Sergio Pettis’ Game

Sergio Pettis mirrors his brother Anthony in many ways, his confidence, his comfort in the cage, his familiarity that comes with a lifetime in martial arts, his warrior spirit, and his physical features. But in one key area Sergio is completely unlike his older brother; talent. Now make no mistake, Sergio Pettis is a talented fighter, very much so. But while Sergio has talent, Anthony is a talent and that adjustment in phrasing results in a huge difference in how they prepare, where their focus is, how developed their games are, and how effective they can and will be in the cage.

Anthony is a dynamic athlete and is strong, fluid, long, balanced, explosive, powerful, physically durable, and capable of generating huge amounts of power in spots. These traits have defined Anthony and made him worthy of the name “Showtime,” as he has been capable of making fundamental techniques devastating, and taking unrealistic techniques and making them surgically effective. Part of that is a matter of skill, patience, depth, and the awareness that comes from a lifetime of training, but an even bigger part of it, the part that allows him to do these things against the very best fighters in the world (Gilbert Melendez, Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, etc) is his talent. That talent masks clear technical limitations and a lack of disciplined strategy. It’s a luxury that made Anthony a superstar and a champion in both WEC and the UFC. On the downside it is this talent, this crutch, that has contributed to his rather precipitous downfall.

This brings us back to Sergio Pettis. I fully believe a lot of his performances suffered because of the weight of Anthony’s accomplishments. People believed Sergio to be the next “Showtime,” and more times than not he tried to the best of his ability to be that. But it didn’t work, not because of a lack of craft, IQ, and discipline. It didn’t work due to a lack of athletic talent and physical durability. The margin for error the elder brother so often leaned on didn’t exist for Sergio, he couldn’t turn a fight around on a dime, he couldn’t soak up steady offense or big spot offense. He wasn’t Anthony, and trying to fight like him wasn’t just resulting in ho hum wins, it was creating painful and career-damaging losses, putting even more pressure on a fighter who was brought in to be the next evolution of his world champion brother.

Fortunately Sergio came to his senses and began to fight with controlled, consistent aggression. Using a patient and disciplined approach, plus a renewed focus on defensive awareness and technically layered offensive efficiency, Pettis turned his fortunes around, changing from an inexperienced poor man’s Anthony Pettis into a seasoned and effective Sergio Pettis, winning two in a row after his loss to Alex Caceres at UFC on FOX 10, and bouncing back from his loss to Benoit with his current three-fight win streak.

Sergio Pettis is a craftsman, partly due to temperament, and in large part due to physical limitation. He has developed a complete, balanced, and structured fight style, one that highlights his understanding of the subtle nuance of combat while downplaying his lack of fight-changing power and athleticism. This version of Sergio is controlled in his aggression, consistent in his offense, and patient in his application. Instead of looking for moments to explode, trying to create dynamic spots of offense, Pettis stays busy, actively using his footwork to put him in position to ply his trade. This provides him with the best options available in regards to offensive efficiency, as he exploits both the stances of his opposition and the entries and exits created by his borderline masterful use of angles.

Sergio’s most consistent weapon is his jab; it’s a multi-purpose tool that allows him to gauge distance, disrupt his opponent’s ability to press or be offensive, act as a line of defense, be used as a feint to find patterns, and be an offensive weapon independently or as a table-setter for his offense as a whole. While his jab isn’t as proven as some of the great jabs in mixed martial arts — largely due to the fact he hasn’t had to test it against top-end talents — it is every bit as versatile, intelligent, and flexible as the ones used by MMA stalwarts Pat Curran, Rose Namajunas, Joanna Jedrzejczyk, and “King Mo” Lawal. A signature of Sergio Pettis’ style is activity, as he often sets an outstanding pace and volume while never diminishing his accuracy, technique, efficiency, or creativity. He has shown a penchant for using a variety of textbook and aesthetically pleasing kick-punch combinations that aren’t destructive, but are extremely well set up and delivered.

On top of his obvious striking pedigree and experience, Pettis has also shown a knack for a limited but consistent wrestle and grapple game, using his footwork, his angles, and his pivots to limit opportunities for opponents to cut off the cage and get in position to attempt takedowns. They also allow him clean exits that get him off the cage and into open space when forced into grappling exchanges. This forces opponents to reset and work to regain the positions necessary to attempt takedowns. More importantly, when an opponent actually attempts the takedown, the angles and pivots allow him to efficiently and consistently defend and escape shot, trip, and throw attempts. When he can’t defend them, Pettis has shown the awareness on the ground to control opponents in spots and create scrambles to get top position for ground and pound or submissions — worst case scenario, he can get back to his feet to force the fight back to his preferred place of combat. An often overlooked benefit of Pettis’ footwork is the opportunities it creates for grappling exchanges to disrupt an opponent’s attempt to pressure him or use physicality to overwhelm him. He has shown an ability to use trips and shots to get guys down to disrupt their pressure and volume, providing him with an extra line of defense against opponents who attempt to take advantage of his lack of durability, power, and physical strength on the feet.

This fight versus Moreno in many ways echoes the failed matchup between Henry Cejudo and Sergio Pettis. Both Cejudo and Moreno have advantages over Pettis in regards to physical strength and durability. The difference being Cejudo is a once in a lifetime world class talent. The other and more important difference, as it pertains to this fight is twofold. The first thing that needs to be addressed is the gap in experience, where Cejudo was still young in his career with twelve fights to Pettis’s 17. Moreno is an active and established fighter with as many fights as Sergio, meaning that the gap in experience, awareness and comfort won’t be there in any real meaningful sense and given their level of opposition there isn’t any advantage in regards to the type or talent Sergio has beaten in comparison to Brandon.

The experience factor leads me into my next point, which is identity. Due to his excessively high level of accomplishment and activity in wrestling, Cejudo hadn’t truly grown as a fighter he was still in transition. The difference in his performances before facing Demetrious Johnson and the performance he had after facing him (vs. number two flyweight Joseph Benavidez) showed that Cejudo had just begun to find himself and his best paths to victory. Moreno is a completely different animal, as he has fought actively and fought an ascending level of opposition it was clear that Brandon knows who he is as a fighter, how to get the most out of his skills and talents. These two things more than make up for any difference in athleticism or pedigree.

This is the definition of a 50/50 fight, Moreno’s biggest advantage over Sergio is his durability and cardio. He has a bigger margin for error than Pettis and what makes him dangerous is the fact that he is capable and willing to engage in multiple ranges. He has a clear advantage on the mat, as I feel that in regards to versatility and range Pettis has advantages over Moreno. The difference being Pettis can’t afford to fight out of character, can’t admire his work and can’t get into extended exchanges. Much like his fight with Cejudo, Pettis must control pace and place of the fight taking advantage of his versatility and his newly found disciplined, cage iq and controlled aggression to out-maneuver, out-slick and out-class Moreno. He has to disrupt Moreno’s momentum and forward pressure, using pivots, feints, wide array of strikes, and slick trip takedowns to limit Brandon’s output as well as limit his ability to force the fight into particular ranges or keeping the fight in particular places. Sergio can’t afford to try to match Brandon’s physicality or aggression because Pettis hasn’t shown the durability to absorb a lot of damage, nor the recuperative ability to maintain or regain his cardio when in fights with extended exchanges on the feet, in the clinch or on the ground especially versus opponents with a certain level of size and physical ability which Moreno has.

I lean slightly in favour of Sergio, Moreno can lean on his durability and in my opinion can do so to the detriment of his own career. Pettis has less room for error and has fought in a manner that exemplifies that and as good as Moreno is he isn’t a top end caliber athlete and he isn’t a clean fighter. He will give you opportunities to score, get position and win a fight and as good a finisher as he can be, he is not so dynamic athletically that he can create something from nothing. On top of the fact that he can his willingness to finish/look for finishes can result in him being out positioned and outworked. He leans heavily on his finishing ability and his durability, and versus a fighter who has learned to minimize mistakes and win fights not just rounds. Those assets may very well become liabilities in the same way Jason Knights dependency on those things left him exposed versus Ricardo Llamas.

Saturday night we have a step up fight the number six and seven ranked flyweights. Two young veterans who have been improving rapidly in regards to their fight game and their position in the rankings, one fighter is mixed martial arts royalty who hopes to prove himself worthy of the throne, the other an unheralded underdog who has exceeded all expectations. Both hope to establish themselves as top five fighters and legitimate title contenders.

On Saturday night one will step forward and stamp himself as the next big thing in division and a potential title challenger. The loser won’t be done and won’t suffer a huge blow to their ranking or their status; but it will be clear that they are not elite and need to go back to the drawing board. Sergio Pettis hopes to take the next step in career which will allow him to step out of the long shadow cast by Anthony and establish himself as an elite fighter and the best Pettis.