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Anthony Pettis felt pain rocket through his ribs and had moments to consider fighting his way out of a submission hold or tapping out and walking out of the cage healthy enough to fight again only weeks later.
Maybe with $1 million and a 155-pound championship at stake, Pettis might have pushed harder to find a way to escape Stevie Ray in a PFL fight in Atlanta. But Pettis — once a Wheaties box cover boy and former UFC champion — already had a PFL playoff spot secured and little motivation to try and a win a fight through any means but a decision.
Ray, who had just two wins since 2017, locked Pettis in a body triangle and made him quit.
Pettis put it bluntly, “I got caught in a submission, man.”
In the UFC, Pettis might have had to wait months, years, if ever, for a second chance. Under the PFL season-long format that includes playoffs and championship fights, an immediate rematch is on deck.
Pettis (25-13) fights Ray (24-10) in the PFL playoffs Friday night at the Hulu Theater at Madison Square Garden. In the win-and-advance format, Pettis promised this time he was coming to fight.
“It was the wrong mindset to go into that fight with,” he said. “Now that I’m here in the playoffs, this fight really matters to me. I’ve got to win this one. I wouldn’t call it a freebie fight, but it was kind of like a fight that was just there and I didn’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 was trying to play it safe,” Pettis said. “This fight, I’m fighting out of my mouthpiece and looking for the knockout.”
The Professional Fighters League will hold the lightweight semifinals — headlined by the Pettis fight — on Friday night and has two more postseason cards this month scheduled for Cardiff, Wales, and in London.
In the other lightweight semifinal Friday, No. 2-seed Olivier Aubin-Mercier of Canada fights third-seeded Alexander Martinez of Paraguay.
The fighter known as “Showtime,” Pettis is a former UFC and WEC lightweight champion but has struggled since his move to PFL. He lost both bouts in 2021 and is only 1-1 this season. Pettis said fighting in New York is a dream after a previously scheduled UFC bout in 2018 at Barclays Center was scrapped when his opponent suffered injuries stemming from C onor McGregor’s bus attack.
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. Ray, who weighed 155.8-pounds, used his upset over Pettis at PFL 5 to clinch the No. 4-seed in the playoffs.
Pettis is in the final year of his two-year contract with PFL and had no immediate plans for his professional future, though he said retirement is not on the table. He’s getting married in November and the couple are expecting a baby. The honeymoon has 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 seemingly always weeks away.
“This is probably the toughest style of combat sports because you don’t have a lot of rest,” Pettis said. “I win this fight, I’m right back again. It’s pretty taxing on the body. You’ve got to approach these fights a little differently, mentally.”
But he’s a fan of the format, and found the structure made it easier for fight fans to follow and makes it more of a “fair fight” for the fighters in terms of matchups. Plus, he added, the pay “has been amazing.”
Pettis is 2-for-2 lifetime in rematches and plans to keep that undefeated run going in New York.
“I’m still only 35 years old, I’m still having fun with it,” he said. “We’ll see how it goes at the end of the season and take it from there.”