Eighteen months ago, Pettis had earned the biggest win of his career, shaking off a slow start to catch Kyoji Horiguchi with a spinning backfist out of nowhere to finish the fight and notch the first defense of his Bellator bantamweight title.
The plan was for Pettis to line up against a row of worthy challengers in the Bellator Bantamweight World Grand Prix, but a knee injury forced him out of the tournament and out of action until this June.
Pettis made an inspiring return at Bellator 297, defeating Patricio Pitbull by unanimous decision to record another successful title defense and prevent Pitbull from claiming three-division champion status. Afterwards, he used his post-fight speech time to deliver a message in support of those struggling with mental health.
Pettis had it in his mind throughout the fight that he was going to make his speech, he explained on The MMA Hour.
“Once I got in there, I felt like this is where I should be,” Pettis said. “There were little glimpses of that where I was like, ‘Alright, get that out of your head.’
“But you know what, honestly, all I kept thinking about that fight is the post speech. I was like, I really want to deliver this message to everybody, and throughout the rounds I was getting closer and closer to doing that, I kept thinking about that. ‘You’re getting closer to really saying what you thought to say.’ It’s crazy. Fighting is a crazy experience in general.”
Pettis hasn’t spoken to a professional about his own mental health struggles, but he credits his family, fiancee, and dog with helping him to deal with anxiety that he says has plagued him since he was young. Now 29, was 18 years old when he made his pro MMA debut and in many ways has grown up in front of the public eye.
That’s one reason why it was so important for him to use his platform to spread a positive message.
“I just feel like it was my ‘why,’ my reason to win that fight,” Pettis said. “Just to get my message delivered and talk about the stuff that I’ve been going through these past couple of years and throughout my whole life of dealing with social anxiety, anxiety itself.
“Even depression, last year I had a lot of depression that I didn’t realize that could even have and I just felt like I want to deliver that message and share it to everybody else that’s going through the same things and that it’s OK to feel these feels and to have these thoughts and that you’ve got to just keep pushing forward and keep trusting yourself and believing in your timing. Believing in yourself and trust your timing, really.”
The time off and the uncertainty surrounding how he’d perform after recovering from a serious knee injury wreaked havoc on Pettis’ mind. He wouldn’t be defending his title after beating Horiguchi, wouldn’t be participating in a tournament with a $1 million prize, and wouldn’t be doing much of anything MMA related for who knows how long.
A new experience for Pettis, for sure.
“I was definitely depressed,” Pettis said. “It was about three and a half weeks before I was going to fight Raufeon [Stots]. I tore my ACL and I missed out on a chance to make a million dollars, missed out on a chance to have three fights last year. I was just stuck on the sidelines recovering and getting healthy. Definitely different times for me.
“I’m so used to moving and training, I had to sit back, relax, and just watch other people become successful. It was definitely a humbling moment.”
Looking back on it all now, Pettis used the word “rejuvenated” to describe the effect that his hiatus had on him, again crediting his support system with helping him through it. He’s found a whole new way to ground himself now, even as he prepares for his next title defense against grand prix tournament winner and interim champion Patchy Mix.
“It’s tough,” Pettis said. “Anybody who’s gone through an ACL injury or an injury that takes time off from what you love to do, you learn a lot about yourself. I learned how much I’ve got to work on as a person without having my sport. My sport keeps me calm, it keeps me motivated and hungry and without any of that I was just kind of lost for a bit.
“I was like, ‘Damn, who am I? What can I bring to the table? Who am I?’ It was really neat, honestly, I kind of put that chip on my shoulder to get to this mentality where I’m at now, where I’m at peace but I’m ready for war.”