Anthony Pettis already has a UFC championship belt and his face on a Wheaties box. He still wants to be the biggest name in mixed martial arts, and he knows he must stay busy to do it.
Just three months after Pettis ended a lengthy injury absence with his first lightweight title defense, the stylish fighter known as "Showtime" is back in the cage at UFC 185 in Dallas on Saturday against top contender Rafael Dos Anjos.
Many champions of the so-called combat sports prefer long recuperative breaks between fights. Pettis (18-2) intends to have a big, busy 2015 after injuries slowed his career right when it was taking off.
"The pressure is on, man," Pettis said. "When you have all of these people supporting you, you better perform. I love it. I embrace that role, and that’s what I want. I want people to want to watch me fight, to pay for the pay-per-views, buy the tickets to come watch me fight. It’s my job to make sure they’re happy when they leave."
A solid pay-per-view card at American Airlines Center also features UFC strawweight champion Carla Esparza’s first defense against Joanna Jedrzejczyk.
Former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, who lives in the Dallas area, returns to the cage against Matt Brown after a bout between heavyweights Alistair Overeem and Roy Nelson. Pettis’ brother, Sergio, also has a flyweight bout on the early undercard.
Pettis used part of his winnings from his victory over Gilbert Melendez last December to buy a house and a car for his mother, but the 28-year-old from Milwaukee otherwise stayed focused on a quick return from that dynamic second-round submission victory.
"I just went from camp to camp," Pettis said. "Took a couple of weeks off, got right back in the gym. … Now this is time to perform. I want four fights this year, from December to December."
He didn’t take an easy bout, either. Dos Anjos (23-7), a Brazilian based in Southern California, has revitalized his career with eight wins in his last nine fights after a .500 start to his UFC tenure.
Dos Anjos stopped former UFC champion Benson Henderson last August and added a decision win over Nate Diaz in December, but Pettis sees little that will slow his roll to the top of the sport.
"There’s a lot of good fighters in the lightweight division, but I’m a great fighter," Pettis said. "I just have this willpower and this confidence when I go in there."
Esparza (11-2) faces a difficult task in the first defense of the title she won in the UFC’s newest weight class during the promotion’s long-running reality show. Jedrzejczyk (8-0), who didn’t compete on "The Ultimate Fighter," is a six-time world champion in muay thai who hasn’t lost an MMA fight.
But Esparza’s seasoned wrestling skills were too much for every competitor on television, and she seems unconcerned by the five-inch height advantage of the likable Jedrzejczyk, a star back home in Poland.
A dynamic title defense victory for Esparza would impress fans and could even sway the UFC and its corporate partners, who have seemingly expended more promotional energy on 115-pounders Rose Namajunas, Paige VanZant and others than the champ.
Hendricks (16-3) hasn’t fought this far down a UFC card since December 2011, but the hard-hitting wrestler took the bout to jump-start his comeback after losing a close decision and his belt to Robbie Lawler three months ago. With Lawler injured at the time, Hendricks decided he didn’t want to wait around for their third fight.
Lawler then recovered and booked a likely bout with Rory MacDonald in July, putting Hendricks in a clear must-win position against Brown (21-12), who had won seven straight fights until Lawler soundly beat him last July.