One of the traits Anthony Pettis took from his late father is a keen fashion sense.
“My dad would go to Burger King in a suit,” Pettis said Thursday in advance of the first defense of his Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title, against Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181 on Saturday at Mandalay Bay. “He was that kind of a dude.”
Pettis enjoys dressing up, too, a habit that began at an early age growing up in Milwaukee.
“I used to wear this when I was a kid. I would go to school in a three-piece suit,” he said. “My dad was a really good dresser, and I used to always dress up.”
Pettis’ father also got him started in martial arts, but never saw how successful his son would become. He was stabbed to death by an intruder at a friend’s house in 2003.
The style he passed down to his son was evident Thursday, as a Wheaties box featuring Pettis was unveiled during a news conference at the MGM Grand.
Pettis, the first mixed martial artist to be featured on the iconic cereal box, is wearing a shirt and tie with his UFC belt draped over his shoulder.
“They wanted to go with like a ‘GQ’ look,” he said. “Something a bit different than the straight athlete photo.”
Pettis pointed out the significance not only to himself but also to his employer and the sport in general.
“It’s amazing,” he said. “I never imagined this as a kid. To see myself on that box is huge, not only for me but the UFC as a brand. All these fighters coming up have something to look forward to, and I have something lasting that I can show my kids and their kids.”
Of course, the tools of his trade are also featured in the photo, as Pettis is wearing MMA gloves.
As sharp as he can be as a dresser, Pettis’ true skills are in the cage.
The 27-year-old kickboxing specialist has won four straight fights since dropping his UFC debut, including first-round stoppages in his last three fights.
It has been awhile since he had the chance to ply his trade, though.
Pettis has been inactive since winning the belt from Benson Henderson with an armbar submission in August 2013. But he hurt his knee in the fight and needed surgery, then coached against Melendez on “The Ultimate Fighter” to set up Saturday’s title bout.
Pettis is excited to finally have the chance to defend his belt.
“I haven’t been able to defend it yet, so I don’t want to let it go that easy,” he said. “I can’t be a one-time champ or a one-kick wonder. I want to make sure I use everything I have to be the lightweight king for a while.”
He knows it won’t be an easy task against Melendez, the Strikeforce lightweight champion for almost four years before the organization was merged into the UFC.
Melendez had a chance against Henderson before Pettis took the belt but lost to him.
While he acknowledges the challenges Melendez provides, Pettis said the layoff won’t be an issue.
“It didn’t really affect me physically, but mentally I felt like I was missing out not being able to get in the cage,” he said. “I love fighting, and I’m excited to be back.”
Pettis has watched Melendez’s fights for several years, so he will be well versed on what his opponent wants to do.
“I followed (his career) big time,” Pettis said. “I saw all those fights. I watched in more detail now that we’re going to fight, but I always watched him. I’m a fan of the sport, and he’s a great fighter. (I didn’t really see him as a potential opponent) until I got to the UFC and heard how big the buzz around him was. That’s when I started to realize I’d probably be fighting him one day.”
That day is Saturday. Pettis obviously wants to keep the belt, but he puts just as much pressure on himself to be entertaining.
The man who pulled off the “Showtime Kick,” one of the most viewed highlights in the sport’s history, said he thinks Melendez’s style will provide an opportunity to showcase his skills.
“When I fight, it’s going to be a performance,” Pettis said. “I want people to tune in. My objective is to be your favorite fighter’s favorite fighter. I want people to want to watch me fight.”
A loss to Melendez would mean Pettis loses the title, but the Wheaties box is forever.
“I still have a collection from growing up,” he said. “I’ve got the Dream Team one. The Muhammad Ali one. A whole bunch of them. I never dreamed of anything like this, but now that it has happened, it’s amazing,”
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj.