When Anthony Pettis steps into the cage Thursday to fight for the World Extreme Cage Fighting lightweight title he will be fueled by the memory of his father.
Pettis, whose mercurial rise in the world of mixed martial arts fighting has put him one fight away from a shot at the Ultimate Fighting Championship title, said his world changed forever on Nov. 12, 2003 when his father was stabbed to death in an apparent house robbery.
"I knew from that day I would make him proud and become a professional fighter," Pettis said.
Driven by the intense competitive spirit instilled in him by his father during a childhood spent competing in Tae Kwon Do, Pettis has rapidly become one of the sport's top names.
An appearance on MTV's "World of Jenks" documenting his training for a previous fight, made him an even bigger name in the sport and helped draw fans who rallied around Pettis' struggle to triumph over tragedy.
"Everybody watches MTV so I have fans of all ages that enjoyed that episode that just connected with the story behind it," Pettis said.
Pettis, who grew up on the South Side and attended Dominican High School in Whitefish Bay, is 10-1 as a professional MMA fighter. He's a talented multi-threat fighter whose been able to win by forcing his opponents to submit or knocking them out.
He'll face his toughest opponent yet Thursday in WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson with big things at stake in the fight. With WEC on the verge of merging with their sister company UFC, the biggest name in MMA, a victory will give him an automatic UFC title shot.
"This guy is the champ so he's the champ for a reason. He is really good at what he does and I mean he's a solid guy. This is going to be one of those fights where I have to give everything I have and make no mistakes," Pettis said.
Pettis said he is totally focused on the upcoming fight, but looks forward to joining UFC and fighting on the world's largest stage.
"I am excited about everything. I am going to miss the WEC. They made me who I am. They gave me my name and they helped me become the fighter I am right now, but I am really excited I am going to the UFC where I can prove my skills against the highest level guys," Pettis said.
Pettis, who trains with celebrated kickboxer and MMA trainer Duke Roufus, grew up practicing and competing in Tae Kwon Do and runs two martial arts studios. For all his current success in MMA, it's surprising to learn he essentially stumbled upon the sport.
"Initially when I started doing mixed martial arts I wanted to try something new. It was more for like the exercise," said Pettis, "I was trying to learn some new stuff to teach my students and just better my business and I fell in love with it man. The first couple weeks that I started training I knew this was what I wanted to do."
After winning his first fight during a local event in just 36 seconds he was hooked.
"That feeling you get after a fight is something you can't even explain until you feel it. It's one of those things that you just want to have all the time," said Pettis, "So that's what I strive for. I like winning and I am very competitive, and mixed martial arts is a great place for me to be competitive and with my skill set it actually gives me a stage to perform on."