Anthony Pettis captured UFC gold in August. | Photo: D. Mandel/Sherdog.com
Duke entered the family business at age 18, launching his own kickboxing career in 1988. He was not as successful as Rick inside the ring, winning a handful of titles during his 14-year career. However, he saw things others did not see. He could detect little nuances and possessed an innate ability to create what many trainers lack. Entrenched so deeply in the sport, Duke immersed himself into training.
Ironically, he came across Pettis when he was 18 -- the same age at which Duke turned pro. When Pettis arrived at the Roufusport academy in Milwaukee, he joined the beginner’s classes, even though he was already teaching lessons in tae kwon do. Anthony’s younger brother, Sergio Pettis, soon followed.
“My relationship with Anthony is literally going from the root to the fruit,” Duke said. “What I’m most proud of is that Anthony didn’t walk into our academy to fight. He did it for the pure essence of learning martial arts and to become a better teacher, but I did see a lot of potential. I remember one Saturday when Anthony was 19 and I put him in with a couple of polished kickboxers. He did so well that the rest, as they say, is history.”
Duke met another side of Anthony in the ring.
“What I love about Anthony is that he has no ego, but there is an alter ego,” he said. “When the fight comes near, he turns into ‘Showtime.’ Anthony would train the simplest detail to master it. He’s the type of guy who doesn’t mind me nudging him in the right way here and there. Anthony is still open to suggestions. He is one hell of a teacher himself. He could drop everything he’s doing today and be a very successful teacher. I’ll tell you, he would have more students than me.
“Seeing what he does in the cage is so fun,” Duke added, “but all my guys who trust me -- it’s a fun relationship. I do look at Anthony and Sergio as my sons. Anthony has a partnership in our Roufusport academy. When I walk away, I know the school we built is in good hands.”
When Anthony walked into Roufusport nine years ago, he was looking not for a second father but for a teacher. He wanted to learn kickboxing and jiu-jitsu to become a better martial arts instructor. Anthony had heard of Duke’s school and asked him where he should start.
“Duke told me to start from the beginning,” Anthony said. “What I liked about Duke was he was the guy teaching. All of these other places carry the name of a guy, and he’s not the actual person teaching. We connected really fast. It was different than most other guys. Duke realized my potential the first two months I was in his class. He mentioned to me something about fighting. I thought he was gassing me up at first.”
A deep trust formed between the two. Duke liked what he saw in Anthony and suggested he try an amateur fight. That was when Anthony’s demons surfaced.
Anthony’s epiphany came the night he received the news his father was killed, stabbed four times in the chest during a house robbery. Now 27, he speaks with a sagacity of someone twice his age.
He jokes that he has been 30 ever since he turned 16, carrying the mantle left by his father as family patriarch. He admits he was not exactly ready for the role. He had to grow, he needed focus and above all else, he needed to find control. It was Anthony who was called down to identify his father’s body. That was the burning thicket Duke had to douse.
“Duke came in and filled a lot of holes in my life; he gave me this direction I never had before,” Anthony said. “Me and my brother were depressed. After my dad was killed, my mom was crying all of the time. The funny thing is, you don’t know how angry you are until someone else points it out. I remember my first fight for Duke. He had to pull me off the guy. I was definitely taking out some anger on that guy.”
Duke shakes his head and smirks at the memory. It happened almost a decade ago, yet seems like only yesterday. Duke saw himself in a sinewy, spritely package. He witnessed two years of rage spilling out.
“Anthony had been bottling up a lot since his father was killed,” Duke said. “Not showing emotion creates an angst inside of you that has to come out. The reason why I call Anthony ‘Showtime’ is that he gets this look on his face, this controlled rage. When the lights turn on, he turns into someone else. No one wants to fight more than Anthony. He loves to be in the arena, but he had to be under control. Anthony carries the swag of Floyd Mayweather and goes at you like Roberto Duran.”
During the filming of MTV’s “World of Jenks” in March 2010 -- the show led up to Anthony’s bout with Danny Castillo in World Extreme Cagefighting -- Roufus and Anthony went through an emotional, cathartic gamut. It brought latent feelings to the surface.
“While they filmed it, we just broke down and cried together; we say we love each other every week,” Duke said. “You don’t realize how important relationships are until someone is gone. I think it’s why Anthony thanks me constantly. He received an award from the governor of Wisconsin, and he stopped to thank me. He doesn’t have to.”
Duke sees Eugene in Anthony, too.
“The cool thing about Anthony is he had star power before he was a big star,” he said. “The one thing about being a star is you have a lot of ‘yes’ people around you. It’s where I give a lot of credit to his father, because he would tell it like it is. Anthony knows I will tell him like it is, too. There was some tough love at times between us. Anthony is like any star athlete. There were a few times when I told him not to go down that road. Anthony will listen. We spend so much time together people say I favor Anthony, but I see Anthony all of the time. I see myself in him. A lot of times these kids fight because their lives are [expletive] up. I can relate to that.”
Duke has turned into his father and grandfather. He hears the same things coming from his mouth that once came from theirs. He preaches constantly to fighters to “be more skilled than they are talented, believe in dedication and commitment [and] believe where you come from makes you.” His stable of martial artists includes not only the Pettis brothers but former Bellator MMA champion Ben Askren, Pat Barry, Alan Belcher, Erik Koch, Matt Mitrione and Ben Rothwell. In the past, he has worked with former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver and “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 1 finalist Stephan Bonnar.
Time has smoothed some of life’s rough edges. Duke and his wife, Tami, celebrated their eighth wedding anniversary in December. His commentary career has taken off, and his school continues to explode with students. Duke no longer cuts a wide swath around bassinets. “After Casey,” he said, “for the longest time I couldn’t go near infants.” The arrival of his daughter, Lula Nesta Rufus, has helped him overcome his fears. Anthony is her godfather.
“I do miss fighting every day, but I have my guys,” Duke said. “I had my day in the sun. It’s all about them. After teaching martial arts for years, seeing the success they have is the most appealing thing that I do. I have a wife who’s lived at the gym and been through a lot with me. I have a daughter who’s my world. I am in a good place right now.”
So is Anthony. He subsisted in a house of four that somehow managed on $30,000 a year. Now, he is a budding mixed martial arts superstar traveling the country, having captured the lightweight crown with a first-round submission victory over Benson Henderson at UFC 164 in August. Anthony no longer desires to know the identity of his father’s killer.
“When Duke found his baby sister, that was motivation; he always tells me the same thing: the best revenge is massive success,” he said. “They never found the guy that killed my father. I could let that rage tear me apart. Not knowing who did it, I’m comfortable with it. I don’t want to put a face in front of it for all of this rage. The guy that killed my dad has no idea what he created. Duke took what happened to him and that molded him. It’s like what molded me.”
Teacher and student share an unshakeable connection.
“We’ve had arguments before and if I’m doing something wrong, Duke’s going to let me know,” Anthony said. “I have a daughter, and when I found out Duke was going to have a daughter, it was my time to give him advice. I didn’t expect him to ask me to be the godfather. This guy changed my life and nothing will happen to his daughter that won’t happen to me first. We just know that the losses we’ve had, we’ve both been through a lot at an early age. I’ll be forever grateful for meeting Duke Roufus.”