He was just 16 years old, a high school junior, when his world suddenly shattered. He stopped trying in school. He couldn’t concentrate. He lost his focus.
Anthony Pettis began to question his faith when his father, Eugene Pettis, was killed Nov. 12, 2003.
“He was in the wrong place at the wrong time,” Anthony told your Catholic Herald in a telephone interview last week, explaining that Eugene was stabbed while the house he was visiting just a block away from his own was being robbed.
Eugene’s death took a piece of Anthony that his family, friends and Catholic education have since helped him get back.
“It’s that age where you’re becoming a man, deciding what you want to do with your life and for something like that to happen to you just throws things off a lot,” he said. “It makes you question a lot of things, so that’s why I say thanks to Dominican High School and my family and friends for helping me get through something like that and actually making something of myself.”
Today, the 24-year-old mixed martial artist is known as Anthony “Showtime,” Pettis. He became the final World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) Lightweight Champion in WEC 53 in December 2010 – which has since merged with the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) – after his fight against Benson Henderson when he earned fame for his “Showtime kick.”
He is part-owner of two academies in Milwaukee and Oak Creek and a mixed martial arts-themed bar/restaurant with his older brother, Reynaldo, 29, and he gives talks at schools. The 2005 graduate returned to Dominican last February to share with current students his family’s tragic story and how he overcame obstacles to succeed as a mixed martial arts fighter.
“I mean you’re surrounded by kids (at Dominican) that want something in life, that want to go further and their parents are pushing them to do that and to instill a belief in them – a belief in God and going to church,” he said.
Mom deserves much credit
His success, he said, has a lot to do with his mother, Annette Garcia, who made him and his brothers go to church, learn about God and attend Catholic schools.
“For me growing up, my family was super important. I mean we’re all very close. I have two brothers, (I’m) very, very close with both of them, and my mom’s like the rock of our family – without her, I think none of us would be where we’re at,” Anthony said of Garcia, a customer service representative for Aurora Healthcare at St. Luke Hospital in Milwaukee.
It’s true, Anthony has his mother to thank for enrolling him in taekwondo classes at age 5, because they were offered through the Telesis Program at Alverno College at the same time that Garcia attended night classes there. Rather than sending her sons to stay with a family in their rough neighborhood – where the parents of the kids next door to their home were likely alcoholics or drug addicts – Garcia knew her children were being influenced in a positive way and learning self defense.
Anthony gives a lot of credit to his mother, who raised her sons mostly on her own, because their father, though a good man with a good heart, was in and out of their lives, and eventually became addicted to the pain medication prescribed to treat many physical ailments lingering from his many years as a painter.
Fr. Bob was steadying influence
Anthony also largely credits the staff at Dominican, and especially Capuchin Fr. Robert Wheelock, former chaplain at Dominican, who helped him through his junior and senior years when Eugene’s death brought life to a screeching halt.
“Fr. Bob definitely helped me get through (those) times, and I mean every day when I felt like I wasn’t able to concentrate, or I wasn’t focused, I would go down to him and we would have talks, and I mean, I think my first couple months back it was just me and him talking the whole time and he was a huge, huge help,” Anthony said.
Garcia said the priest was extremely helpful to all of them at that time when she was afraid Anthony would become rebellious, angry and possible not finish school.
“The priest (Fr. Wheelock) there (at Dominican) actually came to my house almost every day to mentor us, to help us, to be supportive,” Garcia, 53, told your Catholic Herald in an interview in her Milwaukee home last week.
Garcia insisted that Fr. Wheelock didn’t need to continue to visit them, but she recalled him saying, “No, I’m going to be right here with Anthony, because Anthony’s an awesome student; I’m not going to lose him.”
When Anthony was just going through the motions, people like Fr. Wheelock helped him.
“I mean the whole staff, everybody there, was just awesome. Without the staff at Dominican, just everybody there at Dominican, without them – I wouldn’t have graduated high school,” said Anthony, who played basketball during his freshman and beginning of sophomore years, but stopped all sports when his dad died.
Priest remembers ‘outstanding young man’
Fr. Wheelock, now a spiritual director at St. Lawrence Seminary in Mt. Calvary, remembers encouraging Anthony as much as he could during that painful time.
“Anthony is really the most outstanding young man,” Fr. Wheelock said. “I think that he probably had more effect on me than I ever had on him. He’s just a precious person.”
The respect Anthony had for others is also evident in his sport, Fr. Wheelock said.
“Martial arts is an amazing thing. You can see the people that use martial arts to clobber other people, but martial arts is very much into the respect of the dignity of the individual – they bow to each other,” he said. “It’s just – martial arts really brings out a lot of the best in men, or it can bring out the worst, and with him it brought out the best.”
Fr. Wheelock said Anthony was a hard-working student who took every opportunity to grow and develop to be the best student he could be.
“I think that’s his greatest legacy – that he was always respectful and kind and treated everybody with great dignity….” Fr. Wheelock said. “You dream of having kids like him.”
Garcia’s proud of all of her sons – her youngest, Sergio, 18, a 2011 graduate of Milwaukee’s Pius XI High School, began his professional MMA career last September.
Mom wanted sons to have faith in future
As a mostly single mother, Garcia was very strict raising her three boys. She wanted her children to rise up out of the neighborhoods where guns, drugs and alcohol were easy to come by.
That’s why she sent Reynaldo, Anthony and Sergio to Catholic schools.
“I wanted my sons to have faith in their future – that was important to me,” said Garcia, who was able to keep her kids in Catholic schools throughout their growing years thanks to the Choice program.
Garcia, who began reading the Bible at age 10, said she remembers liking what it said about right and wrong. She knew that she wanted good morals and spiritual values to be instilled in her sons, which is something that they received from their education in the grade schools – St. Matthew, now Prince of Peace, and St. Adalbert – and high schools they attended.
Garcia felt good about sending her sons to Catholic schools because what she taught them at home would be repeated and reinforced at school where their friends would hear the same.
“It helped me so much to put these values in them and to show them it’s not just mom saying it and you’re not the only kid that’s doing it; all the other kids are, too,” Garcia said.
Eat, but pray first, says young Anthony
She also liked the small class sizes offered in the Catholic schools where she said students were well behaved and her sons’ education wouldn’t be disrupted.
When their neighborhood friends visited their house, she was strict with them, too. If they spoke up and were disrespectful to Garcia, her sons would chime in with, “Wait a minute now, my mom is being fair,” she said, noting that her sons began to teach their friends good things.
Garcia remembers taking a friend of Anthony’s to taekwondo because Anthony didn’t want him to end up in jail, and she remembers when she had more than her sons sitting around the table because of an invitation Anthony extended to a neighborhood kid he knew wouldn’t eat dinner at home.
“Come have something to eat; we have to say prayers first,” Garcia was laughing as she repeated young Anthony’s words.
Whether it was offering free classes in exchange for janitorial duties to get someone off the streets or pitching in financially to help his mother, Anthony and his brothers have helped Garcia.
While Garcia was flattered to hear that Anthony called her the rock of the family, she disagreed.
“Actually, it’s them. They’re positive little role models,” said Garcia. “They could be bad. They could have said, ‘That’s it, I’m dropping out of school,’ or ‘I’m going to do some drugs.’” Instead, they’ve helped each other stay strong.
“You know, everybody says, ‘You’re so strong, you’re so strong,’ and actually inside me, I don’t feel strong, so that’s why I turn to my God,” said Garcia, who won’t watch Anthony’s fights, but gives him a Bible verse to read before each one. “God helps me through everything. He’s my light, and I tell my sons that – I don’t care what problem you have.”
People have to remind Garcia that her son is such a big name in the sport locally and beyond, because that’s not how she views him, and she hopes his fame never gets to him as he works toward his next goal – to win the UFC championship belt.
“I just want everybody to look at them and respect them,” Garcia said, adding “and to say, ‘Wow – that’s an awesome man right there.’”