Brazilian bruiser, Rafael dos Anjos, is set to challenge Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight wunderkind, Anthony Pettis, this Saturday night (March 14, 2015) at the UFC 185 pay-per-view (PPV) event inside the American Airlines Center in Dallas, Texas.
Dos Anjos is undoubtedly one of the most improved fighters in UFC. He entered the promotion as a jiu-jitsu fighter with decent wrestling, but is now elite in each aspect of mixed martial arts (MMA). A good portion of his improvements have to be attributed to his camp, Evolve MMA.
Even with his development, the question of whether he can stand with Pettis is a big one. Let's take a closer look at the Brazilian's skill set and see if some combination of his offense will be enough to take out "Showtime."
Under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro and his coaches at Evolve, dos Anjos has become a very potent and aggressive Muay Thai striker -- a trademark of Cordeiro-trained fighters -- and has finished two of his last three opponents via knockout, including the extremely durable Benson Henderson.
Dos Anjos isn't a particularly complex striker, but he makes up for that by throwing everything with violence, moving forward, and having solid technique in even the most heated exchanges.
On the outside, dos Anjos will frequently attack with his kicking game. He doesn't always set up his kicks with anything other than feints -- though he will use the hook-low kick combo -- but "Rafa" is usually quick enough to safely land regardless. For example, he frequently attacks with his switch body kick without a set up and landed it successfully against Henderson multiple times, as he momentarily switched into the opposite stance of his foe. Plus, dos Anjos kicks with some serious force, meaning that even blocked blows can have a significant effect.
In particular, dos Anjos is very dangerous with his low kick. Turning his hips over nicely, he lands the strike with serious impact. This was on display in his last fight, as he took on the eternally-low-kickable Nate Diaz. Immediately, dos Anjos attacked his opponent's lower body and destroyed Diaz's ability to move within a couple minutes.
While dos Anjos is more than competent with his kicks, he prefers to walk his opponent down with hard punches. Mostly fighting out of the Southpaw stance, dos Anjos will walk towards his opponent and fire off short, two-to-three punch combinations of hooks, uppercuts, and his straight left. If his opponent is pinned against the fence, dos Anjos will step up his aggression, refusing to leave the boxing range as he fires off heavy blows. Since he steps into each punch, his stand-up has to be respected.
The Brazilian isn't trying to score points.
Dos Anjos blends his attack quite well by mixing in shots to the body. Usually, his midsection assault comes in the form of a lead hook, but he'll also go down with his straight. Plus, as mentioned, his sharp switch kick is commonly aimed towards his opponent's gut.
He may not be a patient counter striker, but dos Anjos rarely allows his opponent to have the last word. After blocking or absorbing a combination, dos Anjos is quick to return with his own series of attacks. This tactic is simply an extension of his aggressive mentality.
Dos Anjos has never been bad at scoring takedowns -- at least not inside the Octagon -- but he used to rely mostly on athleticism in order to drag his opponents to the mat. Now, he very much looks like a veteran wrestler, as he fluidly forces his prey to the floor.
For the most part, dos Anjos relies on his double-leg takedown. After getting his opponent's back to the fence, he will change levels and keep position. From there, dos Anjos is usually able to finish the shot, even against experienced wrestlers.
In order to set up the shot, dos Anjos usually fires off a quick flurry of punches. Since striking his opponent against the cage is his standard game plan, these punches have to be respected. Once his opponent's guard is high, dos Anjos will drop down on his opponent's legs. Alternatively, dos Anjos will attack with quick punches and knees after securing a double collar tie, then change levels with a shot.
In addition, dos Anjos is often able to land a re-shot on his opponents. After his foe attempts to land a double or clinch trip, dos Anjos quickly steps into his own shot. Since his opponent is usually out of his normal stance, the takedown will come much easier. Against Mark Bocek, dos Anjos repeatedly used this technique, spinning the Canadian out of the clinch and dropping into his own double leg.
Defensively, dos Anjos is a pretty sound wrestler. He has a quick, powerful sprawl and generally uses the fence very well. While his forward movement can occasionally allow his opponent to get in on his hips -- such as when he was trying to take Jason High's head off -- he's usually able to return to his feet without much difficulty.
The recent exception to this is his bout against Khabib Nurmagomedov. The Sambo specialist was able to chain together takedowns in the clinch and drag dos Anjos down. From there, Nurmagomedov's top control is air tight, and dos Anjos was not able to do much.
Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ)
Dos Anjos is an excellent jiu-jitsu fighter, perhaps the best in the lightweight division. The Brazilian is a black belt and actually found some success in competition before focusing on MMA.
While he's dangerous from his back, his top game is even better. Utilizing a pressure passing game, dos Anjos likes to cut his knee through his opponent's guard. While maintaining heavy top pressure, dos Anjos will land small strikes as he slices through the guard. Once he's in a dominant position, he is very active with his submission attempts.
The Brazilian's go-to submission is his kimura. Whether he's on top or bottom, dos Anjos is looking to isolate an arm and secure it. Once he secures his grip, he'll look to move into north-south and finish the hold. If he can't crank on his opponent's shoulder, he'll sit back into an armbar.
Dos Anjos will also look for the rear-naked choke whenever his opponent turtles up, as he is quick to hop onto the back, and like most fighters, will aggressively pursue his opponent's neck from there. However, he'll also attack with the calf slicer, which he nearly finished Tyson Griffin with way back in 2009.
From his back, dos Anjos is a very smooth grappler. He utilizes a number of guards, such as the open guard, deep half, and De la Riva guard. Dos Anjos transitions between these positions very well, using them to create distance and keep his opponent off balance, meaning that it's hard to land strikes from the top. Additionally, "RDA" is constantly looking for an opportunity to kick off his opponent during his transitions.
While on his back, dos Anjos will hunt for his kimura, while also throwing up triangle and armbar attempts. Since he's so active with submissions, sweeps, and stand-up attempts, it's very difficult to control dos Anjos for an extended period of time.
Best chance for success
Pettis has looked incredible lately, but it would not be wise to overlook dos Anjos. The Brazilian is extremely well-rounded and dangerous in each aspect. Perhaps most importantly, dos Anjos has the offensive pressure to keep Pettis' soul-sapping kicks from destroying his body.
Gilbert Melendez had an excellent game plan in his championship bid against Pettis. However, his offensive boxing, wrestling, and athleticism were not enough to really threaten the champ, meaning "Showtime" could unleash brutal moments of offense whenever given the opportunity.
"Rafa" should follow "El Nino's" lead, as he has those same tools. He may not be as technical with his punches as Pettis, but his power and aggressiveness can make up for that. Then, dos Anjos can mix in his takedown attempts while the champ is against the fence. Unlike Melendez, dos Anjos should have the strength to finish his shot from there.
On the mat, dos Anjos may have an advantage. Pettis scored a pair of sweet submissions in his last two wins, but it's important to remember both the men he submitted were badly hurt. Obviously, that makes submissions far easier to land. If dos Anjos can drag his foe to the mat without enduring any significant wounds along the way, he should be able to nullify his opponent's offense and implement his own.
Will dos Anjos overcome the odds, or can Pettis defend his title once more?