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UFC Fight Night: Dos Anjos v Edwards Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Vegas 14’s Rafael dos Anjos

Long-time Lightweight talent, Rafael dos Anjos, will return to the 155-pound division opposite skilled striker, Paul Felder, this Saturday (Nov. 14, 2020) at UFC Vegas 14 inside UFC APEX in Las Vegas, Nevada.

Dos Anjos is 36 years old, and the Brazilian has lost four of his last five fights. That doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story, however. For years and years, dos Anjos has fought a ridiculously high-level of competition, largely grinding wrestlers who give all of their opponents major headaches. Is a move back to Lightweight the solution? After all, “RDA” abandoned the division due to the difficult weight cut, and shedding pounds only grows harder with age. Yet, it also feels like the only option if dos Anjos wants to even a chance to remain a title threat.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

Striking

dos Anjos is a high-volume Muay Thai striker who excels at stalking his opponent. At his best, dos Anjos is breaking foes down with low kicks and body shots, which is how the Brazilian sets up his underrated power.

Working out of the Southpaw stance, dos Anjos understands how he matches up against his foe’s stance and chooses his strikes wisely. For example, Anthony Pettis chose to stand Orthodox opposite “RDA,” which allowed dos Anjos to repeatedly fire off body kicks with no set up and step into clinch knees. Against a fellow Southpaw in Benson Henderson, dos Anjos instead ripped at him with quick switch kicks and hard outside low kicks.

UFC 185: Pettis vs Dos Anjos Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

These adjustments sound simply enough, but many fighters are far less comfortable against certain stances. As with the rest of his game, dos Anjos adjusts to the individual opponent quite well. While he may adjust his style based on opponent, pressure is the constant factor in dos Anjos’ fights. The man comes at his opponent with the intention of forcing him to fold, and often his opponent does just that.

In an all-time great example of pressure fighting that saw dos Anjos capture the Lightweight title, dos Anjos beat up Anthony Pettis. Immediately, dos Anjos followed his game plan at range and began to pressure his opponent into the fence, and an early explosion into a sharp straight left hand — the most valuable punch in Southpaw-Orthodox exchanges — forced his opponent to respect his offense.

Then, dos Anjos made full use of his kicks. While few men can match Pettis in pure kicking ability, dos Anjos took advantage of the opening to Pettis’ mid-section provided by their opposite stances and dug into his opponent’s body early and often. dos Anjos kicks hard, and these body kicks did wonders to slow down Pettis and limit his circling. Pettis fired off kicks of his own, but dos Anjos’ cage position generally allowed him to land the more effective blows, particularly if he timed Pettis circling into his power.

Though less significant overall, dos Anjos also worked on Pettis’ lead leg throughout the fight. He snapped off a few outside kicks to prevent Pettis’ circling away from his power, and his right hook served a similar purpose. Plus, dos Anjos did further damage by ripping inside kicks once Pettis was against the fence and trying to counter, as Pettis had his feet planted and could do little but absorb the blow. As Nate Diaz and Robbie Lawler can attest, dos Anjos’ low kick can quickly turn a leg to jelly (GIF).

UFC Fight Night - Dos Anjos v Diaz Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

At Welterweight, dos Anjos’ work against the fence has proven just as effective. Most notably, dos Anjos backed Lawler into the fence and kept him there for long portions of the fight. Once in that position, dos Anjos chopped the lead leg, dug hooks to the body, and generally kept Lawler on the defensive (GIF).

While the jab is not normally a staple of Southpaw-Orthodox exchanges, dos Anjos used a hard jab not to merely control distance, but to measure Pettis’ attempts to circle. By simply keeping the jab on him, dos Anjos ensured Pettis was still within range of other strikes and keeping his hands up, which allowed dos Anjos’ to commonly dig to the body or look for a double-leg takedown. Occasionally, dos Anjos habit of jabbing simply to keep a hand on his opponent will get him countered, but that’s the reality of pressuring forward and throwing a million punches.

dos Anjos’ issues largely arise when he is not the one pressuring. From his own back foot, “RDA” struggles to take angles, often backing straight up and leaving himself vulnerable to shots and punches alike. Covington exploited this flaw ruthlessly, landing combinations as he charged forward before ducking any counter punches with a takedown attempt. Dos Anjos knew what had to be done and sometimes did it — a couple times, dos Anjos pivoted off at an angle and ripped Covington with hard body kicks or hooks that were beautiful. Unfortunately, his bad habits still cost him a lot of time on the fence. This same issue arose in his more recent losses against Kamaru Usman and Michael Chiesa, and it seems unlikely that the Brazilian can fully fix it.

Wrestling

dos Anjos is a very solid wrestler with the unfortunate luck of facing quite a few tremendously talented wrestlers in recent years — has anyone ever faced a trio of wrestlers more suffocating than Nurmagomedov, Covington and Usman in the history of mixed martial arts (MMA)? I cannot name one. Still, the fact that “RDA” somewhat recently out-wrestled Kevin Lee is a good reminder that dos Anjos knows his stuff.

UFC Fight Night Dos Anjos v Lee Photo by Brett Carlsen/Getty Images

Offensively, dos Anjos relies heavily on the double-leg takedown (GIF). He rarely looks for much else, using single-leg takedowns only to transition into the double. The double-leg shot along the fence is his real goal, a simple enough shot that can be finished on just about anyone if timed correctly. To work that shot on elite opponents, dos Anjos has to force his opponents’ defenses up high.

Luckily, “RDA’s” aggressive striking largely forces them to just that. Against an opponent trying to pressure him like Covington and Lee, dos Anjos found good success in changing levels and driving with his double-leg, which was strong enough to put both wrestlers on their butts.

UFC 225: Dos Anjos v Covington Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Usually, dos Anjos will spring toward his opponents’ hips after forcing them to cover up under a sea of punches or by slipping a counter shot. Similarly, dos Anjos will drop down into the shot from the clinch or double-collar tie. In one more rare and awesome example, dos Anjos used an upward elbow to stand Pettis tall before dropping into a shot.

Defensively, dos Anjos’ flaws again come due to his habit of backing up in a straight line. As mentioned, the double along the fence is relatively simple, and bigger men able to bully dos Anjos have historically been able to force that positioning and technique.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A long-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt with experience in competitive grappling, dos Anjos is one of the best grapplers in whatever division he chooses to compete. Ten of his professional victories have come via tapout, including his most recent finishes.

While dangerous from his back, dos Anjos’ 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 drives through the guard. Once he’s in a dominant position, he is very active with his submission attempts.

dos Anjos also does great work from inside the guard. He does an excellent job keeping hip pressure on his opponents, which makes throwing up submissions difficult. Since his opponent cannot easily adjust his hips on the bottom, dos Anjos is able to pick his shots around their defense with sharp punches and slicing elbows. If his opponent gets a bit more desperate to open up the guard and create space, dos Anjos will stack his foe and batter him.

Historically, 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 the grip, he’ll look to move into north-south and finish the hold, trapping his opponent’s head with his knees. If he cannot break the grip and crank on his opponent’s shoulder, he’ll instead sit back into an armbar.

UFC 215: Nunes v Shevchenko 2 Photo by Codie McLachlan/Getty Images

More recently, dos Anjos has turned to the arm-triangle choke to secure both of his Welterweight submission wins. Both Neil Magny and Kevin Lee fell to this choke, and the real cause of the submission is shoulder pressure. While advancing between dominant positions, “RDA” is constantly driving his shoulder hard into his opponent’s face and neck. At some point, his opponent’s arm will move out of position, either from a scramble or to block punches. Either way, dos Anjos’ pressure means that when the arm moves from good defensive position, his head/shoulder replaces its position, preventing his foe from tucking the elbow back down into safety (GIF).

dos Anjos will also look for the rear-naked choke whenever his opponent turtles up. He’s is quick to hop onto the back and will aggressively pursue his opponent’s neck from there (GIF). That’s a description true of most jiu-jitsu fighters, but dos Anjos’ game is a bit deeper, as he also very nearly secured a calf slicer from back mount on Tyson Griffin back in 2009.

UFC Fight Night 18 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

From his back, dos Anjos is a very skilled grappler. He utilizes several 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 effective strikes from the top. In addition, “RDA” is constantly looking for an opportunity to kick off his opponent during his transitions, allowing him to return to his feet.

While on his back, dos Anjos will hunt for his kimura, while also throwing up triangle and arm bar attempts. Since he’s so active with submissions, sweeps and stand up attempts, it’s generally difficult to control dos Anjos for an extended period of time.

Again, we have to consider the caliber of opponents who pulled it off before judging “RDA” too harshly.

Conclusion

dos Anjos has fought elite talent for years and years, but that may be coming to an end. Unless he’s victorious in this battle, dos Anjos is fully removed for the title picture in both of his potential divisions.

Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Vegas 14 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+ “Prelims” matches, which are scheduled to begin at 4 p.m. ET, then the remaining main card balance on ESPN+ 7 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Vegas 14: “Felder vs. dos Anjos” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.


Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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