In the main event of last night’s UFC Vegas 58 Rafael Fiziev won The War of the Rafael’s with a fifth round KO. And he looked phenomenal in doing so.
By beating Rafael dos Anjos, in emphatic fashion, Fiziev earned a statement victory in the UFC’s most competitive weight division. The victory ensures that Fiziev will now face-off with other member’s of lightweight’s elite class, opponents who—if beaten impressively—could pave the way to a title shot.
Fiziev’s win came via a crushing left hook, behind a feint that he had been laying the ground work for since the first round. The stalled jumping knee to overhand combo was a thing of beauty and was what we’d expect from the famed Tiger Muay Thai striking coach. However, it’s my opinion that Fiziev’s striking was the least impressive thing about him last night.
We knew Fiziev’s stand-up game was among the best in the sport before he stepped in against dos Anjos. What we didn’t know was what he could do outside of a quick KO or a long stand-up brawl.
I wondered if Fiziev had the cardio to go five rounds. I wondered if Fiziev could go that long without being taken down. I wondered if Fiziev had the mental toughness to flourish in his first main event. I wondered if Fiziev had the IQ and gameplan to out-fox a crafty veteran and former champ.
Shame on me.
Fiziev won the first three rounds versus dos Anjos through a varied approach of patient striking and incredible takedown defense. He was able to score with heavy strikes, though not to the point he got tired or over-committed. With those strikes he touched up dos Anjos’ face and warned him about the threat of a jumping knee. He also opened a huge gash on dos Anjos’ forearm with one of his kicks.
Dos Anjos looked concerned about the striking from the get-go and tried to get the fight to the ground. But Fiziev wasn’t having it. We knew Fiziev had a gaudy takedown defense stat heading into this fight (defending over 90% of attempts against him), but that stat felt a little hollow.
He was yet to face an outstanding wrestler or grappler in the cage. It was fair to throw that one out and wait and see what happened against dos Anjos, one of the more well-rounded fighters in the sport and someone who mixed striking and takedowns to great effect last time out against Renato Moicano.
But Fiziev showed that his ability to stay on his feet had nothing to do with strength of schedule. Dos Anjos tried mightily to get Fiziev down, but ‘Ataman’ displayed elite reactions, balance and intelligence in being able to shuck off and stall the attempts.
When Fiziev came out in the fourth it looked as though we might have been right to question his cardio. The thickly muscled fighter seemed to slow a little and, as a result, got caught by some hard punches. Those slowed him down further and allowed dos Anjos to land the only legit takedown of the fight.
However, after Fiziev got out of the round we learned that this wasn’t a sign that he was going to fade. It was just a wake-up call.
Fiziev’s corner didn’t like what they saw in the fourth and they sent him out with a mission to stop the fight. Fiziev listened and understood what he had to do. He’d been canny in conserving his energy, but now he knew it was time to uncork his ultimate power.
In the fifth it didn’t take long for him to fake the knee and unleash his blistering left hand. When dos Anjos went down he swarmed to follow-up, but the referee—mercifully—got in the way.
Dos Anjos looked stunned, confused and thoroughly beaten as he regained his wits. Fiziev was jubilant, knowing he had proven his doubters wrong and set himself up for a real shot to compete with the best at 155 lbs.
The ending striking sequence, and unquestionable power in his hands, will rightfully earn a lot of headlines today. However, for me, when you look at what these five rounds of combat showed us: fight IQ, cardio, top-tier takedown defence, coach-ability, fortitude in the face of adversity and the mentality to rise to the occasion in the stiffest test of his fighting career — Fiziev’s striking was really the least impressive thing I saw last night.
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