Every week it seems as though more fighters are interested in rebranding themselves at a different weight class.
Following Anthony Pettis’ rebirth at welterweight and news of Luke Rockhold’s move to light heavyweight, we’ve now been told former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos will face the recently-absent young talent Kevin Lee in a welterweight contest on May 18 at UFC Fight Night 151.
Both fighters have been mentioned in the ever-raging ‘weight debate’ in recent years. Last July, Kevin Lee left no doubt in anyone’s mind on where he stood on the subject telling Luke Thomas on the The MMA Hour that “Everybody knows that this weight-cutting thing is a problem, but nobody is coming up with no f—ing solutions.”
His comments came three months after his five-round assault on perennial lightweight contender Edson Barboza at UFC Fight Night 128; a performance that should have enriched any prospects’ career CV for the better. But having missed weight by a pound and forfeited 20% of his fight purse, Lee was marked as a potential repeat scale-tipper, and his prospective move to welterweight was encouraged by many. A unanimous decision loss at lightweight against former title challenger Al Iaquinta last December proved the final straw, and despite rumors of a 155-pound tout with Gregor Gillespie being made, Lee opted to square off with Dos Anjos in May with a full tank of gas behind him.
Dos Anjos on the other hand is on slightly less stable ground. Capturing the lightweight title from Anthony Pettis and subsequently defending it with a 66-second KO of Donald Cerrone, Dos Anjos was up for a promising stint as champion. However, a shock loss to three-to-one underdog Eddie Alvarez at UFC Fight Night 90 quickly ended his reign. It was later reported that he was unconscious for three minutes before walking out to fight as a result of the brutal weight cut, a fact that he revealed to ESPN’s Brett Okamoto was the reasoning behind the move up to welterweight.
There, RDA opened his account with a hugely impressive performance over the always quiet, always unhinged former champion Robbie Lawler but failed to maintain momentum losing unanimous decisions to now-champion Kamaru Usman and former interim champion Colby Covington.
So what exactly can we expect from this fight?
Firstly, let’s examine conditions. RDA has fought five times at 170-pounds and comfortably made weight at each outing, meaning that the likelihood of him missing that weight is slim and all evidence indicates a healthy, tried and tested training and diet strategy throughout his camps. Lee has no experience hitting the 170-pound mark but given his walk-around weight typically hovers around 185-pounds, it is unlikely to be cause for concern.
Secondly, in-cage size. In April 2018, Lee admitted on the Joe Rogan Experience that fighting at welterweight was unlikely for him citing a large gap in the “frames and body-style” of lightweights and welterweights. This could certainly become a factor should Lee decide to set up camp at welterweight and face long-limbed opponents such as Darren Till, Stephen Thompson, and Santiago Ponzinibbio, but against the 5-foot-8 Dos Anjos, Lee would actually bring a one-inch height and a massive seven-inch reach advantage. Coupled with turning up fully hydrated and healthy, he would be the comfortably bigger man on the night.
Where it really gets interesting is the tactical side of the match-up. Lee has exercised his experience as a former NCAA Division II wrestler in almost all his fights to date utilizing powerful takedowns followed by vicious ground and pound to good effect, most notably in his win over Barboza. This fighting style lends itself perfectly to a move up to welterweight and look for Lee to take full advantage of the extra bulk to impose his size in the grappling exchanges.
However, in his most recent outing against Iaquinta, Lee seemed determined to prove those labeling him a wrestler wrong, opting to stand and trade for much of the fight, to the surprise of many. Though continuing to widen his skillsets will prove undoubtedly valuable in the long run, the key to victory for Lee in this fight is basing his strategy around ol’ reliable, especially considering Dos Anjos’ noticeable struggles under pressure grappling styles in his recent losses to Usman and Covington. RDA instead looked far more impressive in his stand-up brawl with Lawler, utilizing brutal body and leg kicks to immobilize Lawler’s movement; a fact that should Lee ignore, could be the deciding factor of the fight. On the feet, Lee and RDA are almost statistically identical with a career total of 43% and 45% striking accuracy respectively. The grappling story leans slightly in Lee’s favor with a total 44% takedown accuracy to Dos Anjos’ 40%.
Should the fight go to the ground, things become even more interesting. Both men have excellent top control with Lee favoring ground and pound to open routes to taking the back and finding the rear-naked choke. Dos Anjos meanwhile is a legitimate Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu savant, holding a third-degree black belt and a long-time student under legendary Gracie Barra coach, Roberto ‘Gordo’ Correa, a fact often forgotten considering only 9 of his 28 wins have come via submission.
As if it needed it, the welterweight division just got stronger.
Kevin Lee brings a youthful dynamism, high wrestling pedigree and powerful control to his fights that have seen him be labeled as a star in the sport, and, on a new stage, he will look to make put the division on notice from the off. Looking to spoil the party, former lightweight king Raphael Dos Anjos will look to rediscover his mojo after two successive losses to the division’s best.
The winner of this fight will likely be determined by which fighter has the foresight to plan a strategy and the courage to stick to it, as the depth of the talent at 170-pounds will not allow for wasted opportunities.
Rhodri Morgan is a combat sports writer based out of London, England. When not covering MMA, he can be found roaming the halls of a south London Wholefoods, finding a dog to befriend and rolling in the doomed pursuit of the perfect kimura.