While Kamaru Usman’s domination of Tyron Woodley certainly made Rafael dos Anjos look extremely competent in comparison, it still leaves the former lightweight champion without a route to the welterweight crown; as long as the “Nigerian Nightmare” remains on top of the division (and it looks like it may be a while), dos Anjos has no chance of a title shot, and it leaves him in a holding pattern that he can’t afford in what is likely the twilight of his career. A win in Rochester doesn’t do much for him directly, but it will keep him in position to take advantage of an opportunity if the belt changes hands.
His fight on May 18 is against Kevin Lee, in the situation that dos Anjos found himself in a few years ago; too big to consistently cut to lightweight in a healthy way, Lee moves up to welterweight on the heels of a loss to Al Iaquinta in December. A win over a top-five welterweight would put immediately place Lee into the title conversation, where a loss to Lee would definitively spell the end of dos Anjos’ prime as a top-ranked contender. “The Mo-Town Phenom” has everything to gain when he visits New York on May 18, where the Brazilian legend has everything to lose.
One of the most skilled fighters in the history of MMA, Rafael dos Anjos had an extremely rough 2018; RDA’s chance at an interim belt went poorly in a decision that probably should’ve gone his way but didn’t, and his attempt to get back on the winning track ended in the worst protracted beatdown of his career. Dos Anjos has been fighting professionally for almost fifteen years, so his decline is due sooner rather than later; that said, his last win showed RDA in his best form ever, so there’s likely more to look forward to from the Brazilian. If dos Anjos beats Lee, there are a few more interesting fights for him at the top of welterweight; however, if he loses, his time among the elite is likely over.
At his best, dos Anjos is a pressure fighter; while he isn’t inept on the back foot (with one potent exception, perhaps), dos Anjos is a buzzsaw on the front foot with some of the soundest and most aggressive pressure in the sport. Even past the fundamentals of pressure footwork (which RDA does masterfully), dos Anjos is an excellent ring cutter with his punishing kicking game (from both legs as a southpaw) and his right hook to keep his opponent stood still. Dos Anjos has the confidence to pressure due to his underrated defense in the pocket; while it isn’t impenetrable (as Alvarez and Ferguson showed), dos Anjos has a relatively solid high guard, and moves his head well in the pocket.
Dos Anjos is very potent on the outside, but his pressure leads him into the pocket and the clinch where he can open up more freely; dos Anjos is a monstrous swarmer when he can get his opponent stood against the fence, and the Lawler fight was a showcase of that (albeit through an injury on Lawler’s part). Dos Anjos is a top-3 clincher in MMA, where he has a good deal of Thai influence; RDA’s consistent collar-tie and frame work was excellent when he dominated the fight against Lawler, and it was just as impressive to create space and strike as Colby Covington looked to stick to him with underhooks. Dos Anjos’ consistent body work in the clinch (and in the open, dos Anjos punches the body fairly often) and his pace does a great job breaking his opponent down.
The best-defined weakness of dos Anjos’ game has been encapsulated in his last two fights; Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman committed to pressuring the pressurer, and the wrestling threat gave the Brazilian some serious issues. While dos Anjos can outfight well (as he was forced to in an extremely competitive fight against Tony Ferguson), the wrestling threat gives him some issues tactically and leaves him fairly easy to pin against the fence (especially considering that dos Anjos isn’t enough of a puncher to reliably keep someone honest with his counterpunching). While the Covington performance was a great one, Kamaru Usman’s pressuring skill and his nastiness in the clinch (and his insane athleticism) led to a far more one-sided affair. Lee may be a good test to see if dos Anjos has improved in that pivotal area this deep into his career.
Kevin Lee was a top contender for a brief period between April and December of 2018; after a top-position mauling of Edson Barboza that rivalled the ferocity of champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, Lee was widely seen as a champion-in-waiting. The young Detroiter seemed like a tough out for anyone and better every fight, only for Al Iaquinta to coax the old flaws out of him and become a top-5 contender himself. Lee’s weight-cutting woes were well-documented in his fights against Barboza and Tony Ferguson, so the move up to 170 is somewhat-overdue; if the switch fixes some of the issues he’s shown at lightweight, the “Mo-Town Phenom” is a fearsome prospect moving forward.
Lee’s endgame tends to be on top, and his performances from there have been generally consistent; Lee is a capable takedown artist from the shot (Barboza, Chiesa, Mustafaev) and the clinch (Iaquinta, Trinaldo), and is such a monstrous athlete that he can take opponents down through an underhook. On top, Lee has generally hunted for the body-triangle and the RNC (with which he finished Chiesa and Trinaldo, and choked Mustafaev out through his jaw), so the Barboza fight was a pleasant change in his top game. Rather than looking to take the back, Lee kept Barboza’s back stapled to the mat from the moment he hit the ground, cutting to mount to find hand-traps and battering Barboza from beginning to end. Lee found some strikes on the ground against Iaquinta, but he mostly went with his pre-Barboza grappling process to his own detriment; it may suggest that Barboza proved uniquely susceptible on the ground, but also indicate more concerning overarching tactical issues.
These issues are a bit clearer in his striking; Lee’s striking is extremely unpolished, and that was exacerbated in his last fight by not knowing what he was meant to be doing in the open. Against an open book like Barboza, Lee showed some initiative pressuring (he didn’t do it particularly well but at least understood that he had to move forward), jabbing to drive Edson back and cutting him off with kicks, but against an opponent who wasn’t so easy to figure out, Lee had serious trouble. Lee committed to striking with Iaquinta on the outside for long stretches, where he got cleanly boxed up despite getting takedowns and back control whenever he tried in the first 4 rounds. Lee doesn’t have much systematic defense and his offense is mostly contingent on being freakishly long for the division (where he can jab from way outside and round-kick); when Iaquinta showed the ability to close the distance with shifting and feinting takedowns, Lee didn’t really have much to offer in the way of striking. Combined with suspect durability and a gas tank that has seemed exploitable at times (Ferguson, Iaquinta), Lee is much more vulnerable on the feet than he is on the ground. That said, cutting less weight could go far in mitigating a few of those factors, and RDA is a good test to see if the move to welter is a viable long-term one.
Conclusions and Capping
Lee has the tools to theoretically give RDA the problems that Covington and Usman did; he’s an extremely powerful wrestler, and it could make dos Anjos a bit wary to operate as comfortably on the back foot as he did against Ferguson. That said, Lee is far from a defined pressure fighter; he was able to push Barboza backwards, but Barboza largely does that to himself, and dos Anjos at least looks to keep to the front foot when he has a choice. Usman prodded him backwards with a jab and Covington ran him down, and Lee isn’t particularly likely to find success doing either when he isn’t a very comfortable striker (dos Anjos is a capable counterpuncher to keep Lee from jabbing with impunity, and kicking with RDA generally doesn’t end well; that’s about the end of Lee’s tools as a striker, and he doesn’t bring a ton of nuance to it).
The athletic margin is also likely far narrower than the one dos Anjos had to contend with when he faced Usman; while the clinch work against a gigantic (and phenomenally athletic, and extremely clinch-skilled) welterweight exhausted RDA in November, he soundly and consistently beat Covington in the clinch for 5 hyper-paced rounds. Covington’s relentlessness brought him to the decision against dos Anjos, and that isn’t something that has marked Lee’s lightweight approach; while he may have increased durability and endurance at welterweight, eating the consistent and clean clinch offense that Covington did would likely back Lee off.
If Lee looks the same as he did in Milwaukee, he’s likely in for a long night against dos Anjos; MTP was backed up and beaten down fairly easily on the feet by Iaquinta, who isn’t a fraction of the cage-cutter nor the pocket-fighter dos Anjos is. Combined with how great of a role cardio played in that fight, the long game favors dos Anjos heavily, and dos Anjos hits the body liberally to accentuate that advantage against anyone. Lee isn’t defensively sound enough (nor aware enough of his ring position) to survive in the open against a ruthless pressurer, and he isn’t historically smart enough to find a way to beat a fighter as all-around skilled as dos Anjos if the Plan A doesn’t work. If RDA can get going early, he’s like a truck going downhill with no brakes, and his main event in Rochester favors him slightly more than it favors the newcomer to 170. Dos Anjos is at the point in his career where it wouldn’t be immensely surprising to see him looking worse than expected, and the athleticism and the wrestling threat of Lee might prove more troublesome to the Brazilian than anticipated, but Lee will likely need to show something new to pick up a win over RDA.
Prediction: dos Anjos via TKO4. This writer caps RDA at -150.