UFC on ESPN 4 Predictions: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Leon Edwards
While claims of his decline on the heels of a two-fight skid weren’t necessarily unfounded, Rafael dos Anjos made a return to the top echelon of the 170-pound division with his win in Rochester; Kevin Lee wasn’t a player in the welterweight elite, but dos Anjos still proved with his submission win that he was still a force to be reckoned with, by overcoming what seemed to be a demonstrably difficult style matchup (in a hyper-athletic wrestler who seemed to have the right idea on how to approach the fight).
The consummate company man, dos Anjos makes a quick turnaround to take a hard fight on fairly short-notice in San Antonio against an opponent ranked far below him; dos Anjos has never been afraid of a high-risk fight (after all, he was the springboard for Kamaru Usman’s stardom when no one wanted to fight him), and Leon Edwards is no exception.
For Edwards, dos Anjos is an opportunity at the top that he’d been clamoring for since his win over Donald Cerrone; after an excellent record in the UFC marred only by a robbery-loss against Claudio Silva and a respectable loss to current champion Kamaru Usman, Edwards got his chance at the rankings and dominated Cerrone, only to take a lateral step with a fight against Gunnar Nelson as the welterweight elite weren’t in a position to fight him.
Edwards is ranked outside the top 10, but there’s a very good chance that he’s one of the most skilled welterweights on the planet, and a convincing win over dos Anjos (treated in recent years as the test for prospects to see if they’re truly great) could give Edwards a chance to avenge his loss to the Nigerian Nightmare.
Rafael dos Anjos
With Kamaru Usman’s title win in March, there’s functionally no chance that Rafael dos Anjos achieves a belt in a second weight class; Usman had won a lopsided decision over dos Anjos in November of 2018, which makes the prospects of a rematch dire for the Brazilian. Dos Anjos’ role at this point is meant to be that of a spoiler; as up-and-comers move into “potential world title challenger” territory, dos Anjos can be relied upon to test every one of their skills. It isn’t a test that many have passed, however, and only the current champion has done so convincingly at 170; if dos Anjos can turn Edwards back the way he did Kevin Lee, he can continue to build a CV that’s fit for an all-time great.
At lightweight, dos Anjos was one of the most imposing pressure fighters of all time, and he still does most of his best work on the front foot; however, at a division where dos Anjos is far from a puncher (so his opponents have less of a reason to fear his fairly good counters) and where his last four opponents have committed to pressuring him in some capacity, RDA has been forced to show more of his game on the backfoot or in the open than he generally prefers to. The good news is that dos Anjos (perhaps contrary to popular belief) is far from inept when he isn’t the one pushing the pace, even though it isn’t his preferred way to do things; while being pushed back is suboptimal and a strong wrestling game seems to make that worse, dos Anjos has still been able to put together strong performances against all but one of those four.
A lot of that has stemmed from a uniquely strong clinch, even when he’s the one pushed against the fence; dos Anjos is one of the best clinch-strikers in the UFC in every context, even when he’s facing strong wrestlers who want to do nothing but stick to underhooks (as Covington attempted, and he kept Usman from doing too much damage in the clinch early despite a big strength differential), as his collar-tie-focused clinch game allows him to deal damage and angle out with the space he creates. The clinch was largely where the Lee and Covington fights were won (despite the judges not acknowledging the latter). Dos Anjos is also a strong striker in the open, even on the backfoot; while he isn’t a great outfighter and often finds himself too close to the fence, dos Anjos is a strong kicker even when he concedes the front foot (as he showed early in the Lawler fight, landing lead-leg kicks to the body and shredding the lead leg), and he’s a good pocket-boxer even without the relative stopping power he had at 155.
However, there’s a reason that the defining performance of dos Anjos’ career remains his dismantling of Anthony Pettis; RDA can work on the backfoot, but he’s soundest and most dangerous when he’s the one pressuring. This remains true at welterweight, even though fewer opponents have allowed him to pressure.
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RDA’s best pressure performance at 170 was probably the final two rounds of the Lawler fight, when Lawler’s injured knee kept him leaning against the fence and dos Anjos devastated him for it, but the most sustained one remains his debut against Tarec Saffiedine; dos Anjos used the left kick to the body and the right hook (often also to the body) to cut off Saffiedine’s avenues of escape as he tried to circle away, and his defense in the pocket (a high guard, but a good one that he could adjust to react to different attacks) meant that he didn’t have to back up when Saffiedine threw at him.
This left Saffiedine with nowhere to go as RDA worked him against the fence, where RDA has always been a menace; when he has his opponent squared up without a way backwards, dos Anjos drives a brutal pace and can break anyone down with his infighting (both with his boxing, especially his body-punching, and with his collar-tie game that really opens up when his opponent can’t bail out of the clinch and dos Anjos can switch between positions freely to attack). Combined with a strong top game, dos Anjos is truly one of the more versatile threats at 170 despite his well-defined nightmare-style.
After going 2-2 in his first four fights with the UFC (one could call it a rocky start with the promotion), Leon Edwards has rattled off seven straight wins, each one better than the last. Even as his opponents have grown tougher, his performances have grown more convincing, and the only thing that has kept him fairly overlooked has been an exceedingly intelligent but workmanlike approach that the UFC has found difficult to promote (and that the public has largely failed to recognize). Like another dark-horse in Kamaru Usman, Edwards has proven undeniable and gets a chance at a truly great fighter in a main-event against Rafael dos Anjos; if he can pass the toughest test of his career in San Antonio, Edwards will be able to make a strong case for a title shot.
Edwards’ striking is smart and efficient, despite not being particularly broad or even uniquely deep; essentially, his intelligence and adaptability elevates his striking to be more than the sum of its parts. The foundation of Edwards’ game is the standard open-stance changeup, the left round kick (to various targets) and the straight left. Edwards can feint one and come with the other, and can use one to manipulate his opponent’s defense and land the other. Edwards has a decent southpaw jab to set the straight up, which he can integrate into his handfighting against an orthodox opponent (as he did against Nelson at times), and he’s solid on the counter.
Edwards isn’t defensively great in the pocket, and his counterpunching functions largely to limit exchanges; Edwards can angle to the open side to threaten rear-hand counters as he did against Cerrone, and once he’s comfortable in his reads, Edwards can slip strikes to come back with straights and uppercuts (Sobotta) or clinch entries (Nelson). Vicente Luque showed a few vulnerabilities in Edwards’ defense, as Edwards just forced a high guard against the fence late in the fight and ate punches to the body, but it’s generally tough to keep exchanges going against Edwards to the point where he has to shell.
While his striking in the open is quite good, Edwards dealt the sternest blows of his last two fights in the clinch; Edwards is very good in the clinch positionally, and this allows him a strong base for striking from the clinch. Against Cerrone and Nelson, Edwards used a whizzer and his head position to cut a sharp angle (leaving him nearly perpendicular to his opponent and with his head keeping them from collapsing the distance) and controlled the other arm to tee off with strikes, but he doesn’t need that specific position to do damage; he was able to catch a collar-tie on the counter against Nelson to chin him with an elbow, and cracked Cerrone with elbows on nearly every single break from every position where it was possible.
Edwards is also a strong takedown artist from the clinch (with shots as well as trips and bodylocks), with a good top game; Edwards had trouble with the guard of Peter Sobotta, for instance, but eventually broke him down from the cross-body ride, and was able to control and land strikes on a much more accredited grappler than himself in Gunnar Nelson with rides against the cage. Edwards isn’t a dazzling threat in any phase, but he’s among the smartest fighters in the division and one of the best-rounded.
Conclusions and Capping
It’s hard to deny Edwards as a top fighter in the division, but dos Anjos is one of the few matchups for him that brings real danger. Edwards likely doesn’t have the massive edge in any area over RDA that he had over Cerrone and Nelson, who were far more limited fighters; while Edwards is a great gameplanner, there isn’t a place he can bring the fight that makes victory particularly high-percentage.
Edwards keeps a fairly low pace and doesn’t pressure particularly actively (often willingly taking the outfighting role), which means that he’s a less problematic fight for RDA than Covington’s or Usman’s high-pace pressure; RDA will likely get the chance to push forward. Edwards’ counterpunching is fairly good, but it also relies a bit on reads as a fight goes on (like getting tagged with Nelson’s right hand leads before figuring out how to counter, and figuring out how to deal with Sobotta’s jab as the fight went on), and it’s mostly to hide his vulnerability in extended exchanges (where RDA is much better, mostly due to his better defense in the pocket).
This means that if Edwards decides to uncharacteristically take on the pressuring role, he likely won’t really be able to do it well, since he’ll be forced to back off when RDA engages in the pocket. For example, Cerrone was able to just flurry forward and drive Edwards back into the fence at points, and Edwards was a demonstrably bad matchup for Cerrone. Conceding the back foot against RDA isn’t a great idea without being a deep and crafty outfighter (someone like Eddie Alvarez), and while Edwards is excellent in general, he doesn’t quite have those skills.
RDA is also likely a bad matchup for Edwards at range, not just because he’s a better striker than Cerrone or Nelson, but also because he’s a southpaw; while Edwards was able to do good work against his last southpaw opponent in Sobotta, his preferred tools (the straight-kick changeup) rely on the open-stance, where RDA ripped Lawler apart with a polished set of tools to deal with a fellow southpaw opponent (outside leg kicks, lead leg body kicks, a good boxing game that isn’t focused entirely on the rear hand, etc.). RDA will be working in a setting where he’s done excellent work in the past, where Edwards isn’t quite as used to the closed-guard (and isn’t at all used to it against an elite fighter). RDA’s body punching against the fence will likely pose issues to Edwards, considering the success Luque had with it, and there isn’t much information on how Edwards would deal with having a high pace put on him (considering how thoroughly he has controlled the pace of his wins).
The final question mark is the clinch and the wrestling, and that is where Edwards may have a sustained edge; while RDA is more proven in the clinch against better fighters (Usman, Covington, even Lawler), Usman’s athletic edge gave RDA serious issues in getting work done down the stretch, and Edwards may be able to force his clinch/top game over RDA’s just by being bigger and younger. That chance isn’t enough to outright favor Edwards, though; RDA has shown he can hang in the clinch even with WW’s most potent clinch threat in Usman for a few rounds, he just got through a very grapple-heavy fight against a genuinely good wrestler and top-player, and while his decline may be coming, it hasn’t really shown yet. Until it does, it’s dos Anjos’ to lose.
Prediction: dos Anjos via KO5. This writer caps dos Anjos at -150.