With 40 professional fights on his record, Rafael dos Anjos is a well-seasoned veteran of the Octagon who has achieved a remarkable career through the use of a simplistic yet brutal style of fighting.
While the former UFC lightweight champion has consistently been able to inflict massive levels of damage to his opponents, one vulnerability, in particular, has gone unaddressed throughout his career, which has undoubtedly contributed to a significant portion of his 11 career losses. If Dos Anjos’s opponent Leon Edwards is permitted to exploit this weakness at UFC on ESPN 4 this Saturday, it is difficult to envision a scenario in which dos Anjos can emerge victorious from the bout.
A Remarkable Offense
Even though Rafael Dos Anjos parted ways with the legendary striking coach Rafael Cordeiro when he left King’s MMA in 2016, the evidence of Mr. Cordeiro’s tutelage is still visible in Dos Anjos’s striking. Never afraid to bite down on his mouthpiece and trade, Dos Anjos is known for employing a simplistic yet formidable arsenal of strikes that prioritizes offense over defense. Along with a well-developed 1-2 combination, Dos Anjos has found success throughout his career his powerful rear left kick, using it to batter the legs, bodies, and heads of those hapless souls that find themselves on its receiving end.
Here we see a powerful left kick cripple Donald Cerrone, allowing Dos Anjos to swarm him for a first-round TKO.
As a southpaw, one reason Dos Anjos’s left kick is particularly effective is that it will land on the soft, front-facing parts of an orthodox opponent, namely the inner thigh, belly, or the chin. As Leon Edwards is also a southpaw, Dos Anjos’s kick will somewhat less effective as it more likely to land on Edwards’s back and shoulder as opposed to his belly. This is a point worth noting, but to believe Dos Anjos’s primary offense weapon will be deprived of its lethality due to the stance of its target would be nonfactual.
While the offensive capabilities of Rafael Dos Anjos are more than enough to finish some of the most skilled fighters in the UFC lightweight and welterweight divisions (see below), the effectiveness of this otherwise remarkable skill set is hindered by one colossal of a deficiency.
The Wrong Side of the Fence
Having no qualms with the intrinsic violence of MMA, Dos Anjos seeks to enter into striking range with his opponent, stand flat-footed, and trade blows until one fighter is so damaged they are forced to retreat. As Dos Anjos is a menacing striker with a strong chin, more often than not he wins these exchanges, granted the opponent consents to participating in them. However, any pugilist worth his salt (ie the majority of the UFC lightweight and welterweight divisions) will not allow such an exchange to manifest and will immediately drive the stationary Dos Anjos back into the cage. This series of events has occurred constantly throughout his career: Dos Anjos and his opponent set a range where they are both able to hit each other and start trading strikes. As soon as the opponent remembers that Dos Anjos is both durable and dangerous, he charges forward and drives Dos Anjos back into the cage, pinning him and negating his offense. Here we see Kevin Lee tie-up with Dos Anjos, then trade a few shots before changing levels and driving the Brazilian to the fence.
The fact that Rafael Dos Anjos finds himself pinned to the cage substantially more than other fighters isn’t happenstance, but because he fails to utilize proper defensive footwork to avoid being placed on the fence in the first place. Whether it is MMA, Boxing, Kickboxing, or any other combat sport, being pressed against the confines of the fighting space is a massive impairment to a fighter. Naturally, practitioners of all variations of hand-to-hand combat developed similar methods of footwork to circle out and away from the cage (or ropes) to avoid being trapped against it. In this clip of the famed bout in which Holly Holm dethroned Ronda Rousey, notice how Holm is continuously circling to her left as Rousey moves forward; this circling negates Rousey’s forward pressure and prevents Rousey from trapping Holm up against the fence, which would have likely led to the Judo throw to armbar transition that Rousey built her famed upon.
Now compare Holly Holm’s continuous circling with how Rafael Dos Anjos fails to engage in any sort of lateral movement. As Kevin Lee closes in on him, backing him up to the fence, he apathetically accepts the pressure and meanders backward as if he forgot that the Octagon was a confined space. At no point does Dos Anjos attempt to circle out to avoid Lee’s forward pressure, resulting in yet another instance of Rafael Dos Anjos being pinned against the cage.
The ramifications of this long-standing flaw in Dos Anjos’s game are far from trivial; it is fair to say that he has lost numerous bouts, and possibly a second run at the title because of it. Prior to his win over Kevin Lee, Dos Anjos lost consecutive bouts to Colby Covington and Kamara Usman, two fantastic wrestlers who likely would have been able to take down Dos Anjos even if he did employ proper footwork to stay off the cage; failing to do so certainly allowed Covington and Usman to achieve easier takedowns, depriving Dos Anjos of precious opportunities to harm them with his superior striking.
While it may appear apt, the analogy of Rafael Dos Anjos’s susceptibility to being trapped against the fence to Superman’s vulnerability to Kryptonite is inadequate: knowing Kryptonite can cause his downfall, Superman takes every precaution to avoid it, while Rafael Dos Anjos has refused to address this glaring shortcoming in his game that every opponent aims to exploit.
The lack of any-and-all lateral movement to save himself from being pressed against the cage has persisted throughout the otherwise impressive career of the former UFC Lightweight Champion. With an overwhelming ground game focused on creating submission openings through strikes, the ability to execute perfectly timed takedowns, and the striking repertoire that allow him to beat his opponents as they owe him money, Rafael Dos Anjos is a far cry from anything resembling a bad fighter. He just has one obvious, egregious vulnerability that he has refused to remedy over his decade-and-a-half career.
Predominantly a kickboxer, Leon Edwards has never been known to drive his opponents to the fence and look for a takedown. But as this tactic is an obvious path to victory against Rafael Dos Anjos, it is entirely likely that we see Dos Anjos’s easily-avoidable Kryptonite employed yet again at UFC San Antonio.
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