There’s nothing wrong with Rafael dos Anjos.
On the contrary, dos Anjos has been outstanding through more than six years in the UFC. He’s gone 8-1 dating back to May 2012 and no matter what happens during his lightweight title shot at UFC 185, he can boast a resume few 155-pound fighters can match.
So, why does it seem so hard to picture UFC President Dana White strapping the title around dos Anjos’ waist at the end of Saturday night?
Maybe it’s a confluence of things.
For starters, it feels as though the UFC’s most competitive and interesting weight class finally has a champion we can all agree on. That guy—the guy who fits the role like he’s straight out of central casting—is Anthony Pettis.
You know, he of the Wheaties box and the cage-hopping Showtime kick? The guy who became the first ever to stop Gilbert Melendez three months back at UFC 181? The kid with the custom suits, 100-watt smile and casual cool?
Pettis—he’s our man. Or perhaps more accurately, he’s The Man.
Secondly, we know dos Anjos wasn’t anyone’s first choice as No. 1 contender.
Khabib Nurmagomedov likely would’ve been here, had the undefeated Russian been healthy when—in the wake of Pettis’ win over Melendez—the UFC was shopping around for new challengers. Nurmagomedov defeated dos Anjos last April but was still rehabbing his injured knee when the championship carousel finally had an opening, so dos Anjos got the nod instead.
None of this is a knock on dos Anjos himself, mind you. He’s obviously a heck of a fighter and probably a very nice guy too. It’s just that, despite his success, he hasn’t been able to do much to separate himself from lightweight’s crowded crop of contenders.
For fans, it’s hard to get excited about a guy who so far seems completely unknowable.
Case-in-point: Even Sunday’s episode of UFC: Countdown does little to shed any new light on dos Anjos.
In fairness, the UFC-produced mini-documentary is a fairly bare-bones affair, and even the scenes about Pettis don’t stray far from the training room. But at least with the champ—who we’re already well acquainted with, anyway—we get some back story on how he used money from the Melendez win to buy his mom a house. At least there are few precious seconds of Pettis and coach Duke Roufus talking about their kids.
With dos Anjos? We see almost nothing that might differentiate him from the guys waiting in line behind him. We learn he recently changed his strength-and-conditioning regimen. We witness him sparring at Kings MMA in Huntington Beach, Calif., and hear sparring partner Beneil Dariush tell us it’s not very much fun to strap gloves on with “Rafa” right now.
But that’s about it.
If you read between the lines, you come away with the feeling dos Anjos is a good, hardworking and probably pretty private guy. He doesn’t exactly light up the interview segments, but he’s doing them in his second language, which is better than most of the people reading this right now could muster—and that goes double for the guy writing it.
But if the point of Countdown is to get us to care about dos Anjos, the show doesn’t seem to try that hard. The 30-year-old Brazilian feels like a stand-in, like a placeholder. Frankly, it could be anybody shambling into the cage opposite Pettis this weekend.
Dos Anjos’ primary aim, of course, is to change that. For his part, he’s very confident he’ll be taking the belt home to Rio de Janeiro after Saturday’s little pit stop in Dallas.
“Anthony Pettis is a talented fighter, really tough, a champion … but I see holes in his game," dos Anjos told MMA Fighting.com’s Guilherme Cruz this week. "I won’t say what and give away my strategy, but I do. Don’t get me wrong, Anthony Pettis is really good, and he proved that, but he’s not unbeatable.”
And yeah, he’s right about that.
Perhaps the strangest part of this matchup is that dos Anjos really could win. The guy is a consummate grinder—48 percent of his wins are by decision, UFC official statistics remind us—and it’s impossible to completely count him out of any fight.
Melendez had some early success clinching Pettis against the fence—a strategy Roufus refers to as “wall and stall” in the above video. It’s a good bet dos Anjos will opt for a similar ploy and if Pettis can’t fight his way out or craft an out-of-the-blue stoppage like he did against Melendez, things could get interesting.
UFC fight weeks are always full of hyperbole and half the trick is sorting out the actual storylines from the sales pitch. In this case, however, it’s not so difficult to believe the Countdown pundits when they say dos Anjos could end up giving Pettis the fight of his life.
So far, however, oddsmakers aren’t buying it.
Dos Anjos is going off as more than a 3-1 underdog, according to Odds Shark. As much press as his recent win streak is getting, it’s actually been fairly anonymous. Back-to-back victories over Benson Henderson and Nate Diaz during 2014 were eye opening, but the only other real highlight of his long UFC career was probably a unanimous-decision win over Donald Cerrone in August 2013.
All that adds up to the impression this fight will simply be a steppingstone for Pettis.
Much of the intrigue (and indeed, excitement) surrounding the lightweight division right now involves the young, charismatic champion finally getting on a roll. The early part of Pettis’ UFC career was stymied by injury. When he finally did get healthy and take the title off Henderson via first-round armbar at UFC 164, it felt like the entire weight class had been granted a new lease on life.
Now, we all want to see how high he can fly.
“I think Pettis is the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world, if the kid can stay healthy,” White told CBS Sports Radio host Jim Rome back in December. “This kid is able to do things to people that other people can’t do.”
We want to see Pettis take on the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Cerrone, at UFC 187 in May. We want to see if he can withstand a round of challenges from up-and-coming contenders like Michael Johnson and Tony Ferguson. There has even been some lip service—on Countdown, among other places—about the possibility of a fight with the winner of the upcoming featherweight title scrap between Conor McGregor and Jose Aldo.
A win by dos Anjos would dash all those hopes. Or at least, it would reset the clock on them. It would probably require a rematch, maybe even third fight with Pettis, and in the meantime the lightweight’s group of arguably more interesting contenders would have nothing to do but carry on picking each other off.
Again, there isn’t anything to dislike about dos Anjos, but there isn’t really that much to sink your teeth into, either. So far, he seems like a bit of a nonentity. A lightweight division where he is the champion would be fine, but it’s not exactly the reality anybody is looking forward to seeing.
All that makes Saturday’s dos Anjos vs. Pettis meeting the most dangerous kind of title fight—the kind where we really only want one guy to win.