UFC on Fox 26: Rafael dos Anjos Repaints Title Picture by Beating Robbie Lawler

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterDecember 17, 2017

WINNIPEG, CANADA - DECEMBER 16:  Rafael Dos Anjos of Brazil raises his hands after facing Robbie Lawler in their welterweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Bell MTS Place on December 16, 2017 in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

No clear-cut No. 1 contender in the UFC welterweight division?

Rafael dos Anjos has something to say about that.

Dos Anjos' masterful unanimous-decision win over Robbie Lawler on Saturday at UFC on Fox 26 should repaint the 170-pound title picture—putting the former lightweight champion front and center.

For the last few years, the road to the welterweight title has run through Lawler. In besting him (50-45 x3) over five rounds at Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Canada, Dos Anjos proved he's ready for a shot at reigning champ Tyron Woodley.

If and when he gets that fight, it'll give Dos Anjos the opportunity to enter the exclusive club of fighters who've won gold in two different UFC weight classes.

Predictions that he would be too small to compete at 170 or that his cardio couldn't hold up over 25 minutes with a larger man have proved incorrect. At this point, Dos Anjos is more than just a lightweight trying to find new life at a heavier weight. He's a bona fide championship threat.

Things couldn't have gone better for him against Lawler. Early and often, Dos Anjos scored with low kicks, leaving the bottom half of Lawler's lead leg bruised and swelling. Near the end of the fight, Lawler was clearly struggling with an injured leg, though it was unclear if it was from RDA's kicks or a grappling exchange that occurred midway through the bout.

Meanwhile, Dos Anjos utilized good head movement, fluid punching combinations, a variety of kicks and even a few flying knees.

By the time he was through, the pack of up-and-coming welterweight contenders jockeying for a crack at Woodley had a new leader.

"I have been doing this for so long and tonight was a real pleasure," Dos Anjos told UFC play-by-play man Jon Anik after the fight. "Robbie Lawler is a legend and my hands are hurting … I feel like he had a very tough head."

Dos Anjos' run with the 155-pound title in 2015-16 duly established him as an aggressive striker and hard-nosed grappler. High-profile wins over Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone made it impossible to deny the 33-year-old Brazilian is one of the UFC's toughest outs.

After back-to-back losses to Eddie Alvarez and Tony Ferguson during 2016, however, Dos Anjos was in need of a career reboot. He jumped up to the welterweight division and immediately made a splash.

Dos Anjos gets his hand raised after a hard fought win over Lawler.
Dos Anjos gets his hand raised after a hard fought win over Lawler.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

He scored wins over Tarec Saffiedine and Neil Magny during the second half of 2017. While a bit undersized for 170 pounds, Dos Anjos' never-say-die attitude and durability has so far proved enough to carry him.

That mindset was well on display in this important contender bout against Lawler.

Dos Anjos' best moments of an impressive all-around performance may have come in the second round. In that stanza, Dos Anjos stunned Lawler with a left hook and then poured on a 23-second barrage of punches against the fence.

Lawler came away from the exchange smiling, but it was clear the bout was starting to slip away from him. With it, so too went Lawler's best immediate chance to reassert himself as the No. 1 contender.

Lawler entered this fight just three months before turning 36 years old. As a mainstay of the elite MMA scene since 2002 and a veteran of 41 professional fights, legitimate questions have been raised about how long he can soldier on as one of the Octagon's best-known purveyors of violence.

He can trace his UFC lineage back to the early 2000s and the Miletich Fighting System team that forged such legendary former champions as Matt Hughes and Pat Miletich. It's possible, however, Lawler's complete body of work will have surpassed that of either Miletich or Hughes by the time he calls it a career.

His second stint in the UFC and Cinderella run to the welterweight title in 2014 cemented his status as an all-time great and one of the fight company's best-loved figures. But after dropping the title to Woodley at UFC 201, the San Diego native has slowed a bit.

Dos Anjos and Lawler trade punches.
Dos Anjos and Lawler trade punches.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Prior to meeting Dos Anjos, Lawler fought just once since the Woodley bout. That was a unanimous-decision win over Donald Cerrone at UFC 214. That fight—against another transplanted lightweight—proved he was still dangerous, but didn't completely revitalize his status as a contender.

Against Dos Anjos, Lawler looked ready and always game, but perhaps as though he'd lost a step during his recent spate of inactivity.

Meanwhile, Dos Anjos socked away his third win of the year, looking like he's just now hitting his prime.

Dos Anjos' win should clear up what had been a murky race to be Woodley's next title challenger.

Dos Anjos should be next up for Woodley.
Dos Anjos should be next up for Woodley.Mike Roach/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Since taking the title from Lawler in July 2016, Woodley hasn't been able to bring a spark to the top of the 170-pound division. Title defenses against Stephen Thompson and Demian Maia haven't moved the needle or impressed critics.

Likewise, Woodley's efforts to chase down a big money fight against somebody like Nate Diaz or Georges St-Pierre have been unsuccessful.

The list of contenders behind Woodley hasn't done much to help, either.

Thompson defeated Jorge Masvidal by unanimous decision at UFC 217, but his second bout with Woodley at UFC 209 was such a stinker, matchmakers would be hard-pressed to grant him another shot at the title.

Dos Anjos pours it on Lawler on the ground.
Dos Anjos pours it on Lawler on the ground.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Newcomer Colby Covington jumped up to take the No. 3 ranking after his win over Maia in October. Yet, boosting Covington into a title shot at this stage would feel premature.

The same is true of other up-and-coming young guns like Darren Till, Santiago Ponzinibbio or Kamaru Usman.

At this stage, it's time to match Woodley up with Dos Anjos.

Even if that bout doesn't do huge numbers on pay-per-view, it would excite hardcore fans.

After jetting past Lawler, it's also clear Dos Anjos might have the skills to give Woodley the fight fans have been waiting to see.

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