Rafael dos Anjos ushered in a new era of his career at UFC on Fox 26. It was a thorough domination of former Welterweight champion, Robbie Lawler. After losing the Lightweight crown and dropping two straight fights, dos Anjos decided to forgo the draining weight cut and try his luck at Welterweight. His first fight against Tarec Saffiedine provided an impressive, if not slightly shaky, debut. The former champ cruised to a decisive victory over a skilled opponent. However, he left some questions about his cardio at the same time. With his victory over Lawler, dos Anjos has answered those questions. He has quickly forced himself into the elite at Welterweight.
Everyone familiar with dos Anjos and Lawler knew it was a match-up that promised a healthy dose of violence. Both men love to exchange in the pocket, throw combinations actively, and are comfortable defending punches while keeping themselves in range to fire back. The fight would undoubtedly provide an answer to the question of what happens when an irresistible force meets another irresistible force. However, few expected Robbie Lawler, the destroyer of men, taker of souls, to receive the lion’s share of that violence.
UFC on Fox 26 Breakdown: the Dominance of Rafael dos Anjos
For the first time since his fight with Nate Diaz in 2014, dos Anjos was able to fight an opponent who spent the entire fight in a southpaw stance. As good as dos Anjos is in open guard engagements, fighting another southpaw gives dos Anjos full access to tools in his arsenal that are less prominent against an orthodox opponent, but no less sharp.
Almost as soon as the fight started, dos Anjos began blasting Lawler with low leg kicks, targeting the calf. Landing outside leg kicks on the thigh leaves the danger of riding up the leg if the opponent steps into them, which can expose the kicker to punches. Against a puncher like Lawler who would no doubt look to step in and counter, kicking the calf is a great way to mitigate that threat. Lawler has always had trouble dealing with kicks, making dos Anjos’ decision to establish the leg kicks early an even better one.
Due to Lawler’s reluctance to address the leg kicks early in the fight, dos Anjos was often able to slam them in with little setup. Here he demonstrates a particularly crafty setup. Dos Anjos rhythmically activates his hips, shifting weight back and forth between his feet and taking his head off the center-line. Lawler flicks out a jab, prompting dos Anjos to swat at it and slip over his rear hip. Lawler slips over his rear hip and prepares to fire off a straight left as he anticipates dos Anjos’ weight coming back over his lead leg. As dos Anjos transfers his weight back to his lead leg, he fires off a leg kick, interrupting Lawler’s straight, and takes his head off line to make it miss.
After getting his lead leg torn up throughout the first round, Lawler started defending the leg kicks more actively. He would turn his leg out slightly to catch the kick on his shin when dos Anjos fired. The advantage of this over lifting the leg to check is that it requires less of a weight commitment and can be executed even when caught in a compromising position with a heavy lead leg.
Lawler Puts on The Pressure
Lawler also dialled up the pressure after eating several leg kicks. At the beginning of the fight, Lawler was moving around at range, probing with his jab, and looking to draw dos Anjos onto him, but after tasting the kicks, Lawler began to move forward and push dos Anjos back to take away the kicks. When he wasn’t knocked off-balance by the kick, Lawler would often rush dos Anjos as he recovered and look to flurry with dos Anjos’ back to the cage.
While Lawler’s best moments in the fight came when he had dos Anjos’ back pinned against the fence, he found shockingly little success in the open. Dos Anjos’ defense was too strong for him to land consistently and find entries, and repeatedly having his leg punted out of stance didn’t help the matter. However, Lawler was able to trouble dos Anjos with his jab on several occasions.
Lawler found success snapping his jab out as dos Anjos attacked to break his rhythm. He also used a pawing jab effectively to occupy dos Anjos’ vision and push him back to the cage, where he could stand dos Anjos in place and put together flurries.
Ultimately, Lawler was largely unable to parlay his jab into further success because dos Anjos consistently countered it. He would land his own jab as Lawler threw, slip it and rip the body, or land hooks and overhands over top of it, but his most potent counter was the lead-leg body kick.
Countering the Jab
Dos Anjos would wait on the jab with his hands high and slightly extended, before cross-parrying the jab with his lead hand and taking a slight switch-step to land his lead-leg body kick. At first, he targeted the body with his shin, but when Lawler began keeping his rear elbow tight to block it, dos Anjos would instead aim with the ball of his foot, sneaking the kick in under Lawler’s elbow.
Dos Anjos’ own jab looked sharp as well. He would frequently enter behind a jab with his rear forearm held across his face to deflect Lawler’s lead hand while he landed his own. He used the jab effectively to set up his rear straight, even doubling up on it to cover distance occasionally. At one point he stumbled Lawler with a jab after a stance switch, though it seemed to be more the result of forcing Lawler’s weight onto his injured leg than rocking him.
Dos Anjos displayed some crafty footwork as well. He was looking to take an outside angle often, pivoting to his left off a distance-closing jab or combination. This opened up the overhand around Lawler’s guard, as well as creating a lane to freely slam in lead hooks to the body.
Against the Fence
The most striking image of violence this fight provided came midway through the second round when Lawler shelled up on the fence for 30 odd seconds and attempted to take as much heat as possible of the relentless attack of dos Anjos.
Watching the fight live, it was easy to question if dos Anjos might gas his arms out in his desperation, but on repeat viewing, he does a good job using throwaway punches to draw reactions and avoids putting full power into every shot. Dos Anjos throws a lot of probing jabs and half-power hooks at Lawler’s head while angling off to find openings in his guard. He makes most of his power punches count after creating an opening to land them, particularly to the body, though Lawler slips a couple power punches to the head.
When dos Anjos found his back to the cage, he would force the clinch as soon as possible or cover up, take a few punches on his guard, and counter with a hook.
As skilled as Lawler’s pocket defense is, shelling up and attempting to roll everything an opponent throws only invites them to throw more. With Lawler shelled up on the fence, dos Anjos had no reason to hesitate or worry about offense coming back, and he could afford to probe for openings and pick his shots. Dos Anjos’ catch-and-pitch counters with his back to the cage forced Lawler to respect his offense. This created opportunities for him to take his back off the cage.
Dos Anjos Defenses
Dos Anjos has always been underrated defensively. This comes with the territory of being a pressure fighter who spends so much of his time in the range of his opponent’s offense. He has always used the high guard; perhaps better than anyone else in MMA. His defense looked significantly improved in this fight after working with Jason Parillo. His distance management looked particularly good, as he was pulling his head back from Lawler’s offense with a degree of familiarity and comfort he has not previously shown. Dos Anjos’ also used his proactive head movement to great effect, making Lawler miss at range and making him pay for it.
In the Clinch
If you watch MMA regularly, you’ll often hear commentators talk about the “Thai Clinch”. This is usually in reference to the double collar tie, which is seldom used in Muay Thai. In reality, Muay Thai is severely underrepresented in MMA and relatively few Thai clinching tactics and techniques have made their way into popular usage. Dos Anjos is one of the few high-profile fighters in MMA who draw heavily on Thai tactics in the clinch. In his first fight at Welterweight against Saffiedine, dos Anjos showed off a head-and-arm lock in the clinch. This move resembles positions commonly seen in Thailand. Dos Anjos demonstrated an even greater depth of skill in his clinch against Lawler.
In the first round, dos Anjos made fantastic use of the double collar tie to land devastating knees to Lawler’s body. There are several things to take note of here. The double collar tie is not a static position – in order to be held, the offensive fighter must be constantly adjusting his positioning and off-balancing his opponent, and even then it’s very difficult to keep a skilled fighter locked in a double collar tie unless his back is pinned on the fence.
Dos Anjos uses the collar tie to angle off the cage and whips his body around with a pivot so that his back is facing the center of the Octagon, forcing Lawler to take a sharp step directly into a knee. As dos Anjos creates space between his hips and Lawler’s to load up knees, he violently pulls Lawler’s head in, breaking his balance and leading him into the knees.
When they reach the center of the cage, dos Anjos takes a few short bunny hops to further break Lawler’s posture. He then removes his right hand from Lawler’s neck and uses it to pull on his shoulder. This forces Lawler’s upper body into a knee that lifts him off his feet. Lawler then tries to pummel inside to remove the collar tie. Dos Anjos fights his hand before re-locking the double collar tie. The most impressive aspect of dos Anjos’ use of the double collar tie is his ability to adjust. He breaks it to land strikes and to fend off Lawler’s attempts to pummel in before reestablishing it.
Lawler does a good job of defending the knees with his forearms, but dos Anjos makes it difficult by switching up the targeting on his knees, alternately opening up his hips to land on the ribs and pushing them straight forward to bury his knee in the center of Lawler’s gut.
After that sequence midway through the first round, Lawler effectively shut down dos Anjos’ ability to use the double collar tie with his back on the fence. In order to control your opponent with a collar tie, you must have the forearms pressed into your opponent’s chest/shoulders, creating space to maneuver. Lawler was able to consistently collapse the space between dos Anjos’ chest and his own.
When dos Anjos pummels his arm in for a collar tie, Lawler cranks up high with his underhook on the opposite arm, collapsing the space between their chests and preventing dos Anjos from getting both forearms between them. Note how Lawler switches sides with his underhook and angles off toward it as dos Anjos switches his pummeling arm.
Underhooks and Forearms
Instead of insisting on fighting for the double collar tie with his back to the cage, dos Anjos would control a collar tie on one side. He would jam his opposite arm through Lawler’s collar tie or underhook as if he were about to pummel for an underhook. He would then leave it there instead of finishing the transition. This created a frame which gave dos Anjos a few advantages. First, it put pressure on Lawler’s collar tie/underhook, decreasing his ability to exert leverage on dos Anjos with it. Second, dos Anjos’ forearm frame acted as a lever, allowing him to manipulate Lawler’s body – pulling him into knees, moving him around, and landing elbows over the top. This position is seen frequently in Muay Thai.
Dos Anjos was able to use this forearm frame to angle off the cage repeatedly, as it effectively stripped Lawler’s control of his body on whichever side it was implemented.
Although Lawler’s underhooks took away dos Anjos’ double collar tie with his own back to the cage, he found consistent success with it when he had Lawler on the cage. With his hips free to create space and Lawler’s pinned in place with nowhere to go, dos Anjos was able to dig his forearms in to control Lawler, as well as angle off and drag him into knees.
One lovely tactic dos Anjos found consistent success with in the clinch was using an uppercut elbow as an entry into his double collar tie. Dos Anjos would start with a collar tie on one side and wrist control on the other, before pinning the wrist down and throwing an uppercut elbow, leaving his hand right by Lawler’s neck to lock up the double collar tie.
Another neat trick dos Anjos showed was a counter knee-tap. When he had a collar tie secured and Lawler threw a knee, dos Anjos would scoop the thigh with his opposite arm on the knee’s retraction while thrusting his collar tie-arm forward and toward the leg, attempting to take Lawler over it. He only succeeded in hitting one takedown off the knee-tap, but he was successful in disrupting Lawler’s offense numerous times, as it broke his balance and prevented him from following up on the knee.
The best strike either man landed in the clinch came from a dos Anjos elbow late in the third round. Lawler had had a competitive round in the clinch and started working his way back into the fight, perhaps even leading the round with a minute left to go. Lawler dug his head into dos Anjos’ chin to keep him in place while he hit the body, but dos Anjos’s collar tie created enough space for him to land a short counter elbow that clipped Lawler clean and a following hook sent him to the canvas. Dos Anjos followed up on the ground and Lawler seemed to injure his knee somewhere during the fall or under dos Anjos’ subsequent top pressure. The fight snowballed even further out of Lawler’s hands from there.
Refining His Game
Since his move to Welterweight, dos Anjos has been quietly refining one of the best clinch games in MMA. There was a lot more depth of skill shown in his clinch against Lawler that had to be glossed over for brevity’s sake, but dos Anjos’ clinch game warrants a future look in greater depth.
With 50-45 victories over then-champion, Anthony Pettis, and former champion, Robbie Lawler (though they really should have been more like 50-43), dos Anjos is developing a penchant for putting on some of the most impressive performances in MMA. After so thoroughly dominating Robbie Lawler in a way no other fighter has been able to since his days at Middleweight, it’s clear that dos Anjos belongs among the elite at Welterweight.
A title shot for dos Anjos against champion, Tyron Woodley seems to be the obvious move to make, though Woodley’s shoulder surgery may delay the shot and force dos Anjos to take a matchup in the interim. Though hopefully not for the interim title, as Santiago Ponzinibbio cheekily called for after his win over Mike Perry.