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UFC on FOX 26 Aftermath: The reinvention of Rafael dos Anjos

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Raise your hand if, at the start of 2017, you thought we’d end the year with Rafael dos Anjos as the top contender to the UFC welterweight title.

Those few of you with your hands up, we’ll administer your lie detector tests momentarily.

Dos Anjos’ performance since going up to 170 pounds has been nothing short of remarkable. He put a cap on a tremendous year with a masterful performance on Saturday night in the main event of UFC on FOX 26. The former lightweight champion shut down irrepressible former UFC welterweight champion Robbie Lawler, a 50-45 across-the-board statement in Winnipeg.

It was a fight which recalled RDA’s rout of Anthony Pettis to win the lightweight title at UFC 185 nearly three years ago. Dos Anjos pressure Lawler from the outset, never let him get comfortable, threw leg kicks which added up over time, peppered him from range, and wasn’t afraid to get in close with one of the sport’s masters of trench warfare.

The end result of this handiwork is that dos Anjos, one of the sport’s more under-appreciated competitors over the past decade, is 3-0 since making the jump to 170, with all those victories in the past six months. That should put him on the list of those to consider for Fighter of the Year in a 2017 with no obvious winner, and should also just about seal up Comeback Fighter of the Year.

And, as something that should be more than just a side note, dos Anjos’ difference in energy levels when he doesn’t have to cut a ridiculous amount of weight to get to lightweight compared to when he did has been stark. In the championship rounds, where Lawler is known as the fighter who finds another gear in any given matchup, it was dos Anjos who kept going and going. That’s something which should give fighters who put themselves major cuts something to consider.

In an MMA year that seemed at times an endless merry-go-round of nonsense, dos Anjos was just the opposite. He assessed himself, saw what changes he needed to make, and went about the hard work needed to get back on top. Seems almost quaint and out of date, doesn’t it?

If common sense prevails, RDA will get the opportunity to join the short list of fighters who have won UFC titles in two weight classes, and at this point in time, there are few who are more deserving of such an honor.

UFC on FOX 26 quotes

In my opinion, what I saw tonight is that if any of those two guys in that bout would fight me, one of those guys is going to get knocked out. I saw the IQ wasn’t as high as I would like for a No. 1 contendership fight.” — Welterweight champion Tyron Woodley is not impressed with dos Anjos’ performance.

“I have no comments about that guy, man. That guy has 6,000 followers on Twitter. He’s just talking crap about people and he showed nothing on the division. He beat nobody.” — RDA shutting down Colby Covington’s attempts to troll him into a fight.

“He did this for me. He didn’t have to take this fight. He is one of the best guys in the world. He could have sat back and waited for the winner of [the scheduled Max Holloway-Frankie Edgar fight] and then get a title shot.” — Josh Emmett, who missed weight, then knocked out Ricardo Lamas, offering to run the fight back if Lamas chooses.

“It doesn’t matter. He did a great job out there. It just wasn’t my night. He did a great job.” — Lawler, making no excuses for his loss.

Stock report

Up: Josh Emmett Up until Saturday night, Emmett seemed like one of those fighters who was simply going to be an interesting character on the card, but not a future title contender. One giant left hook was all it took to change that perception. Emmett, as a substitute for the originally scheduled Jose Aldo, knocked Lamas cold in a scary sequence that bounced Lamas’ head off the mat. That put the Team Alpha Male fighter at 4-1 in the UFC, with his only loss a split decision against Desmond Green. The only real blemish on Emmett’s performance was the fact the former lightweight missed the featherweight by two-and-a-half pounds. But even then, he offered to run the fight back if Lamas chooses. That’s the right attitude from a fighter who has such tremendous upside.

Josh Emmett celebrates his victory over Ricardo Lamas.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Down: Robbie Lawler There’s no joy in writing this about one of the most durable fighters and enduring figures in the history of the sport. The former UFC welterweight champion is far from done. But in providing the fans with some of the sport’s most legendary battles -- including Fights of the Year in 2014 (Johny Hendricks), 2015 (Rory MacDonald) and 2016 (Carlos Condit) — Lawler absorbed a lot of damage. In his past seven fights, he’s gone the distance four times in five-round fights; won one in the fifth; went the distance in a three-round fight; and suffered one knockout loss. That’s a lot of time in the cage for someone with Lawler’s style. Last night, Lawler’s toughness was still on display as he went the distance, but he was never able to flip the switch as he had so many times before. Credit, of course, to RDA for that, but you can’t help but wonder whether Saturday marked a turning point for the “Ruthless” one.

Up: Santiago Ponzinibbio Ponzinibbio has racked up one of the quietest six-fight win streaks you’ll ever see in the UFC ... or at least as quiet as you can get from a streak that includes a slugfest as fun as last night’s fight with Mike Perry. Ponzinibbio isn’t just a hard hitter and isn’t just situationally aware. He’s also smart, knowing when to put his foot on and off the gas and when to switch things up against a more one-dimensional fighter in Perry. The UFC seemed to be putting Ponzinibbio in position to lose to favored sons in his past two fights, both this and against Gunnar Nelson, but it’s time to recognize this guy is a legit potential contender and push him up the ranks.

Hold: Mike Perry Maybe I should mark this as a “down,” but I just can’t get too down on Perry (the compelling fighter, not the odious personality) after Saturday night. We knew who Perry was going into the fight: A hard hitter with a solid chin who needs to work on much of the rest of his game. He lived up to that billing in an exciting fight, and looked like an improved fighter even in defeat. Perry didn’t get the nod on Saturday, but if he learns the right lessons from Saturday night’s fight, Perry’s still young enough in this game that he can mature into a more complete fighter, if maturity is something in which he has any interest.

Down: Erick Silva Let’s pretend, for a minute, that back in 2012, someone told us that five years later, Jordan Mein would fight Erick Silva. The 2012 version of you would have believed they’d be fighting in a main event or a co-main, and possibly for a championship, no? But there the two were Saturday, tangling in the opening Fight Pass prelim on Saturday. Mein, for his part, was up to the task, with a win over Silva convincing enough that we probably won’t see Mein on Fight Pass again any time soon. Silva, however, looked listless, unable to mount much in the way of offense. That’s four losses in the past five fights for someone who once looked like he was going to be a contender.

Interesting stuff

No bad judging decisions. No referee miscues of note. Nights like these are as rare as a hockey game without a penalty, so let’s enjoy them while they last. Oh, and let’s also give a nod to Emmett for recognizing Lamas was out, and not making what was already a scary knockout worse by going in for more shots while Lamas was down.

Fight I’d like to see next: Tyron Woodley vs. Rafael dos Anjos

Time to stop the nonsense in the welterweight division. No more ridiculous talk about interim belts while Woodley, who has fought three times in the past 13 months, repairs his shoulder. No more Nate Diaz stuff. No money fight talk. No letting Colby Covington BS his way into a shot. Rafael dos Anjos is next in line. He may or may not be the man who defeats Woodley, but his fearless and skilled pressure should be enough to push Woodley out of the comfort zone he’s found himself in during his recent bouts. With RDA himself presumably needing some recovery time after this win in his third fight in six months, and Woodley presumably fixing the shoulder injury he’s been talking about since right after the Demian Maia fight in July, the timing would seem to work for these two to be ready in time to meet.

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