Rafael Dos Anjos Talks About the Long Road to UFC Lightweight Supremacy

Fightland Blog

By James Goyder

Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC

To the victor, the spoils. Rafael Dos Anjos has the UFC lightweight belt around his waist, a $50,000 Performance of the Night bonus in his pocket, and a spot in the upper echelons of the official pound-for-pound rankings on the horizon after his one sided demolition of Anthony Pettis.

He finds himself at the pinnacle of the sport, but to reach that summit Dos Anjos has had to consistently surpass people’s expectations, culminating in the most complete performance of his career at UFC 185.

Pettis had been touted by Dana White as the pound-for-pound king and was a heavy favorite with bookmakers, but Dos Anjos was able to upset the odds with a well thought out gameplan which he described the day after winning the belt.

“I wanted to put on aggressive forward pressure on Pettis and make him feel the power of my punches and kicks because that’s what my coaches at Kings MMA and Evolve MMA told me to do,” he said.

That power was prevalent right from an opening round in which Dos Anjos set out his stall to stalk Pettis, cut off the cage and strafe him with punches and kicks from the southpaw stance. As a strategy it proved devastatingly effective and the Brazilian says he realized straightaway that these tactics were working.

“I knew he was hurt and I could tell he didn't like my power. Pettis is a great striker but I have more power.”

Pettis’ striking skills might have earned him the nickname ‘Showtime’ but Dos Anjos stayed in the pocket throughout the five round fight and consistently got the better of the former WEC champion, something he attributes to thorough preparation.

“Master Cordeiro prepared me well for this one, he is the best coach in the world and I have a lot of confidence because I have trained with Muay Thai world champions all the time at Evolve MMA and Pettis’ striking is not on the same level as those Thai guys.”

Pettis was one of the UFC’s most popular and marketable champions, and if fight fans are still struggling to wrap their heads around the idea of Dos Anjos being the best lightweight in the world, it’s probably because the Brazilian did not always seem destined for greatness.

His UFC career got off to an inauspicious start when he was knocked out by Jeremy Stephens on his promotional debut. Dos Anjos then dropped a unanimous decision to Tyson Griffin in the follow up fight to leave himself on the brink of an ignominious exit from the world’s premier promotion. 

Dos Anjos bounced back to salvage his UFC career with style by winning three in a row, but then suffered a badly broken jaw which forced him to tap out in the third round of a fight with Clay Guida (who coincidentally was the last fighter to defeat Pettis). This injury left him sidelined for an entire year.

There have been numerous bumps on his road to becoming a champion but Dos Anjos believes that this path to the title was predetermined.

“I think all those moments prepared me for this moment and I believe it was God's plan,” Rafael explained. “You need to get through the bad times to realize your dreams.”

While Dos Anjos' striking was perhaps the most impressive aspect of his latest performance, he was equally dominant in terms of takedowns and ground control, putting Pettis on his back so frequently that not a single judge was able to score the defending champion a round.

Dos Anjos succeeded in nine out of ten takedown attempts and despite being on his back for so much of the fight, Pettis didn’t have a single submission attempt, something that was put in an even more impressive context when the Brazilian revealed afterwards that he had blown out his knee in training.

“I couldn't train wrestling or BJJ for the last three weeks. I only could do it during the fight.”

Despite going the full five rounds for the first time in his career, Dos Anjos never seemed to tire and says that, while he might have genetics to thank for that one, his stamina was honed by hours of hard work with his coaching team.

“I am lucky to have good cardio but I also work with the best strength and training guys in the world and I train with the best teams in the world, Kings MMA and Evolve MMA. Also, my wrestling coach Jacob Harman is the best. I work with the best and they help me to be my best.”

So what’s next for the newly crowned champ? First up for Dos Anjos will be a well earned rest in his native Brazil, but after that he has business to attend to in Asia with a long term training partner,

“I want to go home and rest with my family for a while but then I will go to Philippines with Frankie Edgar for his fight and we will go to Singapore together to Evolve MMA for training there. I can't wait to go back to my team at Evolve MMA, it's my second home.”

Another date looming large in Dos Anjos calendar is May 23rd because two of his previous opponents, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Donald Cerrone, will be going head to head in a lightweight title eliminator at UFC 187 which has a shot at his belt on the line.

There can be few men better positioned to predict the outcome of that fight than Dos Anjos, who has gone the distance with both but is sitting diplomatically on the fence.

“It will be a good fight, they are both tough guys.”

The knee injury is not likely to keep him sidelined for more than a few months but for the time being, Dos Anjos, who came from humble beginnings, can forget about future matchups and simply take a moment to savor the crowning achievement of his athletic career.

“Winning the title is a dream come true and I can't believe that I came from the bottom, from nothing, to work my way up to reach this point in my life.”


Check out this related story:

How Rafael Dos Anjos Killed the King