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Tactical Guide to Robbie Lawler vs. Rafael dos Anjos

No matter what happens, there will be violence.

by Jack Slack
Dec 15 2017, 7:38pm

Screen capture via YouTube

Robbie Lawler versus Rafael dos Anjos is as close as you will get to an assurance of violence. A statistic came to light earlier this week that through thirty fights with major organizations, Lawler has attempted a grand total of zero submissions. No guillotines to dissuade the takedown attempts of an opponent, no triangles to distract his man and allow him to scramble up, and no hunting for a downed opponent’s neck to open the chance for a good punch or body blow on the ground. As an elite mixed martial artist it probably isn’t a great strategic move to limit yourself so obviously to pursuing a single means of victory—but that tidbit does stand as statistical evidence to irrefutably prove something about Lawler that so many other fighters simply assert about themselves as part of the rhetoric. Robbie Lawler truly is only in there to knock his opponent out.

Rafael dos Anjos seems to be MMA’s quiet man. Conor McGregor brutally asserted before their ill-fated match that all Dos Anjos had to offer was the UFC lightweight title he then held. In a promotional respect, he was absolutely correct: Dos Anjos will not promise a blood feud or bring the banter to the pre-fight proceedings. McGregor changed tactic about five times through their one press conference in pursuit of a storyline or a rise out of the lightweight champion, and Dos Anjos was having none of it. Whatever ill will Dos Anjos might have for his opponent is stored in the back of his mind until the moment the seconds are commanded to leave the cage. Any beef he has with you he will stoically pound out across the canvas. His run of victories during his lightweight title campaign is perhaps the most impressive in the history of the UFC’s most competitive division. Nate Diaz, Benson Henderson, Anthony Pettis, and Donald Cerrone were all made to look helpless by Dos Anjos in quick succession before he was ousted from the championship by an Eddie Alvarez haymaker. After a tough and convincing loss to Tony Ferguson, Dos Anjos made a change and moved up to welterweight. Besting the stalwart journeyman, Tarec Saffiedine and submitting the game Neil Magny, Dos Anjos has moved himself into the title picture and this match up with Lawler has a good chance of title ramifications—Georges St. Pierre’s whims permitting.

The New Welterweight

One of the changes that Dos Anjos made was leaving Kings MMA and head trainer Rafael Cordeiro. Dos Anjos was always something of a ronin, balancing his time at Kings with trips to Evolve’s Enter the Dragon style gym full of combat sports champions in Singapore. It did seem, however, that Dos Anjos benefitted from this juggling. Cordeiro is unparalleled in his ability to build confidence and aggression in his charges. One dimensional grapplers put on striking clinics after some time under Cordeiro—but often they fight in one gear: all-out attack. Most notably, Fabricio Werdum and Wanderlei Silva look like world beaters when their opponents are covering up, and much less scary against calm, collected counter strikers. Where so many of Kings MMA’s famous students simply pump hands, throw the odd kick and keep the opponent’s head down, Dos Anjos became one of the truest pressure fighters in mixed martial arts. He looked after himself going forward, he preferred to have his opponent working and exposing themselves rather than simply covering up, and he was surprisingly hard to hit clean.

Dos Anjos’s beatdown of Anthony Pettis for the UFC lightweight strap remains one of the finest examples of a pressure fighting gameplan in mixed martial arts. Hammering the legs and body, pushing the pace but also fighting on the counter, and diving in on his man’s hips whenever he thought he had the chance—Dos Anjos looked a marvel. At welterweight he has looked something like that, but was dragged into prolonged wrestling sessions in his bout with Tarec Saffiedine, and quickly knocked Neil Magny off his feet with a low kick and never permitted him to rise.

Old Robbie

Robbie Lawler is a year and a half removed from his unlikely UFC title reign. The longtime middleweight enjoyed a career resurgence after cutting down to welterweight in February of 2013. He was considered a bit long in the tooth back then, yet four years on he is still very much in the title picture. After a surprising and swift knockout loss against Tyron Woodley in 2016, Lawler took an entire year before his next outing. This is something that is often advised by coaches after a knockout loss and while ideas on "the chin" are more old wives tale than science, many fighters have seemed to benefit from a break from the grind before jumping back into sparring.

Lawler’s fighting style varies from fight to fight. Sometimes he’ll show you everything and the kitchen sink, sometimes he’ll simply swing for the finish. A constant feature, however, is the southpaw right hook. Where he used to leap halfway across the cage leading with these, he has crafted it into a sharp counter punch over recent years, and a slick follow on from his surprising left straight. Against Rory MacDonald, Lawler looked surgical in his boxing: darting in with jabs and one-twos that took their toll on the young challenger. He threaded the needle on a beautiful left straight onto MacDonald’s broken nose to see the fight called off.

Yet against Carlos Condit and Donald Cerrone, Lawler was a little wilder and it was in the periods of swarming on his opponent that he had his best success.

Being a knockout puncher with the ability to adapt that to his opponent is what sets Lawler apart from the many, many bangers out there in MMA, and indeed from his younger self. He still just wants to smash his opponent in the mouth with his fists, but he’ll find the best way to come at it. Nowhere was that more obvious than in his two fights with Johny Hendricks. In the first, a whopping 94 percent of Lawler’s offense was targeted at Hendricks’s head. Come the rematch, almost 40 percent of Lawler’s blows were hammered home to the midriff of Hendricks, who soon slowed and allowed Lawler to snatch the title.

The Match Up

Through his two matches at welterweight, Dos Anjos has relied heavily on his strong wrestling and top game. He was largely unsuccessful in his work against Tarec Saffiedine in the clinch, but was able to easily hold Neil Magny down despite being a newcomer to the weightclass. Holding Robbie Lawler down is no mean feat, however. The size disparity between the two seems quite marked and Lawler spent much of his career struggling to get up from under middleweights. If Rafael dos Anjos’s rebirth at welterweight is built—in his mind—around his grappling, he may be in for a nasty surprise.

With that being said, one of Dos Anjos’s great strengths plays into a noticeable Lawler habit. Lawler almost never deals with low kicks. It was one thing when he was getting his feet punted out by world class kickboxer, Melvin Manhoef, but once Johny Hendricks began landing every low kick he threw it became clear that it was the method, not the man that troubled Lawler so much. Against Hendricks, Lawler was aiming to land hard counter shots—slipping and shoulder rolling punches and returning with his own. His head movement, however, meant that he was bending at the waist and standing heavy on his lead leg. Hendricks would flurry a few punches at Lawler, then punt Lawler’s lead leg with no chance of Lawler picking that leg up or withdrawing it. Dos Anjos prefers to work one or two shots at a time but a few flurries into low kicks might work a treat here. As both men are southpaws, Dos Anjos’s powerful left kick will be denied the open side body kick, but could be used to buckle Lawler’s lead leg inward.

Lawler’s strategy in this fight could go either way. If he really is that much bigger than Dos Anjos come fight time, he might do well just to push forward and bang it out against a man who has spent most of his career as the bully. Lawler has always excelled in trades and has become more defensively savvy over the years. If Dos Anjos looks to crowd him he might well do best to dirty box Dos Anjos—looking to get the single collar tie and work the elbows that both he and Donald Cerrone played with in their bout or the Rigondeaux style hold-and-hit uppercuts. Or even those gnarly knees to the body from the Hendricks bout.

For a more proven method against Dos Anjos, Lawler could try and apply the lighter feet he showed against MacDonald. Eddie Alvarez’s victory over Dos Anjos is sometimes recalled as a lucky punch, but through constant lateral movement and direction changes, Alvarez caught the then champion walking onto punches on a few occasions. The disadvantage of pressure fighting is that you are simultaneously trying to take up space and avoid getting hit, it’s a paradoxical way to make your living. For this writer, Lawler is at his most enjoyable when he is mixing in his under-rated kicking game and using the movement necessary to maintain the space this requires. Robbie Lawler might be the most unlikely man to have a wicked triangle kick—a snapping kick with the ball of the foot which goes into the opponent's ribs at an upward forty-five degree trajectory—but it is just one of many slick little moves he has in the bag of tricks and rarely goes to.

Ferguson and Cerrone both showed that Dos Anjos is a sucker for straight kicks to the body as he moves forward.

There are a heap of questions going into this fight, but not just over how the two match up and whether the smaller man can handle the power of the bigger one. There are also questions about the future. Is the welterweight class really a viable one for Dos Anjos at the highest levels? How much can Robbie Lawler really have left in the tank after this long? Will the winner really be any closer to a title shot or will St-Pierre swoop in to set the order of things back half a year? Some of those answers we might not like, but with the way these two fight, and with Mike Perry vs. Santiago Ponzinibbio just before it, you’re unlikely to be bored.