Rafael dos Anjos is already one of the greats and the battering he put on Robbie Lawler this weekend just hammered it home. His run through the lightweight division is now legendary among fans and pundits, but after dos Anjos lost his title to Eddie Alvarez in 2016, moved up to welterweight and left Kings MMA, most assumed that was that. When fighters begin jumping weightclasses and changing camps it is normally in a desperate attempt to recapture some lost magic. The later into a fighter’s career you get, the more camp hopping and weight jumping they do.
Robbie Lawler was supposed to help us ascertain whether Rafael dos Anjos could hold up as a real welterweight. At 170 pounds dos Anjos had ground out a decision against the journeyman Tarec Saffiedine, and quickly overwhelmed Neil Magny, but Lawler was a gigantic former middleweight and only recently lost the UFC welterweight title—welterweight don’t come any more legitimate than him. And yet from the first minute until the last, Rafael dos Anjos proved to have Robbie Lawler’s number.
Inside, Outside, Leave Me Alone
In our pre-fight Tactical Guide we noted Robbie Lawler’s dislike of low kicks. His lengthy stance and his use of head movement and shoulder rolls mean that he likes to have his feet set and can’t often pick up or retract the lead leg easily. From the beginning of the first round, dos Anjos was hunting Lawler’s lead leg, and Lawler was pressing forward to dissuade him from doing so. If a fighter keeps moving forward on his opponent, the opponent puts himself in significant danger should he choose to kick—as the opponent might time a right hand and knock him down or simply step in and bundle him over.
It was interesting to see dos Anjos back in with another southpaw. Against orthodox opponents he will use a step up lead leg kick to buckle their lead leg inwards. This has some telegraph and less power. Against southpaw opponents dos Anjos can punt straight out of his stance into their lead leg, which is especially effective against fighters who have their lead foot slightly toed in as Lawler often does. Kicking below the knee—as is becoming commonplace in MMA—makes it nearly impossible to hit the knee if the opponent tries to check the kick, and can knock the opponent’s lead leg across and take him out of his stance.
The flip side of this is that when dos Anjos fights orthodox fighters, his rear leg/power leg is firing into their open side. This means that body kicks are far more accessible with his rear leg. Against the southpaw Robbie Lawler, dos Anjos used his step up lead leg kick to the body instead to much effect. Kicking with the rear leg to the body would mean not only having to beat the arms, but against a more side-on striker it can mean mainly kicking their back. This is why many striking arts are so keen on always kicking into the open side more than they are on commands and cues based on left and right.
One way to think about it—unless fighting a very squared opponent—is to imagine the opponent as a capital letter "S" facing in the same direction as the fighter’s chest. A good philosophy is to kick into the hollows and avoid kicking the curves. The hollows being the opponent’s chest and the outside or back of his lead leg. All of dos Anjos’s body kicking was done with his right leg, into the open side. All of his low kicking was done with his left leg, buckling Lawler’s lead leg inwards. The one moment this changed was later in the fight as Lawler began standing with his lead leg exaggeratedly turned out, wedging into the expected outside low kick. As soon as dos Anjos recognized this he immediately kicked to the inside.
Throughout the fight, fans were treated to dos Anjos working equally well in each range. His time training with the many Muay Thai champions at Evolve seemed to shine through each time he and Lawler clinched. While Lawler looked great in the clinch against Donald Cerrone and Johny Hendricks, he seemed outclassed and outworked by the great knees and elbows of dos Anjos as the two battled for grips and head position.
One important difference was highlighted by the elbow that dropped Robbie Lawler. He had pushed dos Anjos to the fence and had been digging in short body shots while dos Anjos clung to the double collar tie without room to move. As Lawler broke free and made space to stand back and swing a flurry of blows to the body, dos Anjos clipped him with a short elbow that sent him stumbling.
When working the body against the fence there are two main ways a fighter can typically mitigate the danger of being hit with his hands down. The first is to keep his head pinned against the opponent—as Lawler had been doing while in the double collar tie. This is the classical infighting position which was so popular in the early days of infighting in the boxing ring. It has caught on much more in MMA in recent years, with Jon Jones using it in all of his recent fights and Nate Diaz using it to wind Conor McGregor at many points in their second fight.
The second is to do what dos Anjos did each time he wanted to bang the body along the fence in this bout—dig the body shot and immediately fall into the clinch, smothering any attempt at a counter attack.
While dos Anjos’s adaptability and savvy were worthy of much praise, he wasn’t perfect in this bout. One of the most noticeable moments of low fight IQ was his flurry in the second round. This clip immediately made the rounds on the internet as an outstanding moment of action—dos Anjos unleashing thirty unanswered blows against a covering Lawler—but Lawler has been rolling off shots for years and it was clear that dos Anjos quickly punched himself into arm weariness, spending much of the next round along the fence.
That pedalo flying knee is a favorite of Murthel Groenhart, who uses it near constantly to attack opponents approaching the ropes. As Lawler repeatedly stood with his back to the fence, this technique worked a treat for dos Anjos throughout the fight. As mobility clearly became an issue for Lawler, the two went to the fence more and more, with dos Anjos maintaining distance perfectly until he wanted to step in and do some damage and then either clinching or leaving range again. This sequence sums up how slick dos Anjos’s cage bullying is—that right hook to the body, straight into the clinch to avoid retaliation, an upward elbow strike to stand Lawler up, and a drop on his now exposed hips to complete an easy takedown.
In a hilarious turn of events, it wasdsos Anjos who asked the referee to stand the men up as Lawler was stalling on a bodylock. This was a sharp contrast to when a winded Johny Hendricks used the exact same position that dos Anjos was in to hold onto Lawler for dear life in their second match, as Lawler begged to be restarted from the feet.
One of Lawler’s few moments of success came after he seemingly picked up on of dos Anjos's habits. The Brazilian would shoot the one-two and weave out to his left, hoping to get under Lawler’s brilliant counter right hook. On this occasion, however, Lawler let him weave and nailed him with a left straight as he came up.
But this fight was all dos Anjos from bell to bell. As the hammer sounded to signal ten seconds left in the final round, dos Anjos put up his fists in preparation for a final exchange from the infamous "Fifth Round Lawler." Lawler simply looked at him—obviously disappointed with the way things had gone and waited for the round to end. While Lawler may have suffered an injury to his leg at some point, dos Anjos’s kicking was certainly taking its toll and the ex-lightweight looked brilliant in every other phase the fight went through.
With dos Anjos’ ring cutting, pressure fighting, body work, clinch attacks, and takedowns along the cage, this writer cannot help but feel robbed of that lightweight title fight with Conor McGregor which fell through when dos Anjos was injured. Blown up lightweight or not, dos Anjos seems to be more than capable to taking it to the best welterweights on the planet.