I’ll admit it. I was one of the fight fans caught completely by surprise by the Rafael dos Anjos beat down of Anthony Pettis last weekend. After watching “Showtime” submit Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez in back-to-back fights, I didn’t think dos Anjos’s constant pressure and takedowns would stop the champion from kicking him in the head. I definitely didn’t think dos Anjos would end up stalking Pettis like a rabid pit bull for 25 minutes and mauling him almost at will. Pettis may have sustained an early eye injury, but it wasn’t the sole explanation for why dos Anjos was completely dominant in the grappling aspects of the fight. The Brazilian exposed the takedown defense that “Showtime” had never quite proven was up to par with his other skills.
With the performance, dos Anjos proved a lot of his doubters, myself included, wrong. From the opening bell, the Brazilian came out strong and had Pettis backing up against the cage. The longer he didn’t let up with his pressure, the more success he had. It was common knowledge that the most likely route to defeating Pettis would come from grinding the champion down and stifling his highlight-reel offense. It’s how Clay Guida claimed a victory in “Showtime’s” UFC debut. Dos Anjos took that game plan and executed it to perfection. There was scarcely a second where Pettis found himself with more than a foot or two of space between his back and the fence, as dos Anjos was in his face and pushing forward the entire time.
We knew dos Anjos was an excellent fighter. His performances over the last few years have proven as much. Whether it was embracing the grind and smothering volume strikers Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz or coming on strong and taking out a point specialist in the aforementioned Henderson, dos Anjos has been a top-tier 155-pounder for a while now. In beating Pettis the way he did, dos Anjos posted his most impressive performance in a career that’s been full of impressive performances lately. It proved, without a doubt, that dos Anjos has evolved into an elite fighter in this sport.
However, there’s a giant Russian elephant in the room that I’ve been ignoring so far, and his name is Khabib Nurmagomedov. It was less than a year ago when dos Anjos walked into the Octagon for a bout against Nurmagomedov. The Brazilian was coming off a huge win over Cerrone and had a five-fight winning streak under his belt. Yet, dos Anjos still entered the cage as more than a 2-1 underdog on fight day. It was quickly evident why that was the case.
Much like the strategy employed by dos Anjos last weekend against Pettis, Nurmagomedov used his stronger wrestling skills in reverse in order to be aggressive and put the pressure on the Brazilian. Even though the fight was relatively even on the feet, Nurmagomedov’s heavy onslaught of pressure made it tough for dos Anjos to truly open up with his striking. Meanwhile, due to his excellent takedown defense and overall superior grappling game, “The Eagle” was able to throw heavy punches and flying knees with reckless abandon without worrying about ending up in a bad position. Nurmagomedov did a good job setting up his shots by backing up dos Anjos on the feet with combinations and constantly pressing forward. Once the fight neared the fence, the former sambo world champion was in his element.
For three rounds, every time Nurmagomedov got his hands on dos Anjos, the fight went to the floor. Whether it was a solid technical takedown, a crafty trip or just tossing his opponent to the mat, the undefeated Nurmagomedov demolished dos Anjos with his relentless takedown attack and never really let the future champion get into the fight. Outside of a couple of desperation guillotine attempts in the second round, dos Anjos looked completely outclassed for 15 minutes against Nurmagomedov and ended up enduring the most lopsided loss of his career. Now that dos Anjos has UFC gold around his waist, it’s just a matter of time before he has to prove it truly belongs in Brazil by avenging his loss to Nurmagomedov. In two months, “The Eagle” will step into the Octagon for the first time since he beat dos Anjos last April. If he can keep his undefeated record intact against Cerrone, Nurmagomedov’s title shot will come in the near future.
No disrespect to Cerrone, but most fight fans seem to feel that the rematch between dos Anjos and Nurmagomedov is inevitable. While dos Anjos is certainly the most high-profile opponent that Nurmagomedov has beaten, the Dagestani fighter has destroyed damn near every name put in front of him during his UFC career. He took down Abel Trujillo a record-setting 21 times. He smashed Thiago Tavares in less than two minutes. He threw Pat Healy and Kamal Shalorus around like school children. Cerrone will provide us the chance to see how “The Eagle” deals with an elite striker for the first time, but it’s hard to picture a version of “Cowboy” with the takedown defense to keep Nurmagomedov at bay. Even before last weekend, there were some rumblings from fight fans that Nurmagomedov may be the best lightweight on the planet. The dominant dos Anjos win over Pettis all but confirmed that thought for many of them.
Nurmagomedov is likely going to be fighting for a UFC title by the end of the year. At the moment, there’s no reason to believe he won’t walk out of the Octagon with the belt once that happens. The dos Anjos that fought Pettis to win the belt looked bigger, stronger and more confident than the one who was defeated by Nurmagomedov last April, but stylistically dos Anjos is going to have a rough time against Nurmagomedov nine out of 10 times. Dos Anjos looked incredible last weekend and has proven to be a championship-caliber fighter, but until he can defeat Nurmagomedov, the Brazilian cannot be called the best lightweight in the world.