If you thought Rafael dos Anjos was good before, he wants you to see him after he got to take nine months away from the sport. To some fighters, a long layoff like that feels like a death sentence. For the UFC lightweight champion, who makes his first title defense against Donald Cerrone on Saturday in Orlando, it was just what he needed.
No, he didn’t need the knee injury that forced him to the sidelines after his title-winning effort against Anthony Pettis in March, but along with healing his knee, he got to refresh the rest of his body and his mind.
“It was good for me, but I'm a very active guy,” he said. “I always like to be training, so it was kind of hard. And actually, I didn't have a break because I had physical therapy twice a day for my knee and I was really dedicated to that, trying to get better. Some people think we're just sitting home, watching TV all day, but I was working on my knee and it took a lot of work to get a hundred percent. But I did need that rest. I had five fights in 11 months, my body was breaking. But now I've rested and I'm way more motivated for this fight than I was for my title shot.”
More on Fight Night Orlando: Fight card | Jury determined to walk own path | Samman right at home after battling grief | AKA helps Edwards fight right mix for success | Usman's golden dream | Watch: Road to the Octagon – Dos Anjos vs. Cerrone | Watch: Road to the Octagon – Dos Santos vs. Overeem | Watch: Road to the Octagon – Johnson vs. Diaz
Five fights in 11 months against a lineup that would make any lightweight shudder. It started with a decision loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in April of 2014, but the next four fights against Jason High, Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz and Pettis were all wins, each more impressive than the last. And there was no better time to peak than in a championship fight, and dos Anjos was firing on all cylinders against “Showtime” as he scored a lopsided five-round decision to take the title.
It wasn’t an easy road to the top for the Rio de Janeiro native, who, at 31, is now at the pinnacle of his sport. He appeared to be hitting that top spot back in August of 2013, when he defeated Cerrone for the first time, extending the winning streak he had to five. He would lose his next fight to Nurmagomedov, but if he had received a title shot after the win over Cerrone, would he have been ready?
“I think it was good to wait a little longer,” dos Anjos admits. “As you guys can see, all my previous fights, I was always getting better. I just turned 31 years old, but I thank God that I'm always able to get better every fight. Every fight, I'm a different guy. And for this next fight, it will not be different. I think everything is under God's plan for my life. I think if I got a title shot after that fight, I would not be ready. But now I'm a champion and I'm not being cocky, but I don't see anybody taking this belt from me.”
That doesn’t mean he’s underestimating Cerrone, who has won eight straight since the two initially met. Respect and fear are two different things though, and while RDA respects Cerrone’s fight game, he is not in awe of it.
“Yeah, he got better,” he said of “Cowboy.” “He's a great fighter and a dangerous guy. He can finish anybody. But I think I've improved even more and I don't see him taking my belt away. I can't visualize that.”
The only thing dos Anjos can visualize is leaving Orlando with his title belt and heading back to his family for the holidays, not singing Christmas carols, but “And still…”
“I think I'm going to do even better now,” he said. “If I hit him once like I did when I dropped him in the first round of the last fight with him, he will not be able to come back. I've improved a lot of my skills, my power, and I'm a different fighter.”