Lightweight contender Rafael dos Anjos gets his shot at Anthony Pettis and the UFC lightweight title on March 14th at UFC 185. Check out the event page for more information!
When the time came for Rafael dos Anjos to make a career-defining decision – one that would alter his course in the UFC but also require great consideration of its impact on his family – he couldn’t do it alone.
His wife Cris, only a year or so from completing work on her college degree in Brazil, would have to be consulted. So would his sons, Gustavo and Rafael.
Life-changing moves aren’t made easily. But as he looks back now, dos Anjos knows that coming to America was the right thing -- for himself and the ones who matter most.
How could it not? Saturday night at American Airlines Arena in Dallas, dos Anjos will finally get his shot at the lightweight title when he faces champion Anthony Pettis at UFC 185.
Maybe his chance would have come anyway had he stayed in Rio de Janeiro. Or maybe not. But he concedes that his wife’s blessing to move the family to the U.S. three years ago was an important turning point in his UFC career.
“She is the one who believes in me more than I do,” he said. “I told her, ‘Let’s go,’ and she left her life to live my life. I’ve been carrying that pressure for three years. I’ve finally got my title shot, and I got it because she believes in me. So I know we did the right thing.”
dos Anjos, 30, earned his shot through perseverance. He’s had 30 MMA fights, 17 of them in the UFC (12-5). He is also on a three-fight win streak, with knockout victories over Jason High and Benson Henderson and a unanimous decision over Nate Diaz, all in 2014.
“This is his moment,” said his head coach, Rafael Cordeiro of Kings MMA in Huntington Beach, California.
The only blemish on dos Anjos’ record since 2012 is a unanimous-decision loss to No. 3-ranked Khabib Nurmagomedov in April 2014. It’s a defeat that still haunts him.
“I can’t forget his name,” dos Anjos said, pronouncing Nurmagomedov’s name as if he has said it a thousand times.
“When people ask me about that, I tell them, ‘I will not die with that loss. I’m going to get over it.’
“I had a couple of issues before the fight, and I just think it wasn’t my day. He was having his best day. I don’t want to make any excuses. He did great, he had a great strategy.”
In fact, Nurmagomedov dominated dos Anjos over three rounds, using his weight and grappling leverage to keep dos Anjos pinned against the cage or on the ground, where he pounded out the victory. It’s dos Anjos’ only loss in his past nine fights.
A knee injury forced Nurmagomedov to postpone a fight with Donald Cerrone – they are scheduled to meet at UFC 187 in May – giving dos Anjos an open path to Pettis. But after Pettis (18-2) beat Gilbert Melendez at UFC 181 last December, Nurmagomedov attended the post-fight press conference to press the issue with the champion.
Nurmagomedov wasn’t cleared to fight at the time, although Pettis welcomed the challenge. But dos Anjos can upset those plans on Saturday.
If he wins, he knows a second fight with Nurmagomedov will undoubtedly happen.
“He has a tough fight against Cerrone,” he said. “Let’s see how he does with that.”
In the meantime, dos Anjos will have a difficult time unseating Pettis, who is creative and unpredictable in the Octagon. Pettis won his past two fights by submission, but he also has three knockouts by a single kick.
“He’s the kind of fighter that takes risks,” dos Anjos said. “If he wants to throw a spinning back kick, he’s going to throw it. He doesn’t think too much. He does things that for some fighters are almost impossible. That’s why he’s dangerous.
“I’ve never fought nobody that does the things he does. He’s very impressive.”
If there’s a game plan in the dos Anjos camp, it’s to prevent Pettis from taking control of the fight early. If Pettis is allowed to dictate the pace, he will look for opportunities to put dos Anjos on his heels.
But Cordeiro thinks that an early, calculated attack by dos Anjos could swing the momentum his way.
“Rafael has to keep his rhythm, the way he’s fought before,” Cordeiro said. “Now we’re going to see if somebody puts pressure on (Pettis) what he can do. Rafael has to be patient but at the same time put pressure on him.”
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If he does, his legs will be the reason. Against Nate Diaz, dos Anjos held a 77-13 edge in significant strikes, particularly with his kicks. Of his 564 significant strikes in the UFC, 26 percent have landed on his opponents’ legs.
Given’s Pettis’ strong kicking, Saturday’s fight could feature more legs than a Rockettes show at Radio City Music Hall.
“He kicks a lot,” dos Anjos said. “I like to use my kicks, too. But I don’t think he’s ever faced anybody like me with my power and my strength. He’s going to feel it.”
dos Anjos credits his move to California for his improvement. In Brazil, he said, there were neither the facilities nor the training partners to keep him fit and ready. During Carnival time, he usually worked alone while others partied in the streets.
Those concerns no longer exist.
“The United States is the best market for him to work,” Cordeiro said. “There’s more training here than in Brazil, and he can work more on his wrestling and conditioning. This is the best place for him to work now.”
dos Anjos said, “Sometimes I went to the gym and not many people showed up to train, so a lot of times I trained myself. I said I have to make a change.”
He has settled in nicely. He and his family live in tony Newport Beach, and Kings MMA affords him everything he needs to prepare. Life is good.
“I feel that I’m here for a reason,” he said. “Every day (in Brazil) I was thinking about not training, doing something else, but I remember that I’m here to be champion. This is what drives me. I have more focus here, better training partners, better coach.”
His Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, Roberto “Gordo” Correa, is in town to offer advice, and there are others to help him prepare for the fight of his life. But mostly he has his family, who made the transition from Brazil to the U.S. a seamless one.
Now that he’s here, dos Anjos plans on staying.
“Sure I’m going to stay,” he said firmly. “My kids love it here, my wife loves it here. It’s such a good country. I like the way things work here. It’s been very good for us.
“I love Brazil, too. It’s my culture. I love my people, but my heart is here.”