Rafael Dos Anjos, Pressure Incarnate

 

As is expected of anyone with a grappling background in Mixed Martial Arts, Rafael Dos Anjos (27-9, MMA, 16-7 UFC) did not start his UFC career as a world class striker. With wins over some of the greatest Lightweight strikers of his generation in Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, and Benson Henderson, Dos Anjos is an elite striker in the eyes of many. Under the striking tutelage of world class coach Rafael Cordeiro, Dos Anjos went from a grappler who strikes, to a dominant, well rounded fighter, often pressuring his opponents to the cage, and often keeping them there with strings of punishing combinations.

In his most recent bouts, it is the grappler’s striking that has won him the attention of the martial arts media as well as the that of the UFC’s top brass. After amassing an 8-1 streak in the promotion Dos Anjos was granted a title shot against Anthony “Showtime” Pettis (20-7 MMA, 7-6 UFC), a wizard at striking who could grapple with the best of the organization. Because Dos Anjos was a heavy underdog, not many had him beating the “Showtime” fighter. What resulted was one of the most one-sided title fights in the division’s history, with Dos Anjos winning all five rounds in decisive manner.

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RDA pressured Pettis with fast and powerful striking throughout their entire match

RDA’s most definitive striking tool is surely his power body kick. Using it to punish Jason High (21-6 MMA, 2-3 UFC) early in their bout, seeing him throw it is an indicator that he wants to pressure his opponent by inducing fatigue. Paired with the kick is always a step or two backward from the opponent, to which Dos Anjos responds by pressing forward, gaining inches towards the fence on each exchange. Landing four body kicks within the first minute of his championship bout against Pettis, Dos Anjos had his opponent against the fence for the majority of the first round, mixing his body kicks with combinations to the head. In RDA’s subsequent match against Donald Cerrone, more of the same. After absorbing a knee to the body (to which Cerrone stepped backwards), Dos Anjos landed a flush body kick which folded Cerrone, then sent him careening to the fence with a violent combination of punches.

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Willing to stand and trade with any fighter the UFC puts before him, the second tool that RDA employs for his pressure fighting is his excellent punching skill. Not necessarily using boxing, as his style is more reflective of a Muay Thai style of punching, RDA is able to attack from all angles. Fighting as a southpaw, RDA can set up his left leg and body kicks to torque his body and load substantial power into the strikes following those kicks. When caught off guard and defending strikes, RDA is quick to raise his forearms up to protect his face, not fearing a take down as his defensive grappling is among the best in the division. However, the high guard of RDA is not impervious, as Eddie Alvarez (28-5-1 MMA, 3-2-1 UFC) was able to sneak a punch around his guard in their match, finishing the Brazilian after a series of flurries.

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Stumbled by a right hook past the guard of RDA

Dos Anjos’ overhand left is one of his more daunting techniques. Using it often to stun his opponents and reset his position, very few fighters have been able to absorb it without effect. Because the overhand makes Dos Anjos vulnerable to counters, he is likely to use it as a counter himself or to punctuate combinations. What RDA’s striking lacks in power, he makes up for in volume and ferocity, usually draining an opponent’s will to fight by piling on pressure and combinations.

The former Lightweight Champion’s grappling pedigree has become somewhat forgotten since he started dominating his opponents in the striking arena. Using it to supplement his superb striking, it is not uncommon to see Dos Anjos land a sharp combination with his hands, pushing his opponent back, then shoot for a take down once the fight has reached the fence. On the ground, RDA is able to employ several tools to ensure that he remains in dominant position, hiding his scrambles with punches from top position, wrapping the legs to avoid escape, and holding his opponents to the cage to prevent them from trying to stand. In Dos Anjos’ most recent fight, against Neil Magny, he was able to kick Magny’s feet from underneath him and send him to the ground. On the ground, Dos Anjos was able to maintain his position by holding Magny’s head to the mat and punishing him with elbows during every scramble attempt. After taking mount position, RDA applied an arm triangle choke to get the submission victory.

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RDA’s first submission win in years via Arm Triangle Choke

Despite the change from fighting at Lightweight to Welterweight (170 lbs), Dos Anjos has not suffered in the unfamiliar territory, already on a 2-fight win streak in the division.  While unclear if Dos Anjos can compete with the best of the division, Dos Anjos is already a fantastic gatekeeper, and only his future fights can indicate if he can compete at a championship level against Champion Tyron Woodley and top contender Stephen Thompson.

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Bonus gif of pre-Cordeiro RDA winning by KO
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From Knockout Artist to Bumbling Technician: Johny Hendricks

Johny “Bigg Rigg” Hendricks, former 170-pound champion of the UFC, was the stuff of legend before his first championship bout against then Welterweight champion, Georges St. Pierre. Before that, every fight was approached the same from a striking perspective. Akin to an enraged berserker, Hendricks would lunge into his combinations, and with the blessings of Newtonian Physics behind him, put a decent beating on many who stood before him. After his fight with GSP, and the partnering of the UFC and USADA(United States Anti-Doping Agency), his ability to knock his opponents senseless declined. As a result, many speculated that Johny was only a force to be reckoned with at 170 pounds because he was taking performance enhancing drugs(PEDS).

Whenever the absence of his knockout power was brought up, fans were quick to assume that  USADA was the reason behind his diminished strength. This writer believes that the demise of his night-night power was a combination of several factors, one of which being the change in his striking technique. In his UFC debut against Amir Sadollah, Hendricks was aggressive even in retreat, firing his looping left as soon as he was pushed against the cage, rushed the clinch, and put Sadollah down with uppercuts.

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Throughout his early UFC career, it seemed that Hendricks managed his distance by hopping backwards at the first glimpse of danger, then coming forward with a thundering combination of punches, grabbing a clinch, or pushing to the cage with his punches for a take-down. You first see Hendricks lunge into his strikes against Ricardo Funch in UFC 107, engaging in an exciting back and forth first round against the Brazilian, after which he dominates the remainder of the match with his wrestling. The first time he does it to viciously finish his opponent was against Charlie Brenneman at UFC 117. In the flurry that marks the beginning of the end, Hendricks leaps into Brenneman with a powerful overhand left, after which he begins a terrifying onslaught, moving forward whilst throwing power shot after power shot.

 

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Johny again reminded the world of his power with his stunning dispatches of Jon Fitch and Martin Kampmann. Against Fitch, they danced for a few seconds, Hendricks repositioned himself in the center of the ring, then uncorked a violent overhand left that swiftly knocked out the American and sent him reeling backwards. The bout was over in 12 seconds. Against Kampmann, more of the same. In the first few seconds of the fight, Johny attempts that thundering combination I mentioned above and finishes it with a rare head kick attempt. Johny then repositions himself to the center of the cage and fires a catastrophic right hook followed by a left straight, both of which land flush, all while Johny is moving forward. Johny rushes in to finish an already dazed Kampmann to finish the fight by KO in 46 seconds.

 

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Hendricks dispatches Jon Fitch with an overhand left while Fitch is in the backpedal

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Right Hook -> Straight Left

Fast forward to almost two years later and two of the most powerful strikers at 170 pounds face off at UFC 171: Lawler vs. Hendricks. On paper one would expect a violent brawl, unlikely to pass the first round. In reality, the fans were treated to an immaculate display of technical pocket fighting for five rounds. Something had changed in Johny. Where Johny had previously lunged into his punches to pursue KOs, he was now lunging into his leg kicks after his punches, adding a tremendous new flavor to his style. Instead of lunging from the outside to close the distance and begin punching, he was now wading into the pocket and throwing shots with more efficiency, pursuing only take-downs after his lunges from far away.

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 Combinations like these are rare from Johny these days

Johny was now fighting with more patience and tact, and this in turn stifled his power. As of late, he has used his combinations to shoot for take-downs instead of striking solely to strike.Below are some of the tactics and gifts he uses in order to pull off wins, old and new, and some of the holes in his game that his opponents usually exploit.

  • Take-down Defense – Taking down Bigg Rigg is no small task. That is in part due to his high level wrestling background. A four time NCAA Division I All American Wrestler, not many have the collegiate wrestling pedigree that Johny does in the UFC. His take-down defense is one of the reasons he has no problem keeping his hands up to protect his head. This only adds to his ability to just constantly walk through his opponents without fear of being stopped. Notice Johny stuffing a take-down whilst in the middle of a punching combination in the gif below.

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  • Take-down setups – Johny has been shown to be very adept at using his striking to push his opponents to the fence in pursuit of a take-down. In many fights where he is at a striking disadvantage (Carlos Condit, TJ Grant), Johny uses his punches to rally forward, causing his opponents to backpedal into the cage, lest they be slept, where Johny then shoots for a double to drag his opponent to the ground. It has been a staple technique in Hendricks’ arsenal, and a tool he has used much more recently after his performance began declining in the UFC.

 

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Hendricks uses his footwork to circle around Condit and sets up
a take-down with his boxing
  •  Lack of Mobility – Despite his effective use of the back-step to effectively manage his distance, aside from the gif above, Hendricks doesn’t use much lateral movement. Colorful Karate striker Stephen Thompson effectively used this to his advantage by using his kicks to lull Hendricks into a false sense of security, making Hendricks think he was standing at a safe distance when he was actually within kicking range. When Hendricks eats shots, he has a habit of bobbing his head to half-roll with punches and throw his arms up to deflect anything else that may be coming for him.Thompson used his kicking to damage Hendricks from far away, while also pushing him to the cage where he quickly dispatched the former champion.

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In this fight, you could tell something about Hendricks’ explosiveness was dramatically different. He wasn’t as aggressive, and had been pieced up rather effortlessly by Thompson.

As Hendricks continues to adapt to the increasing troubles of maintaining his weight as well as remaining relevant in the ever-changing UFC roster, Hendricks must deal with life post IV ban, which he says is to blame for his recent lackluster performances. Whether his alleged use of PEDs is also to blame for his performances have yet to be confirmed. He has had success in his most recent fight against Hector Lombard at 185 pounds, and his fans hope to see the resurgence of yet another fallen king.