UFC Fight Weekend Part 1 of 3: Breaking down dos Anjos vs. Alvarez

In the span of three days the UFC will hold five title bouts, starting on Thursday with a matchup between former Bellator lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez and current UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos at UFC Fight Night 90 and concluding at UFC 200 with a gangbusters rematch between UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and consensus pound-for-pound king Jon Jones.

Three other title fights are set to take place between those two contests, including two compelling rematches—one between UFC strawweight champion Joanna Jedrzejchzyk and Claudia Gadelha and the other an interim featherweight title bout between former kingpin Jose Aldo and former lightweight titlist Frankie Edgar—and a women’s bantamweight title fight between former Strikeforce and current UFC champion Miesha Tate and Amanda Nunes, who is riding a three-fight win streak.

Several articles could be dedicated solely to UFC 200, which boasts nine current or former UFC champions and is, from top to bottom, (pardon the hyperbole, but in this case it’s apt) the greatest fight card ever assembled by Zuffa, LLC. However, for the sake of brevity and putting the horse before the cart with regard to gravity of outcomes, I’ve chosen to limit my breakdowns solely to the aforementioned title fights.

Over the course of the next three days I will technically break down the title bouts featured on the upcoming three fight cards and provide predictions based on my findings. Here is the first, an examination of the lightweight contest between challenger Eddie Alvarez and champion Rafael dos Anjos.

(Read part 2, which examines the strawweight title bout between Joanna Jedrzejchzyk and Claudia Gadelha, HERE.)

UFC Fight Night 90: dos Anjos vs. Alvarez
July 7, 2016 | Las Vegas, NV
UFC Fight Pass
Starts: 6:30PM/3:30PM ET|PT
Main Card: 10PM/7PM ET|PT

Lightweight Title Bout
(C) Rafael dos Anjos [24-7] vs. #2 Eddie Alvarez [27-4]

Strengths

A cursory glance over the promotional material for UFC 185 made any doubt of whom the Zuffa brass wanted as their lightweight champion evaporate; Anthony Pettis, the then-reigning champion, had all the panache a fight organization could want compared to Rafael dos Anjos, a socially uninteresting southpaw whose penchant for combat had nonetheless made him a perennial member of the 155 pound contenders’ circle since 2008. After the event was over, Pettis dismantled, MMA pundits agreed that we’d witnessed a new and improved Rafael dos Anjos—one who had shored up his deficiencies and streamlined his approach to maximum effect.

Rafael dos Anjos 2.0 has a scary set of skills. Varied in his attack, the lightweight Brazilian dynamo targets openings in his opponents’ defensive shells in sets of one or two strikes, not in patterned combinations. Still, there are a reliable set of standards in his arsenal—an accurate rocket of a straight left, a booming left kick that slams against opponents’ bodies and heads, a crisp uppercut and, when opportunity arises, a good blast double leg takedown. His quick twitch reflexes afford him excellent speed both in the pocket and while cutting off the cage and provide him with good takedown defense. If ever brought to the ground, dos Anjos seldom concedes bottom—he’s always scrambling and shrimping to return to his feet, not unlike former light heavyweight champion Chuck Liddell. A consummate opportunist both standing and on the ground, he’s happy to hit you wherever you let him.

Eddie Alvarez, meanwhile, had something of a difficult path to the lightweight title. The former DREAM standout and Bellator lightweight champion lost his opening salvo in the Octagon to an oversized and especially game Donald Cerrone but has since roared back with two consecutive decision victories against two former lightweight champions in Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis.

Alvarez fights out of the same camp as Frankie Edgar and exhibits tendencies similar to those of his teammate. Possessing solid cardio and a great chin to match, he mixes body and head strikes ably and is quite comfortable exchanging in the pocket, as he is able to escape that zone with a few shifts and sidesteps. That exceptional understanding of lateral movement and space has served him well and is a fundamental part of his game; the challenger is always in some form of motion, repositioning his body as often as some fighters only do their heads.

A new wrinkle in Alvarez’s approach is a smothering control game against the cage, which he is able to achieve in two of ways. He may simply move forward into the position, as he did against Gilbert Melendez and Donald Cerrone on a few occasions, or he’ll shoot for a takedown and, if he fails to get his opponent to the mat, continue to push through until he gets his opponent against the fence, as he did while fighting Pettis. If reversed against the cage or taken to the mat himself, Alvarez has proven to be very slippery and hard to keep ahold of.

Weaknesses

Thus far dos Anjos 2.0 has steamrolled his opposition. The Rafael Cordeiro pupil has steadily retooled his approach to combat to turn prior deficiencies into deadly aspects of his own arsenal. Formerly susceptible to pressure fighters like Clay Guida and Khabib Nurmagomedov, who would pressure him to the cage or perpetually threaten with takedowns, he now is arguable the best pressure fighter in his division not nicknamed “The Eagle.” dos Anjos seldom backs up more than a step or two, ever, and has largely abandoned leg kicks—a favorite of his early in his UFC career—in favor of body and head kicks from his power left side.

This offensive refocus has some gaps that could be capitalized on by a properly prepared opponent. First and foremost, almost two-thirds of his strikes are aimed at his opponent’s head and more than three-quarters of his strikes are thrown at distance. Furthermore, his variety of punches and kicks are extremely limited; you won’t be seeing the lightweight champion throwing short elbows from trapping distance, spinning backfists or front snap kicks to the head. His standard arsenal consists of a dependable seven or eight strikes at distance which, while quite effective in the manner he unleashes them, make him rather predicable for an opponent who has done their homework. An excellent grappler, the Rio de Janeiro native still is prone to erosion if repeatedly overpowered in close grappling exchanges.

While Alvarez continues to display improvements with every outing, the current Mark Henry product and former Blackzilians member nonetheless has shown a tendency to get hit early, not unlike his featherweight teammate Frankie Edgar did until recently. Quite accurate with kicks, he inexplicable insists on throwing them as seldom as humanly possible given the amount of opportunities presented to him in each in-cage appearance. Alvarez is among the finest striking tacticians in his weight class when allowed to work from behind his lead left hand—his jab and hook, when they land, almost always lead to terrific follow-ups—but when negated and forced to rely on his rear hand he dependably leaves himself vulnerable to counters while stepping in. His entire game relies on movement, and therefore his entire game relies on his base—his legs—but the former Bellator champion has yet to integrate a proper checking channel into his lower defenses. He relies instead on well-timed takedowns to counter leg kicks—not a bad strategy unless he becomes caught in a prolonged grappling battle, at which point he has exhibited a tendency to fatigue. If taken down or backed against the cage himself, Alvarez has trouble establishing wrist control and can be easily hit by an opportunistic and budgeted striker.

Contrast

From a purely physical standpoint, this is an evenly-matched contest. At 31, five-foot-nine and with one knockout loss and at 32, five-foot-ten and also with one knockout loss, Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez, respectively, have physical attributes of range, size, age and accrued damage that should prove largely negligible.

While both are excellent movers and highly competent in the sinews that connect the different stages of combat, I favor dos Anjos slightly in transition because of his gamesmanship. His competitive attitude in combat is as reliable as the sun rising in the east, and you can bet he’ll be the last man to throw when exiting a clinch and will return every leg or body blow with a mirrored version of his own.

Alvarez’s greatest asset is his mobility. The champion’s last five outings—Jason High, Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Anthony Pettis and Donald Cerrone—have all been men whose movements are predictably unilateral. Alvarez, conversely, has been able to avoid defeat on multiple occasions purely as a result of exceptional footwork that has allowed him to evasively enter and exit danger zones, and when left, right and back all fail to afford him refuge, he has recently displayed an aptitude in moving inward, smothering his opponents against the cage.

When fresh, both men are fast with their hands and feet, but dos Anjos’ improved quickness has had a notable effect on lasting speed in the latter rounds. In comparison, Alvarez has shown signs of fatigue on numerous recent occasions, regardless of game plan. Actually, I’m surprised nobody has produced a gif of him looking up at the clock to see how much more time is left until he can rest in between rounds.

Finally, there is the matter of finishing ability. While dos Anjos has put away three of his last five opponents (dating back to April 2014), Alvarez hasn’t secured a finish since October 2012, when he knocked out Patricky Freire. All three of his subsequent wins (minus the Donald Cerrone loss) have come by way of split decision. Unless significant changes have been made to overhaul his approach, he’ll have his work cut out for him against an extremely durable dos Anjos.

Does Alvarez have a chance? Of course he does. He must employ superior movement, establish his jab and hook early and effectively and threaten with the takedown at every opportunity whether it’s to put dos Anjos on his back or to move him towards the cage. That said, dos Anjos has more than enough weapons at his disposal to not only match Alvarez tit-for-tat, but to overwhelm the challenger altogether.

Read part 3, which examines the strawweight title bout between Joanna Jedrzejchzyk and Claudia Gadelha, HERE; and Part 3, which breaks down Daniel Cormier vs. Anderson Silva, HERE.

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Jesse Scheckner

A freelance MMA, entertainment and business journo born, raised and residing in Miami, FL, Jesse Scheckner is a former semi-serious musician, cinephile and recovering ne’er-do-well who still believes Mickey Rourke’s finest performance in film has yet to come. He is TuffGnarl.com's editor-in-chief, a feature staff writer for MMASucka.com and the 2014 MMA Media Correspondent winner at the Florida MMA Awards. Follow him on Twitter @JesseScheckner to talk about the stuff he writes about with him.

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