3-dimensional mixed martial artists are still rare in MMA, and it's even more uncommon to see them matched up in the Octagon. The term 3-dimensional entails combat proficiency in the realms of striking, clinching and grappling. The main advantages associated with the classification are having few to no glaring weaknesses and the diversity to force opponents into the phase of combat where they're the least formidable. But there is a downside to being 3-dimensional as well: the so-called "jack of all trades, master of none" can get a taste of his/her own medicine when confronted by a specialist with the means to impose their core competency consistently and effectively.
Evan Dunham (14-3), who was dubbed "3D" early in his career for the way he embodied a 3-dimensional fighter, is a perfect case study for the pros and cons of being tri-dimensional. The advantages have been on full display in almost all of Dunham's UFC victories: he applied his crafty submission grappling to score wins over Efrain Escudero and Tyson Griffin, then relied on his sound boxing to unhinge the likes of Nik Lentz and Shamar Bailey. The crippling loss to Melvin Guillard reflected the hazards of Dunham's style, as his B+ to A- skills across the board were no match for Guillard's A+ striking and takedown defense.
Whereas Dunham exhibited 3-dimensional capabilities from the onset, Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos (18-6) has evolved into a complete fighter throughout his UFC tenure. Though he was far from inept in any category, dos Anjos' arsenal was centered around his BJJ black belt early in his career, having notched submissions in nearly half of his 13 pre-UFC wins.
Nowadays, dos Anjos is probably one of the most heartily improved fighters on the UFC roster, though the changes played out in small increments and with each showing. His wild stand-up has been honed into quite a functional and kick-heavy Muay Thai onslaught. Capitalizing on the increased balance and stability of his enhanced striking, dos Anjos' wrestling game is his latest achievement, and also likely the biggest key in the 3-fight streak he's currently riding on: he imposed stellar takedowns to coast past Kamal Shalorus and Anthony Njokuani, then frustrated Mark Bocek with his defensive wrestling in order to pelt the grappling specialist with nonstop strikes on the feet.
Analyzing the Dunham vs. dos Anjos match up is not easy, as they're both exceptionally capable in every aspect. This also heightens the emphasis on more finite attributes, such as defense, chin, size, quickness, athleticism, timing and Fight IQ. However, there's still no momentous advantage for either in those secondary categories: Dunham's 3-inch height advantage (5'10" vs. 5'7") is perhaps the most obvious one, but dos Anjos compensates for that with a 1-inch reach advantage (71" vs. 70"); Dunham's defense is probably a little more sound and his 'hands up/chin down' style is definitely more traditional but, at the end of the day, both have strong chins and have fallen by TKO just once apiece in all their career contests.
Furthermore, Dos Anjos is probably a tad quicker with his hands but Dunham is slightly more technical on the feet and throws straighter punches. Neither are known as monumental power strikers, but it does more than tickle when they connect; dos Anjos has been throwing kicks to the legs and body like a madman lately and Dunham handles most of his business with his hands. And finally, both are ridiculous scramblers with excellent positional awareness and outright deadly in transitions.
With that tiresome list of similarities behind us, they have a few noteworthy differences. The pace of dos Anjos has been frightening as of late, as he's highly aggressive throughout and directly in his opponent's face from start to finish. In fact, based on his recent performances, dos Anjos' pace is nearing Clay Guida standards. It's that frenetic and formidable. Dunham has traditionally been a slow starter, which got him in trouble against Guillard and Sean Sherk. And for a personal observation -- dos Anjos has come into his own and his confidence seems to have skyrocketed, while I'm not sure Dunham has found his true identity as a mixed martial artist.
I think the opening stanza will be extremely pivotal in setting the fight's tone. The gist of this breakdown is simply supporting how alike Dunham and dos Anjos are, and how closely matched they are in almost every category. In the early feel-out stages of the fight, I expect light will be shed on my aforementioned list of auxiliary characteristics (speed, timing, Fight IQ, etc.), which are a ton of minute details that will ultimately influence the big picture. Will Dunham's length and straight punches frustrate dos Anjos and slow his pace if actualized from a distance-striking strategy? Or will the quickness and speed of dos Anjos allow him to get inside and overwhelm Dunham with his relentless torrent of multifaceted offense?
Dos Anjos seems to go out and do what he does best, every time. Dunham seems to lay back and calculate for the first few minutes or, sometimes, even for the entire opening frame. By Round 2 it starts becoming apparent whether Dunham has his opponent's number or not. For this reason alone, I completely understand why dos Anjos comes in as the narrow favorite, as he's just been more consistent overall. On the flip-side, consistency can potentially be viewed as predictability, and Dunham thrives on countering predictable actions or fighters.
While the fervent pace of dos Anjos is a big concern, I'm leaning toward Dunham here. My basis is that his lengthy boxing, which can be fired laser-straight or in wide, swooping arcs, combined with his poise, more traditional defense and his under-rated footwork will allow him to be a slightly more effective striker overall. Dos Anjos' busy kicking output will subject him to the risk of being countered by Dunham's stretchy punches. The wrestling and grappling portions are too close to call and seem to be dictated by live-time instincts and circumstance, and another tiny shred of my vote for Dunham is because I give him a close edge in phase shifting from striking to grappling.
My Prediction: Evan Dunham by decision.