A few years back, who would've thought that Donald Cerrone (20-5) would be co-main eventing a featured UFC card with Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis fighting for the UFC lightweight title a few days later? The stellar lightweight trio is a big reason why many fans fly the "WEC never die" flag so proudly.
The "Cowboy" in the Octagon before us now is markedly different than the wild and reckless brawler we beheld in the blue cage, and his subtle evolution went hand in hand with his debut in the UFC rather than being prompted after a disappointing loss or two.
For example, the Cerrone who would boldly stroll out of his corner, fearlessly plant his feet and crack off a sizzling Muay Thai salvo -- with nary a concern for takedowns due to his confidence in his crafty guard game -- would be in trouble against an opponent like Rafael dos Anjos (19-6), who'll collide with Cerrone in the penultimate bout at UFC Fight Night: Condit vs. Kampmann 2.
Now we can reference Cerrone's noticeably mature and calculating dismantling of Vagner Rocha, a talented Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belt like dos Anjos. Rather than throw caution to the wind and fight on instinct, the lanky scrapper was uncharacteristically patient on the feet and kept the grappler at bay by surrounding himself with a force-field of bone-crushing leg kicks. As expected, Rocha became frustrated in the lopsided bout and started charging in more aggressively, and, as designed, Cerrone answered by plugging him on the way in with long and straight punches.
But of course dos Anjos is no Rocha, and he's undergone his own minuscule set of improvements throughout his five year and 12-fight (8-4 record) UFC stint. The first was simply doing what he does better -- both his kickboxing and grappling became a little more tailored to MMA and he got a feel for using them in harmony. Then his wrestling started to emerge as an aspect almost as threatening as his submissions and striking. Though not a completely changed fighter, the minor adjustments have catapulted dos Anjos to his longest UFC win streak yet at four in a row.
The two factors that should largely influence this confrontation are Cerrone's command of range and dos Anjos' entries. "Cowboy" will be tasked with the same challenges that Rocha presented, but in addition to that facing a faster opponent with more efficient footwork and striking that must be respected. Those differences, however, will be a monumental burden on Cerrone's awareness. Instead of only being concerned with his own striking range, his defensive footwork and protecting his hips, Cerrone will have to be wary of dos Anjos quickly changing gears and coming high with strikes.
This opens all kinds of doors for dos Anjos when he explodes into his attack: he can drop levels for a takedown, he can fake the takedown and throw a combination, he can fake a combination and shoot a takedown; he can fake a takedown, commit to a few punches and then change levels for a takedown, and so on. Throw in the ability to knife into the clinch and get his hands on Cerrone before working any of these offensive traits, and Cerrone must be prepared for quite a bit as well as have the timing and instincts to react, or to keep reacting successfully if dos Anjos pressures him by chaining these tactics together.
I didn't mention Cerrone's wrestling improvements because he's kind of always been an underrated wrestler. He also has opportunities to throw dos Anjos off course with takedown attempts, and they'll be especially valuable as an alternative to his straight punches when and if dos Anjos barges in carelessly.
Though I'm painting this as a bit of a striker vs. grappler match up, it's more complex than that, as Dos Anjos probably has the same slight edge on the mat that Cerrone has on the feet. Neither is weak in any area, and neither will enjoy a glaring weakness, so much of the fight's complexion will be dictated by their intelligence, timing, motion and instincts. Really, I could see either submitting or knocking out the other. Dos Anjos' frenetic pace and pressure give him a good chance to dictate the tempo, but Cerrone's height, reach and range might balance that out.
This is the type of fight in which laying out their general strengths and tendencies is all you can do. Both men are diverse, aggressive and offensively potent, but their split-second decisions in the heat of battle should steer the fight and there's no good way to predict that. Cerrone is prone to just as many short mental lapses as he is to fight-ending outbursts of violence whereas dos Anjos is a bit more consistent and steady throughout. Their fight pace is similar: dos Anjos tends to stay in one gear and press forward with the same speed and Cerrone can go from patient and methodical to savagely electric in a heartbeat.
My decision is based on Cerrone's height and length, which are not massive but will complement his range and striking well, and his feisty grappling and scrambling skills. It's worth mentioning that dos Anjos is also an excellent scrambler and might be a tad quicker than Cerrone in transitions, but I think Cerrone's lengthy kickboxing will have more of a presence.
My Prediction: Donald Cerrone by decision.