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UFC on Fox 17 Judo Chop: How to Pressure Fight with Rafael Dos Anjos

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Connor Ruebusch of Bloody Elbow breaks down the pressuring skills of UFC lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos ahead of his fight with Donald Cerrone at UFC on Fox 17.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

This Saturday, Rafael Dos Anjos will defend his lightweight title against Donald Cerrone, the UFC fan-favorite who has finally earned himself a shot at the belt. Oddly enough, the fight also seems like an opportunity for Dos Anjos to win the belt all over again. Despite a crushing victory over former champion Anthony Pettis, and four top lightweight wins in a row before that, Dos Anjos has yet to claim his place as champ in the hearts of the MMA community.

It's a real shame, because Rafael just might be the very best pressure fighter in the entire sport, a relentless aggressor who brilliantly combines offense and defense while methodically taking away his opponent's strengths. Dos Anjos hasn't always fought this way. Indeed, his last defeat to would-be champion Khabib Nurmagomedov may have come because Dos Anjos didn't pressure--or perhaps Nurmagomedov simply wouldn't let him. Still, the style suits Dos Anjos, particularly with the encouraging voice of MMA maestro Raphael Cordeiro guiding him from the corner.

While Dos Anjos eagerly awaits his first title defense, and the win that should cement his place as the rightful champ, we're going to look back at the stunning fight that won him the title. Dos Anjos took every single round from Pettis, a rare feat for any title challenger, but successful pressure starts from the first moments of the very first round, so all of our examples will be taken from the first two minutes of that frame.

This is how Rafael Dos Anjos turns up the heat.

3 - SWEEPING STRIKES

Many pressure fighters are perfectly comfortable moving forward and evading the opponent's counters, but they struggle to enforce their pressure. In other words, they might cut off the ring fairly well (more on that later) and attack aggressively, but the opponent repeatedly manages to find an opening and slip out to the side.

Enter sweeping strikes. These attacks, as the title suggests, sweep across the target. They are thrown deliberately wide. Think hooks and round kicks. These strikes are invaluable for a pressure fighter because they don't merely attack the target, but the space around it. Footwork creates the trap, and sweeping strikes punish the opponent for trying to get out.

1. Dos Anjos backs Pettis into the cage.

2. "Showtime" starts sneaking out along the fence to his right.

3. Dos Anjos meets him with a powerful left head kick, which Pettis has to block.

4. Pettis manages to move to his right, but only by stepping backward and pressing himself into the chain-link.

5. Dos Anjos takes a side step and attacks again, this time with a wide left hand to the body.

6. Pettis once again tries to sidestep out of harm's way, but he runs into Dos Anjos' punch . . .

7. . . . and winds up in the clinch, where Dos Anjos quickly off-balances him with a single leg.

These sweeping attacks are typically thrown to the body, as with the wide left Dos Anjos winds up on in Frame 5 above. This limits the types of defensive action that can be taken. When trapped into a corner, with no room to back up or pivot, the only way to stop a body blow is to block it. For the pressure fighter, it doesn't particularly matter whether the strike lands clean or not; what matters is that it makes contact with something, creating a sudden obstacle that cannot easily be passed through. Using strikes like these, Dos Anjos forces his unwilling opponents to stand in front of him.

2 - DISTANCE

Perhaps the most underrated aspect of effective pressure is the distance. When you hear the words "distance management," you probably think of a rangy out-fighter trying to stave off an attack--essentially the exact opposite of Rafael Dos Anjos. But as much as Dos Anjos' opponents want to keep him away, it is just as important for Dos Anjos to close the gap and keep his attacks in play.

1. Dos Anjos stands one step away from effective range.

2. Pettis is the first to take that step, and Dos Anjos pulls back, parrying his jab.

3. Immediately Dos Anjos skips into a counter kick, but lets up as Pettis retreats toward the fence.

4. Instead Dos Anjos touches Pettis' left hand to measure range, and stays in front of him.

5. Pettis changes levels and tries to move forward . . .

6. . . . but is forced back to avoid a long left hand from Dos Anjos.

7. Following Pettis, Dos Anjos steps forward with his left hand and ends up right in the pocket.

8. He smashes a left kick into Pettis' forearms.

9. Pettis counters with a right hand.

10. But Dos Anjos isn't backing off. He measures his distance once again . . .

11. . . . and drives a brutal left straight into Pettis' eye socket.

The important thing here is that Dos Anjos takes away space to an extent. He doesn't constantly move forward, because that would negate his own offense. Stand too far away from Pettis and Dos Anjos would not be able to reach him; stand too close and he smothers his own attacks. There is a delicate balance to be maintained, which is why in every sequence here you can see Dos Anjos reaching out to touch Pettis with his right hand. He is constantly measuring and reassessing his range, and never willingly giving Pettis an inch of breathing room.

I can't understate how unnerving this is when done right. There are very few MMA fighters confident and skilled enough to stand a half-step away from their opponent at all times, particularly given a dangerous striker like Anthony Pettis. But as difficult as it is to maintain this close proximity, it is just as difficult for someone like Pettis (or Donald Cerrone) to keep calm with a destroyer standing dispassionately within reach. Yes, Dos Anjos will step back now and then to protect himself, but only when seriously threatened. Pettis has to earn every single inch of space, only for Rafael to immediately take it back, often with a vicious counter.

Think of the ordeal this represents for an out-fighter like Pettis, whose entire style revolves around his ability to make opponents respect his kickboxing. Imagine how unnerving it must be to face an opponent who not only willingly stands close enough to be hit, but venomously answers every attempt. Successful strategies require one fighter to teach the other, and Dos Anjos presents a very clear lesson: no matter what, I do not go away.

1 - FOOTWORK

Of course, footwork is the essence of pressure fighting, just as it is the essence of any style, strategy, or system of combat. If a pressure fighter can't cut off the ring, it doesn't matter how close he stands to his opponent, or what attacks he throws. Control is the key to effective pressure, and there are very few fighters who own the Octagon the way Rafael Dos Anjos does. See how he keeps Anthony Pettis in his sights here.

1. A familiar position: Dos Anjos with his back to center ring, Pettis with his back to the fence.

2. As Pettis tries to circle right, Dos Anjos takes a long step to stay ahead of him . . .

3. . . . and follows with a wide left upstairs, which Pettis ducks.

4. Dos Anjos gets his hands on Pettis to keep him from taking advantage of the miss.

5. After a brief clinch scuffle, Dos Anjos shoves Pettis back into the fence.

6. Again Pettis circles along the perimeter, and Dos Anjos sidesteps to stay with him.

7. Now Pettis attacks with a combination. He misses, but suddenly finds himself with open space.

8. He quickly starts moving to his left, attempting to skirt Dos Anjos and move into open space.

9. But Dos Anjos is already on the move.

10. Before Pettis can skip toward center ring, Dos Anjos has already crossed the cage to intercept him.

11. At which point he puts Pettis right back against the wall.

While it seems simple, it is extremely difficult for fighters to unlearn the habit of "following" their opponents. From day one a fighter is taught to move around his opponent, vying to get past his jab and around his lead foot to attack the juicy center line. Pressuring, however, operates on different principles. Rather than trying to navigate the opponent, pressure fighters like Dos Anjos seek to navigate the ring--and prevent the other man from doing the same. Which isn't to say that Dos Anjos doesn't use angles, only that his angles of attack must be much smaller. His primary goal is always to keep himself directly between the opponent, and escape.

While the perimeter of the Octagon is about 100 feet, the perimeter of the black lines on the canvas is closer to 80. Which means that for every five steps Pettis takes, Dos Anjos only has to take four, allowing him to keep his body between Pettis and the open center of the cage while expending less energy than his opponent. Ring/cage control isn't just practical, it's efficient.

With all of these tactics, Rafael Dos Anjos usurped the throne of one of MMA's most promising fighters. It already seems so long ago, but it's important not to forget just how highly touted Anthony Pettis was at the start of 2015. By now, we were meant to find ourselves in the midst of a blossoming title reign, the rule of the new breed. And along came Rafael Dos Anjos to spoil that narrative with five emphatic rounds of calculated violence.

Perhaps that's why Dos Anjos hasn't received the admiration such a thoroughly dominant upset deserves. Or perhaps it's his quiet, unassuming attitude which seems so out of place in the Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor era. Whatever the case, Dos Anjos is not to be overlooked or ignored. Donald Cerrone will need to respect the skill of the champion. He's about to find himself trapped in the cage with a monster.

For more on Dos Anjos vs Cerrone, as well as a technical breakdown of Aldo vs McGregor and Rockhold vs Weidman, check out the latest episode of Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.