It's funny. Some champions simply can't get the respect they deserve. There are people who will pick against Chris Weidman till the day he retires. And sometimes it seems fans want Jon Jones to lose so much that they convince themselves he will, to whomever they decide is the next great hope at light heavyweight.
And yet Anthony Pettis, with just one title defense against a frankly worn-down Gilbert Melendez under his belt, is already spoken of as a pound-for-pound great, as if opponents only speak of him in hushed tones and step into the cage with him just waiting for the honor of being finished.
Maybe it has something to do with the manner in which he wins. In five UFC victories Pettis has only failed to finish his opponent once, in a messy fight with the iron-jawed Jeremy Stephens. Pettis possesses a dazzling array of fan-friendly spins, leaps, and cartwheels, as well as a more dangerous mixture of round kicks and straight punches, all complemented by a fantastically aggressive ground game. In one of the UFC's most competitive divisions, Pettis has retained his reputation as a finisher, and people like that.
But a predilection for proving the vulnerability of opposition does not make Pettis himself invincible. Offensively brilliant, the lightweight champion still has plenty of defensive flaws, and he's been made to look unimpressive before, in both victory and defeat. No matter how much he improves--and Pettis is still improving--no man is without flaws, and no man is unbeatable.
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Most expect Anthony Pettis to run roughshod over him, but Rafael Dos Anjos is no easy man to beat. Even in a decision loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov, a defeat that would have spelled doom for his title hopes had the Dagestani not been sidelined with a knee injury shortly afterward, Dos Anjos was still swinging and fighting off takedowns in the final round, never once ceding the victory. He will need the same fighting spirit if he hopes to steal Pettis' belt this Saturday. But he will also need the right gameplan.
That's why we're here today.
This is Gaps in the Armor, a feature dedicated to breaking down and finding the flaws in even the most daunting of fighting styles. Think of this series as a collection of scouting reports, aiming to identify and exploit the weaknesses of champions. Today, we've got Anthony Pettis in our sights. My strategy for Dos Anjos has three key points, and they go like this:
1) Calculated pressure
2) Round kicks
Some of this might sound obvious, but the magic is in the details, and Dos Anjos may have the perfect style to make these tactics work. Let's run through the points in order.
I. CALCULATED PRESSURE
This is by far the most obvious aspect of our gameplan. Pettis is the quintessential out-fighter, comfortable at range where he can bounce around, leap in and out with hard single shots, and look cool doing it. This isn't to say that Pettis can't fight in the pocket, but he does so despite his personal inclinations, more to prove to the opponent that he can rather than because he likes to. Given the choice, Pettis would never stand within his opponent's reach. It's up to Dos Anjos not to give him that choice.
Effective pressure starts with the feet. If Pettis wants to dance in the center of the Octagon, it's up to Dos Anjos to keep his back to the fence as often as possible. This means cutting off escape routes, first with footwork, and then with attacks.
Here we see some simple, steady pressure from George Foreman. As the corner of his opponent, Ken Norton, calls for their charge to "box him," Foreman actively denies him the chance. Every step that Foreman takes places his body between Norton and the center of the ring. Norton must go through Foreman to get his back off the ropes. This is where Foreman's offense comes into play, as its up to the pressure fighter to make that option an unappealing one.
Foreman uses his heavy jab to keep Norton honest. This isn't reckless aggression, but pressure. Often a pressure fighter's gameplan is called "ugly," as if the only way to beat an out-fighter is to be somehow less technical. In reality, Dos Anjos needs to be as neat with his pressure as possible, making his attacks count, but doing so in calm, methodical fashion.
Pettis won't make this easy.
Here we see Jimmy Young defusing the pressure of George Foreman as Ken Norton was unable to do. This is what Pettis will hope to do to Dos Anjos, only with more fancy kicks.
Young uses his sharp left hand to keep Foreman at bay. These aren't damaging shots, but they give Foreman just enough pause to grant Young some breathing room. Each time that left hand lands, Young can take a step to his right before Foreman moves to intercept. Each time that happens, Young finds himself with a little more room to operate at his preferred distance.
Pettis will attempt something similar, but Dos Anjos has an advantage. While Rafael may lack George Foreman's power, Pettis also lacks Young's polished skill. The champion may fit the boxer archetype, but he's no technical boxer. Gilbert Melendez managed to make Pettis' footwork look thoroughly average eventually succumbing to Pettis' powerful counters.
1. As Pettis moves to his right, Melendez side-steps to stay with him.
2. Pettis stings Melendez with the jab.
3. But Melendez steps into him regardless, loading up and then unleashing . . .
4. . . . a left hook to Pettis' jaw.
5. Pettis awkwardly hops back in an attempt to escape, but his back hits the fence.
6. Pettis' feet are completely square, yet he begins punching with Melendez . . .
7. . . . ducking his head and swinging with both hands.
8. After a few seconds of this, Pettis finally gets back on his bicycle, and Melendez keeps him at range with a jab.
9. With Melendez chasing him from the right, Pettis can move nowhere but to the left, and he is forced to wear a hard body kick.
10. Then, however, Melendez steps too close to Pettis, giving up an angle . . .
11. . . . and eating a right hook for his carelessness.
When pressed, Pettis' footwork is sloppy and ineffective. Despite gaining a second to breathe with his clean jab, Pettis backs himself right into the fence, and practically leaps out of his stable orthodox stance, squaring his feet and pinning himself to the wall of the Octagon. Once there, his discomfort with the range starts to show, and he swings recklessly with Melendez, leveling the playing field with a slower and less powerful opponent.
Fortunately for Pettis, Melendez gives up his own advantage by squaring his own feet, and swinging recklessly. Again--pressure fighting does not mean ugly fighting--if Dos Anjos expects to take advantage of this flaw, he will need to stay composed, and keep Pettis on the end of his punches as he throws himself out of position. Above, Pettis is forced to scamper off to the side the moment Melendez takes a step back and puts him on the end of the jab.
That's where the kicks come into play.
II. ROUND KICKS
Kicks are vital against Pettis for two reasons. First, a round kick is one of the best weapons possible to catch a fleeing opponent. Whether moving to the side or straight back, it is very difficult to effectively block a kick while on the move.
Second, Pettis is one of the most dangerous kickers in the UFC. He is also one of the sport's finest opportunists--his finish-filled record certainly speaks to that. To not kick with Pettis is to grant him an entire phase of the fight.
As for the first aspect, we can look to Dos Anjos himself for evidence. The Brazilian used his devastating kicks to great effect against Donald Cerrone, particularly when he had Cerrone backed into the fence.
1. Dos Anjos feints to get Cerrone moving backward.
2. Then fakes a right kick to get Cerrone moving to his right.
3. Cerrone does exactly as expected, taking the easiest escape route available.
4. And Dos Anjos slams an intercepting left kick into his ribs.
Realistically, even with Pettis' less-than-ideal footwork, Dos Anjos will not be able to keep Pettis against the fence the entire fight. "Showtime" will move to one side or the other, and get himself back to center cage. It's inevitable.
What Dos Anjos can do, however, is make Pettis pay for each and every escape, and position himself so as to encourage the escape that favors his tools. Above, Dos Anjos not only used the sweeping arc of his left kick to intercept Cerrone, but first convinced Cerrone to move into it. Suggesting the right kick and then stepping to Cerrone's left, he gave his opponent an obvious choice, and then capitalized on his predictable decision.
The second aspect of the kicking battle is important, too. So far in his UFC career, no one has kicked with Pettis--at least not for long. The man called "Showtime" has enjoyed a slew of opponents too worried about fighting at kicking range to exchange kicks with him. But again: no one can realistically limit Pettis to one distance for an entire fight. At some point or another, Pettis will find himself at kicking range, and he will take advantage of it--and Pettis requries less room to kick effectively than most.
That is why Dos Anjos must kick the champion. There is great value in mental warfare, and Dos Anjos can send a strong message to Pettis by not only kicking, but kicking with him. Of course, ideally Dos Anjos would avoid or block every one of Pettis' kicks. Realistically, however, he will eat a few. It will be of critical importance for Dos Anjos to answer each kick with one of his own. This actually plays to his strengths: Dos Anjos has a natural compulsion to match his opponent's offense like-for-like. Call it a "kick-measuring contest," if you will. When Benson Henderson hit him with a hard body shot, Dos Anjos answered with the exact same punch, and put a kick behind it for good measure. This sort of gamesmanship will work to his advantage against Pettis, whose overt smugness seems to hide a deeper insecurity.
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One of the champion's greatest assets is his ability to fight against type--to brawl when necessary, counter punch when possible, and even do some pressuring of his own when his confidence swells. Pettis may want to out-fight, but he will do whatever it takes to win. Against Donald Cerrone, for example, Pettis exchanged punches early (GIF). This was out of character for him, but necessary to convince the aggressive Cerrone that Pettis was not to be outfought. When Pettis trades or fights aggressively, it's less because he wants to and more to prove that he can.
Out-fighters like Pettis need to feel confident to operate smoothly, and it's Dos Anjos' job to undermine that confidence at all costs. By immediately answering Pettis' early success, he will add considerable mental pressure to his already potent physically stressing style. He needs to prove to the champion and to himself that Pettis' rough antics are hollow, and therefore limit Pettis to his natural, more predictable tendencies.
No single tactic will make Dos Anjos' pressuring strategy more effective than the liberal use of feints. Pettis prefers to keep the initiative when he can, but he is no slouch as a counter fighter. Gilbert Melendez felt the sting of his punches when he came lunging recklessly into the champ's range (GIF). So did Ben Henderson, whose normally unpredictable rhythm was thrown off when he elected to pressure Pettis.
1. With Pettis near the cage, Henderson stalks forward.
2. Pettis feints ,stepping forward and snapping out his left hand.
3. This causes Henderson to retreat.
4. Now Henderson steps in, throwing a naked kick to the lower leg of Pettis who, having seen the kick coming, bends his knees to absorb it and . . .
5. . . . answers with a cracking straight right to the chin.
I've written about Pettis' use of feints before, but to cut a long story short, he's good at them. Really good. Pettis doesn't just throw feints, he throws them with conviction, stomping his feet, jerking his upper body, and seeming to throw himself fully into a strike that never actually comes. It makes him a very dangerous striker, because his opponents struggle to predict when his attacks are coming, and don't know which attacks to expect.
Dos Anjos absolutely must assert himself in the battle of feints. Pettis is at his best when he has a firm hold on the initiative of the fight. By selling feints, he gets his opponents reacting to his every move, making it easy to find the openings.
Dos Anjos must use feints of his own to put Pettis on the reactive. Pettis counters well, but if he starts countering attacks that aren't there, he will start to lose confidence. This may significantly weaken his countering game, but more importantly it will get him thinking about what Dos Anjos is going to do, rather than the other way around. By making himself a constant, unpredictable threat, Dos Anjos can take the initiative, hold onto it, and put Pettis in uncomfortable territory. Both Ben Henderson and Gilbert Melendez did this with some success--it is to Dos Anjos' advantage that he is a better natural pressure fighter than either of those men.
Despite his short title reign, it already feels very difficult to pick against Anthony Pettis. Despite all that I've written here, I'm not sure that I can pick against him myself. But the fact remains that Pettis, like every champion in history, is just a man, and nothing more. He has his weaknesses and vulnerabilities, his tendencies and habits. With the right gameplan, Rafael Dos Anjos could be the right man to see these gaps in the armor, and knock the upstart king off his throne.
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