Lightweight Anthony Pettis (c) 18-2 Odds: -485
Rafael dos Anjos 23-7 Odds: +425
History lesson / introduction to the fighters
Phil: Tony Showtime, on one level, is an example of how the tangible elements of popularity can add up to less than the sum of their parts. He's good looking, incredibly flashy, the champion of the UFC's deepest division, and yet he just isn't moving that all-important metaphorical needle yet. The Tony story is a tale of stopped starts and arrested momentum- winning the WEC title in the most dramatic way, delayed by the Edgar-Maynard draw, derailed by Guida, wins, injuries, wins, injuries, winning the title, injuries, TUF, Melendez. It's engendered a pervasive cynicism among hardcores (not exactly a difficult task at the best of times, in all fairness), and has left him without much significant presence amongst the all-important casual fans. This new, faster schedule of fights he's taking is a welcome step towards changing that perception.
David: Yep. Cerrone is a good example of what just pure simple doo da activity can do for marketability, and behavior. This has always been my lone problem with Pettis; through no fault of his own (well, mostly) he's not active enough and has lost opportunities to be mentioned in the same breath as "the greats"; a phrase that admittedly has little meaning in the short attention span of MMA history.
Phil: Rafael Dos Anjos is one of those heartening examples of nose-to-the-grindstone improvements, embodying the archetypal "Underrated Gritty Brazilian Grappler Who Quietly Got Way Better at Striking over the Years and Snuck up the Rankings, Potentially with the Help of Rafael Cordeiro." Most divisions have their own UGBGWQGWBSYSRPHRC(TM), and those which don't, such as featherweight and light heavy, should frankly be ashamed. He's become a phenomenal bully of a fighter, taking the fight to Henderson and Cerrone, where once he was forced backwards by fighters like Tibau and Stephens.
David: I've always been a big fan of dos Anjos. Not just because I have a soft spot for UGBGWQWBSYSRPHRC's, but because he's the antithesis of fighters like Tyson Griffin, Gegard Mousasi, and other fighters who don't instinctually understand the concept of urgency; his ability to will himself into a calf slicer against Griffin is a perfect microcosm of his in-cage demeanor; dude's ruthless, and creative in a very subtle but blue collar way.
What are the stakes?
Phil: Screw the title. If RDA wins this, he can announce himself as the WEC Killer, who defeated all three of the World Extreme Cagefighting standouts who have defined the division in recent years: Bendo, Cowboy and Pretty Tony P.
David: If ever a belt existed more powerful than the UFC gold itself, that's probably it. Ahh, the WEC Killer. Sounds like something hanging on Predator's trophy wall, right next to Carl Weather's skull.
Where do they want it?
Phil: I think they both want the fight in very similar places. They're both more comfortable forcing the opponent backwards into the cage and opening up with kicks. Where the fight is actually likely to take place isn't so much dictated by the temperaments of the fighters as the necessities of the fight itself. RDA can't afford to go backwards here. He just can't.
To take a bit of a tangent, we often talk about "styles" and "archetypes" when it comes to describing fighters, and how they match up against each other. I'm going to be controversial and say that I don't think Anthony Pettis represents a particularly strong or stable style archetype. He's a distance kickboxer who leans heavily on submission attempts from his back, and has an exploitable boxing game and is honestly fairly inert in the clinch.
The terrifying thing is that sometimes it doesn't matter. It doesn't matter what style someone approaches a fight if they are loaded with so much pure dynamism and finishing potential that they just blow through adverse match-ups anyway. In this way Pettis resembles Anderson Silva, but I'd argue that at his best, he's even faster, sharper and more threatening than the middleweight great, and is able to thread the needle through even tinier openings, and against better competition.
Unlike Silva, Pettis is far better offensively than he is defensively. Left time to work, he immediately starts opening up with the kicking offense. There are probably more powerful kickers like Barboza or perhaps Dos Anjos himself, and maybe even faster ones like Cruickshank, but in a division of lethal kickers, Pettis is the best. A bewildering arsenal of pure swag is constructed around the fundamentals of crisp, fight-ending head and body strikes, and Pettis sells and mixes them well enough that they've been basically indefensible in recent years. So RDA needs to force him backwards.
David: Well said. Anthony Pettis represents percussion more than pattern.
In a vacuum, the collection of skills he has aren't necessarily elite. Sure he's fluid and gifted off his back, but that's not where you find success these days when it comes to submissions. He's got power, and speed, but he's hittable and has rhythm that would be perfunctory with any other body. But his broken rhythm is punctuated by unorthodox moves that serve their own purpose, and his crackerjack timing makes his striking more imposing than it is.
Of course, there's nothing illusory about Pettis' efficiency, but I do think there's something oddly illusory about his technique. Nonetheless, Pettis is brilliant. Since you mentioned Silva, it's important to recall that Anderson wasn't a killing machine early in his career; however, better timing led to better accuracy, which led to total destruction. Pettis is doing something similar with his striking game but he's also making utilitarian use of his kung fu indulgences. RDA is not about indulgencies; he's about cold hard momentum. He was a little more patient than usual against Cerrone, but no less effective.
Insight from past fights?
Phil: Pettis is an incredibly adept switch hitter, one of the best in the sport at fighting out of either stance. He does have a predilection: he likes open stance engagements. What I mean by this is that he likes to work from southpaw against orthodox fighters (such as Cerrone) and from orthodox against southpaw fighters (against Henderson). I'm fairly sure that this is because he likes the rear-leg body kick across the open torso. The interesting thing here is that RDA is southpaw, and is himself an extremely powerful body kicker. If Pettis wants open stance, he opens up his liver to RDA's body kick, which is probably the Brazilian's strongest single weapon, without himself being any more able to get at Dos Anjos's. Liver kicks kept Donald Cerrone visibly discomfited when RDA fought Cowboy. So, open stance is a little riskier and less rewarding than it might otherwise be... but I fully expect Pettis to go for it anyway. This is Showtime, after all.
David: This is such an interesting fight when you consider their respective histories. Pettis has not truly fought someone of dos Anjos style. The only guy who reminds me a bit of dos Anjos is Joe Lauzon, but only spritually; dos Anjos is a much better technical fighter, but like Lauzon, he has the pressuring style that switch between frenetic exchanges on the feet, or on the ground. I think dos Anjos best weapon will be his boxing. Pettis leaves himself fairly open, and even though there's a trade off, dos Anjos is quick enough to capitalize on the proverbial openings. dos Anjos' right hook in particular is the strike to watch when Pettis switches traditional stance.
Phil: I've never really seen Pettis hurt by strikes, but I can't help but think of him as inherently fragile in other ways. Henderson managed to badly damage his knee in a few minutes of kicking him in the leg by the cage. Whether he's nursing any other injuries, or just picks them up in the cage by trying to land something ridiculous, I can't help but feel that Pettis is more in danger of Browne-Bigfooting himself than many other fighters.
David: I can't really think of any. They don't have styles that lend themselves to anomalous outcomes, like falling out of the cage Southworth style, headbutts, or even eyepokes for that better.
Phil: If there's a way to win this fight, then Dos Anjos will find it. He's about as well trained, disciplined and focused as he can be. I don't think that's enough against the sheer firepower that the champ brings to bear. Anthony Pettis by TKO, round 3.
David: From now on I'll just copy and paste your prognostications. Anthony Pettis by TKO, round 3.