Picture the MMA scene at the end of 2008. In October, Fabricio Werdum was a heavy favorite against relative unknown and Octagon newcomer Junior dos Santos at UFC 90. Werdum was in prime position for a heavyweight title shot when JDS blasted him with an uppercut that made his ears wiggle and his body go limp. One month later, Rafael dos Anjos would make his UFC debut versus the scrappy Jeremy Stephens deep on the prelims of UFC 91. As was the case for Werdum, dos Anjos went on a one-way flight to Sleepytown via a Stephens' uppercut, which had such a slow wind up that the punch didn't actually land until 2009.
Werdum was released shortly after the dos Santos loss (after refusing to take a pay cut in contract re-negotiations), while dos Anjos would promptly lose his next fight to Tyson Griffin a few months later to fall to 0-2. At the time, these were two BJJ black belts -- Werdum with the much longer list of credentials -- with not too much to offer as strikers. If you can't recall Werdum's 2007 fight with Andrei Arlovski, congratulations.
Fast forward to present day, and Werdum is the interim UFC heavyweight champion after he knocked out the granite-chinned Mark Hunt with a flying knee, and Rafael dos Anjos is the new UFC lightweight champion after soundly out-striking the immensely talented Anthony Pettis. How times have changed, eh?
The common denominator for Werdum and dos Anjos has been the tutelage of Kings MMA head coach Rafael Cordeiro. He's transformed previously relatively one-dimensional grapplers to well-rounded fighters and two of the more dangerous strikers in their respective divisions. Yes, Werdum is still susceptible to flash knockdowns (or maybe he's just playing possum a lot), but there's no denying that offensively he has developed brutal Muay Thai attacks in the clinch, hard body kicks, improved boxing, and a level of fluidity, precision, and technique that was never seen in his PRIDE days.
Dos Anjos, who came into the UFC with no knockout wins to his name, has scored (T)KO stoppages of George Sotiropoulos, Jason High, and Ben Henderson. He also knocked down Donald Cerrone en route to a decision win and finished Kamal Shalorus with a rear-naked choke after knocking him down with a head kick. Lest we forget how relentless dos Anjos is with his ground-and-pound and ability to keep grounded fighters in bad spots while delivering punishment or working for a submission.
Part of what makes Cordeiro such a fantastic coach is his approach to the fight game. In this February 2015 interview with Bloody Elbow alumnus and current Sherdog fight analyst Patrick Wyman, Cordeiro explained his style of intertwining MMA grappling with striking in transition:
Wyman: You mentioned adapting things for MMA and changing your style. I noticed when you were teaching MMA grappling that you put a lot of emphasis on striking in transition. You were saying, "There’s space there, punch. Don’t wait, punch. If there’s space, always punch." I thought that was really interesting, because it speaks to exactly what you are saying: always aggressive.
Cordeiro: Sometimes you can just roll on the floor, but you need to [actually] defeat your opponent. When you roll, you give opportunities for him to submit you, and you need to really beat him.
A great example of this was dos Anjos' performance against Nate Diaz. After chopping away at Diaz's legs standing, he landed 39 significant ground strikes out of 77 overall, busting Diaz up with hard punches and brutal
bloody elbows until his face was a bloody mess.
Blackzilians, Jackson's MMA, and American Top Team may presently be getting the bulk of the notoriety, but Cordeiro's work at Kings MMA deservedly should peg him as one of the top coaches in the sport. And he may very well just lock up whatever Coach of the Year awards are handed out for 2015, if dos Anjos successfully defends his belt and/or Fabricio Werdum pulls off the upset against Cain Velasquez in June.
And lest we forget, there's massive potential for BJJ black belts Pedro Munhoz and Beneil Dariush to become future UFC contenders, if not champions. Dariush impressed with a systematic breakdown of Daron Cruickshank with body kicks before finishing him off with a rear-naked choke, while Munhoz has finished his last two opponents in less than 4 combined minutes. Don't be surprised if 2015 becomes a huge coming out party of sorts for Cordeiro and Kings MMA.