(Note: This is part one of a two part article. Part two can be found here.)
I often use the term "gameplan," but I don't entirely like it. MMA is a sport like any other, but it is distinctly not a "game." We often make the distinction between brawling and boxing, wrestling and grinding, winning and dominating, as if the grit that drives one is somehow antithetical to the art and craft of the other. It's not true. At their best, both the boxer and the brawler are fighters, through and through. No one can remove the fight from the fight for long, and a fighter who tries to play MMA is bound to lose.
So instead of "gameplan," we'll use the word "strategy," a word fit for war. What Raphael Dos Anjos did to Anthony Pettis--the body of tactics that enabled him to grind the champion into nothing over the course of five brutal rounds--that was not a gameplan, because Raphael Dos Anjos was not playing a game.
Prior to the fight, I drew up my version of the strategy that Dos Anjos would need to beat Pettis. In scouting lightweight champ, it became apparent that Dos Anjos would actually have two different fights on his hands: the physical contest, and the war of wills. To win, Dos Anjos needed to be superior in both body and mind. Each tactic would have to play double duty, not only breaking Pettis down physically, but wearing away at his confidence. Dos Anjos delivered the finest, most disciplined performance of his career, and beat Pettis in every phase, and on every stage.
Now I'll take this opportunity to look back on my pre-fight analysis, examine Dos Anjos' performance, and suss out the details of what can only be called a perfect strategy, executed to perfection.
GONE IN TWENTY SECONDS
In last week's "Gaps in the Armor," I identified what I thought were Dos Anjos' three keys to victory over Pettis. You can read the strategy in full by following that link, but to summarize, the points went as follows:
1) Pressure - a blend of ring-cutting footwork and steady, measured offense to keep Pettis' back to the cage
2) Round kicks - both to enhance pressure (by cutting off escape routes) and to take away Pettis' confidence in this, his most potent skillset
3) Feints - to nullify Pettis' counter striking by making him unsure of when and how to answer Dos Anjos' offense
You'll notice that there is little in this strategy that focuses on the finer points of technique. No "loop the left hand" or "double the jab" or anything like that. That's because the key to Dos Anjos' victory lay less in his tactics of choice and more in the way in which those tactics were applied. The key to beating Pettis has always been in finding the cracks in his confidence, and forcing them open.
My strategy, and I suspect the actual strategy of Dos Anjos' trainer Rafael Cordeiro, also made no mention of avoiding Pettis' strengths. Instead, the points are utterly focused on proactivity, the basis of all pressure. Everyone, Dos Anjos included, knew before this fight how dangerous Anthony Pettis was; how capable of adjusting and adapting. Thus, the key to Dos Anjos' victory was to ignore these threats and apply his own strategy with complete consistency--consistency being the primary concern, for only through consistent pressure could Dos Anjos test the limits of Pettis' seemingly unquenchable confidence, and determine just how well the great adjuster operated under duress.
Ultimately, it was Dos Anjos' consistency that won the fight. The Brazilian's first round looked very much like his fifth round, while the same could not be said for Anthony Pettis. Looking back at his performance, one can see the path to Dos Anjos' victory laid out in the first twenty seconds of the very first round. Those first moments represent a microcosm of the fight as a whole, and the perfect application of pressure.
1. Three seconds elapsed, and Dos Anjos has already claimed the center of the cage and pushed Pettis back.
2. Dos Anjos throws a number of feints, like this false right hand...
3. . . . and this hip feint, suggesting the left kick. Pettis reacts to none of them.
4. Now Pettis leads with a kick.
5. Dos Anjos is forced back a bit.
6. But he gets back to his feints, pushing Pettis back toward the cage once again.
7. Pettis throws a feint of his own, extending his right hand . . .
8. . . . stepping forward . . .
9. . . . and launching his right high kick, which Dos Anjos blocks.
10. Having faced and survived Pettis' trademark kick set up by his trademark feint, Dos Anjos resolves himself . . .
11. . . . immediately takes away Pettis' open space . . .
12. . . . and answers Pettis' kick with one of his own, this one right to the liver.
When Pettis didn't defend or counter that last kick, Dos Anjos hit him with another. And so the fight went, on and on, Dos Anjos constantly feinting, moving forward, taking away Pettis' precious space, and refusing to let Pettis get away with anything.
As mentioned above, Pettis adapts very well. He's proven so many times before. In fact, both of his last two opponents gave him significant trouble before ultimately succumbing to Pettis' tactics--few can keep from falling into his fight sooner or later, or being pulled into it. Thus, Cordeiro's strategy for Dos Anjos focused on denying Pettis the time to adapt, and making him so uncomfortable that he became utterly focused on Dos Anjos' threats rather than creating any threats of his own.
Pettis clawed his way back into the battle several times, but Dos Anjos simply smashed him back down, tearing away at his ego and irritating whatever insecurities lay beneath. All with calculated, methodical pressure like this.
1. Pettis forces Dos Anjos back, but the Brazilian is undeterred.
2. Before stepping right back into range, Dos Anjos very convincingly feints a kick . . .
3. . . . and notices that Pettis raises his right arm slightly to defend his head.
4. Pettis tries to move to his right to get a little breathing room, but Dos Anjos sidesteps to stay in front of him.
5. Dos Anjos feints again, this time threatening the takedown with a level change.
6. Pettis responds with a feint of his own, hoping to push Dos Anjos back . . .
7. . . . but the Brazilian answers immediately with a lead left hand.
8. Pettis parries it, but now he's backed into the fence, and Dos Anjos shuffles forward to keep himself in range.
9. Having failed with the left hand, Dos Anjos tries for that opening he had spotted earlier, and throws the left kick. Pettis blocks it . . .
10. . . . and counters with a right hand, which Dos Anjos narrowly avoids.
11. Dos Anjos refuses to let Pettis have the last word, and he measures the distance with his right hand . . .
12. . . . before cracking Pettis in the chin with a hard left cross.
This is what pressure really looks like. Dos Anjos is constantly feinting, threatening Pettis with a wide variety of attacks. Any time Pettis reacts to these feints, he feeds valuable information to his opponent, who looks to capitalize on every opening presented to him.
The most important moments in this sequence are the ones in which Pettis manages to back Dos Anjos up. Pettis, an out-fighter through and through, thrives on initiative. Every piece of the former champion's highlight reel comprises a moment when Pettis moved, his opponent reacted, and then he struck. The Showtime kick? The Cerrone knockout? The devastating victory over Joe Lauzon? Over the course of his career, the book has been written on Pettis: let him move you, and you lose.
Of course, initiative is a fickle thing. Taking away one fighter's ability to lead and plan is as simple as hitting him every time he tries to get something going. Pettis, as it turns out, is an exceptional fighter when he gets to think--but not when he has to. By feinting constantly, Dos Anjos forced Pettis to think. Thus, Pettis' own feints and attacks became predictable. And when Pettis tried a feint of his own, Dos Anjos threw a punch at him. The fact that his first left hand missed is irrelevant--what matters is that, from the moment Dos Anjos threw that punch in Frame 7 above, Pettis was reacting to him, and not the other way around.
Dos Anjos attacked Pettis first, and hit him last. No matter what, Pettis found himself being attacked, or at the very least threatened. It only took a few rounds of this for Pettis to learn the obvious lesson: stop attacking so much, and this whole thing will be a lot less painful. Dos Anjos stole the initiative, pulled the rug out from under his opponent, and found the key to beating the seemingly unbeatable Pettis.
In part two of this breakdown tomorrow, we will look deeper into the concept of initiative, and try to understand where Pettis went wrong, and why he lost his title. On that note, do yourself a favor and read Phil McKenzie's brilliant "Post-fight Patterns" for more on the role of confidence and initiative in MMA.
For more analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week, Pat and Connor break down the massive upset wins of Rafael Dos Anjos and Joanna Jedrzejczyk.