(Note: This is part two of a two-part article. You can find part one right here.)
When Rafael Dos Anjos became lightweight king, the air inside the cage sparked with emotion. His longtime trainer, Rafael Cordeiro, beamed with pride and joy, embracing his student and giving him a genuinely paternal pat on the back. Dos Anjos' normally stony visage crumbled for a moment as Bruce Buffer made his coronation official, and again when his son ran into the Octagon to celebrate alongside him. When the expression faded from his face during his post-fight interview, it was replaced by a far-off look, one of grateful wonder rather than the usual chilly glare.
As Anthony Pettis took the mic, he was uncharacteristically emotional as well, though he did his best to hide it. Speaking quickly, Pettis gave his props to his opponent, but not before explaining that his vision had been impaired since the first minute of the first round, courtesy of a Dos Anjos overhand left. These are the explanations fighters must make for themselves, giving all due credit to the opponent, but still holding onto an alternate theory--not an excuse, but a reason to go on fighting after suffering the entropy of defeat. For a moment Pettis' mouth twitched, his lips threatening to curl into a sob, and he hid it, winking and flashing a forced grin to the camera, wiping at his injured eye instead of letting his loss show on his face. Both men hid it well, but it was there.
We don't think of fighting as an emotional pastime, but the truth is that simple basic emotions--fear, anger, frustration--play a key role in every fight. In any given contest, the winner is usually the man or woman who succeeds in not only mastering his or her own emotions, but those of the opponent as well. In the case of Pettis vs Dos Anjos, the challenger manipulated the emotional state of the champion so well you might be tempted to call it mind control.
In reality, it was strategy, and nothing more. By choosing the right techniques at the right times, and giving a consistent impression of confidence and pressure, Dos Anjos compelled Pettis to think what he wanted him to think, and made him feel how he wanted him to feel. Let's take a look at a few moments from the fight with an eye not only for technical application, but emotional manipulation.
The pressure fighter's craft is so defined by visceral, non-stop aggression that we tend to forget how valuable defense is for the man coming forward. We recall his many knockouts and thrilling wars, but no one seems to talk about the defensive savvy of Julio Cesar Chavez. We forget how slick Aaron Pryor had to be to beat the great Alexis Arguello twice. Even Rocky Marciano, king of the sluggers, had a clever way of avoiding punches and taking the sting off the ones that found the mark.
Too many fans have suggested that Dos Anjos' win was one of sheer brawn over skill--that the Brazilian only defeated Pettis through his willingness to eat one to land two. Which he did. He certainly walked through his fair share of punches. But Dos Anjos also showed a level of defensive awareness that might surprise you, which made his pressure all the more effective.
1. Dos Anjos stalks Pettis, keeping himself between the champion and the center of the Octagon.
2. Looking to break through this human barrier, Pettis touches Dos Anjos with his jab.
3. Dos Anjos anticipates the follow-up cross, and not only raises his guard, but twists to his right in order to bring his left forearm into the path of Pettis' shot.
4. Because Dos Anjos defended without retreating, Pettis finds himself no closer to the center of the cage.
5. Now it's Rafael's turn, and he leads with a left uppercut to the body, stepping off-line as he throws it to avoid any counters.
6. Seeing Pettis' left side open, Dos Anjos follows up with a right hook to the spleen.
7. Pettis responds with his go-to counter right, but Dos Anjos turns his torso slightly and deflects the punch with his shoulder.
8. Dos Anjos responds with a right hook that misses . . .
9. ...and a left hook thrown a little too wide. Pettis counters again...
10. ...but Rafael simply turns his thumb toward the ground, raising his left elbow and creating a wall that easily stops Showtime's punch.
Pettis is no natural counter puncher, but he's certainly no slouch. As I detailed in the former champ's Gaps in the Armor, his counters are well placed and well timed, even if he tends to make himself vulnerable while throwing them. Yesterday we saw the value of Dos Anjos' feints, which left Pettis unsure of when to throw his counters. Defensive details like the ones above helped to erode Pettis' confidence even when he did throw.
With every missed opportunity and unsuccessful attack, Pettis found himself focusing more and more on what Dos Anjos wanted to do to him, and not what he should be doing to Dos Anjos. As a result of the Brazilian's pressure, the normally smooth and accurate champion found himself swinging and missing, and utterly unable to put up a consistent defense. This was true for Dos Anjos' strikes, but even more so for his takedowns, of which Pettis only successfully defended one.
I regret that I failed to mention takedowns in last week's Gaps in the Armor, but the truth is that I didn't see Dos Anjos taking Pettis down easily. Despite the common perception of Showtime as a wrestling-averse fighter, he was able to stop the takedowns of both Ben Henderson and Gilbert Melendez, both objectively better wrestlers than Dos Anjos, without too much trouble.
What I failed to take into account was how successfully Dos Anjos would set up his takedowns. Like the mirror image of Carla Esparza in the night's co-main event, Dos Anjos was never desperate to take Pettis down. As such, his set-ups never once rang false. The preliminary punches he threw were real, committed strikes, not pitter-patter arm punches designed merely to distract. Pettis had to defend, and found himself unable to deal with the sheer variety of Dos Anjos' threats.
1. Pettis circles to his left, and Dos Anjos circles with him.
2. Timing his attack between the champion's steps, Dos Anjos steps in with a right hook. Rounds of feints and punishing attacks have Pettis so unsure of his defense that he reaches for the punch with both hands.
3. Likewise for the next one, as Dos Anjos steps off-line and delivers a left uppercut to the guts.
4. Pettis is so focused on the strikes that he actually turns himself away in an attempt to block Dos Anjos' right hand with his shoulder.
5. Which allows the challenger to easily wrap up his hips and connect his hands.
6. To secure an effortless double leg takedown.
The contrast between this takedown--all of Dos Anjos' takedowns, really--and those of Gilbert Melendez is so sharp that we really should look at an example from Pettis' previous fight.
1. Just as he was against Dos Anjos, Pettis finds himself backed up near the fence with GIlbert Melendez coming at him.
2. Melendez doesn't feint his way in, and Pettis counters his initial jab with one of his own.
3. He also goes right for right, slipping Melendez' cross and landing his own, a staggering shot to the bridge of Melendez's nose.
4. Determined to get his, Melendez lowers his head and tries again, reaching with the left...
5. ...and, predictably, eating Pettis' counter right while missing badly with his own.
6. Now hurt, Melendez practically falls into a takedown attempt. Pettis has a moment to assess the situation...
7. ...and more than enough time to change levels, dig for underhooks...
8. ...and stop the attempt in its tracks.
There's no way I could explain Melendez's mental state in the sequence above more perfectly than my colleague Phil Mackenzie already has, so here's an excerpt from his excellent "Post-fight Patterns."
When Melendez fought the champ, he pressured him up against the cage, and worked takedowns and boxing. Whenever he managed to push Melendez back to the mid-range, Pettis would immediately snap out a spinning kick, or a front kick to the face, or a body kick. These visibly discomfited Melendez, and it became quickly apparent that he could not (or would not) stand at that distance, and he became so desperate to close in past Pettis's kicking that he ran into Pettis's flurries of punches. The takedowns changed from being something to pressure and unbalance the champion, to being a kind of safehouse for Melendez. Even while his gameplan was nominally working, you could see that there was a great impression being left on him by Pettis, driving Melendez inexorably towards grappling as a method of escape, a place where he could gulp down air to recover from the crushing pressure exerted by the champion's dynamism. Then, El Nino was stunned by a punch, and went straight for the safe zone for the fateful takedown which got him tapped.
Which . . . yes, exactly. Once again, these two sequences bring up the matters of initiative and confidence, the twin themes of our fateful fight. Pettis counter fights well enough, but he's only ever had to do it for a short time before getting his way. Sooner or later (usually sooner) his opponents have bowed to his will, and begun reacting to his threats rather than convincingly establishing their own.
So, even though Pettis almost certainly didn't want Melendez to shoot for a takedown in the sequence above, Melendez didn't exactly want the takedown either. What he wanted was to stop being punched, and the takedown attempt became his refuge--one that cruelly betrayed him when Pettis, like a magician, turned a failed double-leg into a tight guillotine in the blink of an eye.
Compare this to the visually similar sequence of Dos Anjos setting up his takedown, and we start to see the cracks in Pettis' bravado. No longer forcing his opponent to open up, Pettis is the one reacting. Showtime has never been known to shoot for takedowns, but he is every bit as uncomfortable in the Dos Anjos sequence above as Melendez was against him. Reaching for punches with both hands, flinching, turning his back--now it's Pettis who wants a refuge. Now it's Pettis who just wants the punches to stop.
For the first time, Pettis found himself facing a man who simply didn't care about being countered. An opponent who didn't give him openings, but who wasn't concerned when he took advantage of the ones there were. And when the hard counters don't do the trick, an out-fighter needs a plan B. Unfortunately for Showtime, he didn't have one.
A WORD ON OUT-FIGHTING
Before we wrap up, we ought to take a quick look at Pettis' performance. Every fight has a winner and a loser, and we can trace the result to the mistakes of the latter as much as we can to the successes of the former. Let's see where the out-fighting Anthony Pettis went wrong, and what he should look to improve on in the future.
Essentially, the classical out-fighter relies on distance management. In order to keep himself on the proverbial higher ground, the out-fighter must know how to keep his opponent at arm's length, and move swiftly and safely whenever he refuses to be held at bay. Here's a typical sequence from the UFC 185 main event.
1. Dos Anjos moves in, looking to close the distance and trap Pettis against the fence.
2. Pettis blinds him with a pawing jab...
3. ...and sends a lovely straight right down the middle, clean through Dos Anjos' guard.
4. Unfortunately, Dos Anjos hasn't been driven back as Pettis expected, and he finds himself still fenced in.
5. Circling to his right, Pettis tries another jab...
6. ...but Dos Anjos times the follow-up right hand easily, slipping it.
7. Having thrown himself bodily into the right hand, Pettis' feet are now side-by-side; he is completely square to Dos Anjos.
8. A Dos Anjos left pushes Pettis back into something of an awkward southpaw stance.
9. And Dos Anjos knocks Pettis silly with a right hook.
10. Still without a strong stance, the impact sends Pettis reeling into the fence.
Pettis has some of the tools to become a truly well-rounded out-fighter, but he fails to capitalize on his openings as he should. Succeeding with a sharp 1-2 in Frames 2 and 3, Pettis could have cut an angle, pivoting around Dos Anjos and putting the open Octagon at his back, guaranteeing himself a few seconds of free, unhampered movement and space in which to work to his strengths.
Instead, Pettis relies heavily on the opponent retreating from his offense. This worked against Ben Henderson, but Dos Anjos was too well-schooled, and by simply standing his ground he left Pettis completely flummoxed, and unable to escape.
Here we see Lionel Rose brilliantly out-boxing one of the terrors of pressure fighting, Fighting Harada. Instead of waiting for Harada to take a backward step--a true rarity from the Japanese slugger--Rose takes advantage of the brief window of opportunity granted by his punches themselves. Missing the right hand and barely connecting with the hook, Rose nonetheless pivots sharply to his left, and flashes his jab as he goes to keep Harada from pursuing him too courageously.
There are also times when it is necessary for an out-fighter to engage on the inside, to smother the offense of his aggressor and gain a moment to breathe and think. Here, Rose does just that.
Notice how Rose immediately stifles Harada's offense by simply standing his ground, changing levels, and driving up into the pressure fighter to keep him from coming forward. From this position, Rose is free to break on his terms, which he does, slapping Harada with a pair of lefts and then using the momentum of a missed cross to bounce off to Harada's right. And when Harada charges in again, Rose takes a small step forward, shows him a shoulder, and ties him up.
How much better would Pettis' takedown defense have been had he simply clinched with Dos Anjos? How much harder would the Brazilian's task have been had Pettis actually come toward him and broken his forward momentum, only to move off at an angle just as he began to get it back?
Of course at this point, this is all conjecture. We don't know whether or not Pettis can implement these tactics in the future. We don't even know if he'll recover from Dos Anjos' incredibly thorough and surely demoralizing victory. But we do know that, if Showtime entertains any thoughts about regaining his belt, he will have to find some way to regain the confidence that makes him so dangerous--the confidence that was supposed to lead him to a long and storied championship career before a hard-working Brazilian came along and ruined everything.
CONCLUSION: VIOLENCE AS ART
In combat sports, it is impossible to separate the violence from the craft, the slugging from the boxing, the fighting from the martial art. One either enhances the other, or drags it down. A technician who can't fight is just waiting to get beat up, and a bruiser who can't box is asking to get outclassed. Rafael Dos Anjos didn't just defeat Anthony Pettis in a sporting competition, he mugged him in front of hundreds of thousands of fans. By the same token, he didn't just beat him up, either--he did it beautifully.
To take the throne, Rafael Dos Anjos had to execute the old king. In doing so, he sent a message to the lightweight ranks, one that asks the question: who else wants to put themselves through that?
For more fight analysis, check out Heavy Hands, the only podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching. This week's episode is all about Rafael Dos Anjos and Joanna Jedrzejczyk, both of whom overcame the odds to win UFC titles at UFC 185.