RDA defends his title this July 7, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada.
One sentence summary:
Phil: Eddie Alvarez gives up everything to get to his title shot.
David: RDA defends his title against Bellator's finest.
Record: Rafael dos Anjos 25-7 Eddie Alvarez 27-4
Odds: Rafael dos Anjos -345 Eddie Alvarez +285
History / Introduction to Both Fighters
Phil: Rafael dos Anjos is settled as a champ, less so due to his (stellar) performances than due to the changes around him. The WEC trio that defined his championship run in Pettis, Henderson and Cerrone have all left for pastures new. While the lucrative McGregor fight never materialized due to RDA's injured foot, he was a secondary winner when Diaz tapped out the Irishman. Consistency has its virtues.
David: Don't forget Khabib's injuries. That's also a factor. Tyson Griffin has a way of blessing people in questionable victory I guess. I'm not sold on dos Anjos' future as champ, but I'm not a convicted skeptic either. Alvarez is not the guy to convince me otherwise.
Phil: At some point it looked like Eddie Alvarez might never make it to the UFC. The acrimonious contract negotiations with Rebney's Bellator dragged on, and on, and it looked like his prime would slip away in litigation hell. He made it to the big show finally though. I'm not sure if anyone expected him to really fight for a title, but there was certainly an expectation that he'd be an all-action fighter bonus machine. Aside from the Cerrone fight, it hasn't been the case. Instead, the Melendez and Pettis fights were razor-thin and he leaned heavily on wrestling control.
I respect it. It really shows that he was willing to give up everything in order to get to the belt, be it battling through litigation or leaving the action-fighter mantle behind. Some newer fans have garnered an idea of Eddie Alvarez as being "boring" but... get the fuck outta here. He's given us some of the best MMA fights in history and frankly he can outwrestle people every day until he retires and I won't bat an eye. He's more than earned it.
David: Dropping f-bombs already? I guess Brexit has you in a vendetta kind of mood, Dr. Who. Speaking of dubious separations, I would have supported Alvarez outside the UFC. The UFC feels like a bridge too far despite fighting for the title. I remember not agreeing with the Melendez decision but admittedly that probably has more to do with just being forgetful and not feeling compelled to rewatch it. Like dos Anjos, the changes around Alvarez have been fortuitous, and so here he stands. In a way, Melendez and Pettis were good matchups for him. This one is not.
What's at stake?
David: For a title fight the stakes are almost ho-hum. Am I coming across as jaded, and bored? I hope not. I like this fight a lot. I'm just not sure it reflects the best lightweight has to offer as far as heirarchy goes. Alvarez is one more Chandler fight away from being Kid Yamamoto. Dos Anjos is one more Nurmagomedov fight away from being a challenger. See my dilemma?
Phil: It's a common thread lately. At middleweight and welterweight we've had a stack of duelling challengers. For whatever reason (politics, injuries, timing) none of them quite panned out in the short term, leaving us with second or third-string challengers like Woodley, Bisping and Alvarez. No-one's really looking at them with the same sense of anticipation that they might hold for, say, Nurmagomedov or Ferguson. Luke Rockhold could probably explain to RDA the dangers of overlooking a challenger like that, however.
Where do they want it?
David: RDA has transformed the philosophy of pressure and aggression into a tangible war machine of pragmatic pugilism. I love going back to his fight with Pettis. It's remarkable how quickly dos Anjos turns Showtime into a pile of reactions and cluelessness. RDA has a thudding quality to his punches. He's not a one hitter quitter type, but he hits hard enough to command fetal defense from his opponents. Unlike most phase shifter type fighters, dos Anjos isn't content with a formulaic series of strikes and grapples. For many fighters, like Alpha Male, the series of events is part of a chain; grappling as a means to an end, striking as a means to an end, et cetera. Dos Anjos fights in each realm as an end onto its own, aiming for knockout blows when vertical, even calf slicers when horizontal. That's what makes dos Anjos different from all the rest, and that's why I think he's gonna smash Alvarez to be perfectly honest.
Phil: The modern trend in MMA striking increasingly seems to be towards boxing and movement, layered with the quick, snappy kicks of a point-fighting base like TKD and karate. None of these namby-pamby, traditional martial arts stylings for RDA. It's tempting to call him a Muai Thai throwback, but it's not a less advanced style, rather a different developmental path; engineering for stability over precision. RDA will clang through the left kick, the right hook or the left straight, and he'll move to compensate and do it again. The real strength here isn't in any kind of compensation or adaptation, though- it's that the champ cannot even think of going off-script. He's going to push you back, and punish you if you try to stopped, and it's very hard to dissuade him from that goal. RDA simply does not have the imagination to be scared of his opponents. Like you said, a machine.
David: Alvarez has always been a very technical boxer despite his reputation. But he's a technical boxer in static situations: as in, the mechanics of his strikes are well trained, and executed cleanly. However, once he gets into dynamic situations his technique is stifled in favor of ill timed exchanges, desperation takedowns, and who knows what. This description makes Alvarez sound like a mediocre fighter, which he obviously isn't, but I think it helps explain why he's never been able to grow into truly elite company. Yeah he's fighting for a title, but so did Chael Sonnen. Something something more.
Phil: I think the problem with Alvarez is in stance - he often stands fairly square, and darts off on angles to land strikes. These strikes aren't the hardest, and often he takes big risks in order to set up an attack which itself is just made to set up more attacks. It's not that Alvarez isn't a smart, adaptive fighter, but more that his weightings are slightly skewed with respect to risk/reward. Other than this, he hits hard, goes to the body nicely, and can even kick well when he wants to. The big problem, I think, is less in technique but more in physicality. Alvarez was the smaller lightweight against Pettis, who himself is going down to featherweight. He took both Pettis and Melendez down, but it cost him pretty much everything to do so. The physicality differentials were less noticeable in Bellator, but are omnipresent in the UFC.
Insight from Past Fights:
David: Normally I would go back and fight finds against volume punchers, but Alvarez isn't much of a volume puncher these days. Truth be told, he was never much of one to begin with. The volume would sometimes just be a response to getting cracked, as it he did against Hellboy, Kawajiri, and Dida. But he's always been about using his boxing to get inside where his grappling has been a strength that gets understated. This fight is very competitive on paper, but Alvarez isn't a massive lightweight, and I have a hard time seeing him get this one to the ground. Leaving him enough time to avoid getting kicked in the body, or combo'ed in the head? Not in my opinion.
Phil: Where Alvarez is different from some of RDA's recent victims is that he's much, much better by the fence. Cerrone and Pettis are both notable for flailing a bit when backed into the cage, but Alvarez keeps his wits about him, feints to distract from when he makes his escape, and often lands strikes as he exits. The issue is that even if he's better there than most, it's still a place which massively favours the champion - the first step for Eddie is making sure he doesn't end up against the cage in the first place.
David: dos Anjos' broken foot? Injuries are the most overrated x-factors in sports. Everyone nurses minor injuries, and anything major wouldn't allow them to train to begin with. The most significant injuries are the free radicals that contribute to the aging process.
Phil: Co-sign on that. For my X-factor, I'd probably throw in Alvarez' punching power. His UFC fights, and the wars against the insanely tough Michael Chandler have perhaps dulled the perception of him as being offensively inert. He's still very dangerous.
David: I don't see how Alvarez deals with dos Anjos' varied striking attack. He's never been good at being forced to deal with early sustained violence. He's always countered this with stout wrestling and control, but even Khabib had to fight to control RDA on the ground when he got him there. Not only that but dos Anjos' grappling is just better anyway. I see plenty of ways that Alvarez can survive, and attack in intervals but there are very few sequences I can imagine where Alvarez actually mounts an offensive that turns into a threatening attack. Meanwhile that's all I can imagine for dos Anjos. RDA by TKO, round 4.
Phil: Alvarez has never been blown out of the water (Aoki maybe), and I don't think that starts now. However, there are some very difficult puzzles for him to solve- how does he not come out worse in fence exchanges? How does he attack the bigger, stronger man with his wrestling? Can he exchange? I think that Alvarez can definitely win a round, perhaps two, but that there just isn't quite a place in this fight where he's consistently the superior fighter apart from a slice of boxing range. Rafael dos Anjos by unanimous decision.