Robbie Lawler vs. Rafael dos Anjos headlines UFC on FOX 26 this December 16, 2017 at the Bell MTS Place in Winnipeg, Canada.
One sentence summary
David: Two fighters prepare for battle instead of spoiling Star Wars on social media.
Phil: Robert Glenn Lawler takes on the man of the angels.
Odds: Robbie Lawler +105 | Rafael dos Anjos -125
History / Introduction to both fighters
David: Lawler began his career as something of a proto-Mike Perry. He famously told Tiki Ghosn that once he "touched him with his hands", it would be lights out. Little did Lawler know all he needed was a small cut to put Tiki into the bleached dirt. Lawler looked like a fighter without much upside and plenty of action. Slowly, his experience turned into real utility. Before long, he didn't need to revolutionize his game because no matter how the game changed, the players were the same. Somewhere along the way everything clicked - his robust striking became a shield against all other attacks, and he packaged his bombs for hands into a calmer, almost Buddhist approach to pugilism that otherwise looked controlled by a mind preoccupied with football routes and cheerleaders.
Phil: Lawler went through a number different incarnations since landing that fortunate cut stoppage against Mr Ghosn. The Miletich brawler, the Team Quest bearded nomad, and eventually the slimmed down brutalizer who shocked everyone on his way to the UFC welterweight belt. What incarnation are we looking at now? He didn't sound terribly enthused by the thought of chasing the belt again, he's left ATT, and he's grown out the beard. Maybe Prizefighting Robbie is back.
David: It feels like ages since RDA won the light title in blistering, dominant fashion versus Anthony Pettis. After a successful defense, he went on a two fight skid that started with an unexpected assault from who I thought was an Eddie Alvarez on a minor downward trend given the wars he had been in. RDA got blitzed, and then blitzed again by Tony Ferguson. All of a sudden RDA is back. At welterweight. I’m not sure what his success at WW tells us about fighting Lawler though, which is part of the fun.
Phil: When most fighters move up a weight class, they tend to lean more on their striking. It's easier to tag bigger, slower fighters with the small gloves, and they tend to be fighting at a comparative strength disadvantage. So RDA's move to welterweight has been a bit of a puzzler. He beat up Tarec Saffiedine from the clinch, and took out Neil Magny from top position. Does this mean that he's so physical that he can still leverage his power game at welterweight? or are these guys simply flawed in ways - physically faded and slow starting, respectively - that make them uniquely vulnerable to an aspect of his game?
What's at stake?
Phil: I think RDA maybe gets a title shot? Less sure about Lawler. Word on the twitters is that the UFC is setting up a Woodley vs Covington TUF, which would put welterweight on hiatus for the near future. And would be... well, let's not think about it.
David: Seriously? I’ve given trying to understand Dana’s matchmaking other than “me want bloodfeuds” so yea.
Where do they want it?
David: Lawler, as mentioned, seems to be more or less the same fighter that bounced Tiki’s head on the canvas and then started jumping around angrily in response. One of the main things that has changed is his offense. His fight against Donald Cerrone was a great example of this - old Robbie (as in, UFC 40-era Robbie) would have either retreated, or pressured back. For bad to average strikers, this is the binary thinking that keeps them from improving. Lawler, instead, mixed both; rolling with Cerrone’s punches, dipping and pivoting his head in order to soften the punches. This achieves two things: lulls the opponent into the illusion of offense, and keeps them in proximity for counters. And these are the small things Lawler has picked him over his long career to make him elite at this stage of the game. Another thing: tactics. Every great fighter has to reconcile planned purpose with planned action.
Old Dinosaur Lawler, to borrow an aggressively muddled Vitor Belfort phrase, had planned purpose - blast fools with what us Latinos call, chingasos (what’s the British slang for haymakers, Phil?). But his planned actions didn’t always mesh well with his purpose because that’s just the nature of good competition - fighting is dynamic, and you have to account for fight states that don’t favor your purpose. Now he’s got that part down. Again, versus Cerrone, he immediately pounced on Cerrone’s traditionally slow starts, aggressively attacking him from the opening bell. It isn’t just the Cerrone fight either; Lawler, in addition to using smart tactics, has managed to get mechanically better too. All in all, he’s just a (American) biscuits and gravy striker who knows his game well enough to avoid the stuff outside of his tunnel vision - hence the amusing stat that in 30 major org fights, he’s never attempted a single submission.
Phil: Lawler's longevity is in part due to how much the man simply loves to fight. That love has taken a pretty specific form. He doesn't want to submit people, he doesn't want to fight from his back, and he doesn't want to wrestle. He'll do some of those things if he has to, but fundamentally he's looking to solve an opponent so that he can kick, knee or punch them until they collapse in a heap. Still, his time in the sport and consistent focus has meant that he's built some pretty subtle defensive tricks, and is one of the most rhythmically adept fighters in the sport, capable of using shifts in cadence to steal away rounds as well as consciousness. The opening frame against Rory in their first fight was a masterclass in bullshit, as Lawler did very little but then stole the last few seconds with a flurry. For all that people criticize him for taking time off in fights, it's very notable that he rarely actually tends to lose those decisions nowadays. Back in the day it was something of a different matter: he'd get stuck on bottom and start to look almost immediately enraged. Now that fury gets channeled into something more focused and effective.
David: dos Anjos is another fighter who fights with effective tunnel vision. He takes a freight train approach to his striker-grappler profile, entering with punches, and relying on punch exits with takedown attempts and calf slicing submission goodness. He reminds me of high level Clay Guida - loses when an opponent dictates the pace, and tries to fight his opponent within their fight destination, whether on the feet, or on the ground. With piercing leg kicks and a swift straight left, he’s a unique example of being well rounded without sacrificing dynamic qualities. What makes this fight particularly interesting is that he’s a good pressure fighter who has decent (but not perfect) distance management. With his ability to dart toward and away from proximity, it’ll be interesting to see how he deals with Lawler’s boxing. I don’t know that his welterweight matches really prepared him for Robbie. Saffiedine and Magny have different approaches to technical striking that dos Anjos’ raw aggression can break through without having to worry about getting punished.
Phil: Lawler's transformation over time was about layering subtlety and craft over his aggression. RDA's was about layering aggression over his craft. The pieces are simple and brutal. He comes in, pounds the left kick to the legs and body, slips return fire and counters with the left cross. Takedowns and BJJ were his bread and butter when he first came into the UFC, and he hasn't neglected them since, evinced by that crushing round one submission over Neil Magny. His main weakness is that he's one of those fighters that needs the pressure to be effective. If he's forced onto the back foot for whatever reason (struggling to navigate range against Ferguson, brute power against Tibau and Dunham), he becomes far less effective. He's not a bad potshotting kickboxer, but his defense isn't fantastic, and without that stepwise progression that keeps his opponents constantly trying to figure out which of the three or four basic attacks is coming, he becomes a good deal less dynamic and threatening.
Insight from past fights
David: It depends. Lawler is a pressure fighter only in moments. Otherwise he’s fairly patient, and measured. That version of Lawler will probably have trouble. Without quick forward movement, and active counterwork, dos Anjos will have a lot of opportunities to clack his leg. And dos Anjos has sneaky (?) brutal leg kicks. If Lawler is aggressive enough, maybe he can neutralize some of RDA’s leg attack but mostly it’s about putting himself in position to land that one good shot. RDA’s not small, but he’s not a big welterweight either.
Phil: I've been thinking about the Cerrone vs Lawler fight a lot, and what it said about both men. It lived up to the hype... but how much was it a Wanderlei/Chuck, or a Nog/Couture? Namely, a bout where two great fighters' declines managed to intersect at just the right moment to provide a fantastic throwdown? "Lawler is back," people said confidently after that fight, but for Cerrone it was bracketed by two knockout losses. Maybe they were both more deteriorated than we thought at the time.
David: Nobody’s kidneys failed at the last minute did they?
Phil: Aside from potential deterioration from either man, I can't think of much. Both are consistent, rugged individuals. Both are pretty good at fighting the southpaw matchup.
David: I hate to say it, but I like RDA in this one. I have a hard time imagining Lawler getting inside the pocket with enough regularity to overcome dos Anjos’ pinch and move attack. I wouldn’t expect a takedown, and I like Lawler in the clinch, but over five rounds, I think the attack patterns, particularly RDA’s ability to crack that strong side leg, favor the Brazilian. Rafael dos Anjos by Decision.
Phil: I think a lot of RDA's success at lightweight was built on him having sneaky long reach for the division. In those fights where he was outranged (Diaz, Dunham, Tibau, Ferguson etc) he was often forced to wrestle, and much of the time that didn't go very well. While Lawler's tendency to be beyond lackadaisical about checking leg kicks is perhaps his most glaring weakness in this fight, I'm just not sure that Dos Anjos can fight him without slipping into the areas where Lawler is a craftier, harder hitting boxer, or clinching up with the bigger, more powerful man. While his inability to put Cerrone away was somewhat concerning, Robbie Lawler by TKO, round 4.