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UFC Rochester: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kevin Lee Toe-to-Toe Preview - A complete breakdown

Phil and David breakdown everything you need to know about Dos Anjos vs. Lee for UFC Rochester, and everything you don’t about octagon parabellum.

Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sports

Rafael dos Anjos vs. Kevin Lee headlines UFC Rochester this May 18, 2019 at the Blue Cross Arena in Rochester, New York.

One sentence summary:

David: The Genesee Fighthouse

Phil: RDA vs wrestler, crossroads edition

Stats:

Record: Rafael dos Anjos 28-11 | Kevin Lee 17-4

Odds: Rafael dos Anjos -105 | Kevin Lee -105

History / Introduction to Both Fighters

David: RDA has taken More Than Just a Journeyman career path. He was superficially awful early on: going 4-4 in his first eight fights. Along the way he honed his game strong enough to earn a matchup with Anthony Pettis, which was the perfect storm for an unlikely champion. After all, it was the perfect matchup for RDA. Does this make it unearned? Oh RDA just got lucky. One of these days, sports fans will truly embrace the value of luck, and on that day RDA’s success will read more accurately: RDA always prepared for the matchups put in front of him, and one of those matchups just happened to involve the then-champ. Since then he’s had tougher matchups, and now he’s 4-4 in his last eight. Nothing’s changed.

Phil: Rafael dos Anjos had a similar welterweight reinvention to his former 155 compatriot Donald Cerrone- at first he was surging up the ranks, on the march towards a title shot. Unlike Cerrone, he actually made it there, if you’re willing to accept that the Covington fight truly was for a title. But, like his former fellow welterweight, he also faltered and now finds himself in the unfamiliar territory of being on a two fight losing streak. Leather-tough, endlessly hardworking, and never a man to turn down a fight, he’s accepted one which looks like another variant of the style matchup which has troubled him throughout his career. Is it just pure courage, or does he see something that others don’t?

David: It’s hard to breakdown Kevin Lee without wading into problematic stereotypes of the black athlete always “wasting potential” as if athleticism should make success easy while his mentality makes it hard. People always talked about Melvin Guillard this way. Dana White said he’d wait for Melvin to “take things seriously” and bla bla bla. Lee isn’t an example of wasted potential. He’s an example of the illusion of inevitability: how physical traits are not malleable, while mental traits are. But this is bullshit. Guillard was talented at physically throwing a punch, but he wasn’t talented at physically defending chokes. I’d argue that there are similar physical deficiencies in Lee’s game (like his physical threshold for punishment). And yet, many of his wins have come from strong anticipation and feats of IQ. He just happens to be one strong sonofabitch too.

Phil: Kevin Lee also seemed like he was on the march. Most of his losses were understandable: getting outworked by Iaquinta when he was still wet behind the ears, getting caught by the perennially underrated Leonardo Santos (who bafflingly took out current light heavyweight title challenger Thiago Santos), and then losing to Tony Ferguson while struggling with a staph infection. He looked to have put all that behind him in assembling a run over Chiesa, Trinaldo and Barboza, before having an absolute puzzler of a performance in the Iaquinta rematch. Welterweight gives him another shot at redemption, but there’s only so many of these losses you can take before you get eternally labelled a Bader.

What’s at stake?

David: Welterweight is in such a weird spot. A win might even prove to be fortuitous. But this is also such a weird matchup that either guy can either come out of this smelling like roses (it was a great fight) or buffalo turds (I can see how this fight might end up with lulls: although I don’t predict it).

Phil: For Covington and Usman, RDA was the key to a title shot. That is definitely not going to be the case for Lee: he has no resume at welterweight, and the top of the division is jammed with deserving challengers with streaks of half a dozen fights or more. That being said, a win does place him in line for more marquee matchups (Till, the Askren-Masvidal loser, etc). For RDA, it’s a chance to reassert himself as the preeminent action fighting contender at welterweight, as the Ponz, ZdS and Luque are all snapping at his heels.

Where do they want it?

Phil: RDA needs pressure. He may not still be with Rafael Cordeiro, but dos Anjos remains the prototypical Cordeiro pressure fighter, coming forward behind a booming right hook, left body kick and power overhand. On the offense he’s cunning and relentless, pushing the opponent backwards and cutting them in with kicks until he traps them by the fence, where he unloads or dives into a clinch or wrestling exchange. Given that he was able to overpower Robbie Lawler in the clinch, something which Johny Hendricks struggled to do mightily, his skills there are top-notch. However, they are also something he perhaps relies on a little too much on defense: when RDA himself is pressured, his response is typically straightforward. He bites down, thunders in body shots, hits counter knees, and then just tries to dictate the clinch on his terms. He does not pivot, or sidestep, or even run away a la Gustafsson. He meets the opponent head-on. Against everyone but Usman, that approach has been at least partially successful. He beat Lawler badly, and put Covington through hell.

David: I’ve always appreciated RDA’s raw, Only the Strong style approach to facepunching. He’s a fighter of momentum. Bursting forward in straight lines with a stripped down body attack, and one dimensional heaters up high, if he’s not stomping a mudhole in your guts, he’s winging his arms like a mace: turning Old Testament violence on the feet into a display of gnostic wisdom on the ground. Split a piece of bone, and RDA broke it. Lift a stone, and you will find RDA holding it, waiting to slam it over your head. Yet with any momentum fighter, there’s a limit to how progressively far they can move forward. Eventually a moment of inertia sets in, and the great fighters deflect it. RDA hasn’t quite mastered the part where opponents push back in versatile ways. At this point in his career, he probably won’t, but against Lee, he won’t need to. This is a kill or be killed kind of fight.

Phil: Kevin Lee has been a strange mixture of fun and frustration, of impressive developments mixed with puzzling backwards steps. He’s one of those rare fighters who combines an immense confidence outside of the cage with a strange lack of fluidity inside of it, at least while standing up. In wrestling exchanges he’s a monster: lightning quick hips, a herculean underhook, and a body lock from hell enabled by both his freakish power and serpentine arms (he has a seven inch reach advantage over RDA). In the standup, he remains somewhat rote- pumping out a jab cross, together with an admittedly nice kicking game which does the majority of the heavy lifting for him on the feet. Phil Davis is not really an accurate comparison- Lee is at the very least a much more committed and dangerous puncher- but there are some similarities there. I feel like the basic and telling difference is that Lee is just a much meaner fighter deep down, and thus it feels more like there’s a good striker in there struggling to get out than Davis ever was.

David: Lee is a pure tracker. As long as the fight’s directly in front of him, he’s engaged. The guy standing in front of you looks open? Kick the shit out of him. Still standing? Take this right jab. Won’t go away? Eat a straight left or jog on. He’s not a counter fighter, but he responds quickly. This is the crucible of Lee’s failings. He doesn’t have the physical capacity (IMO) to eat punishment. Just look at how often he’s caught; or watch Leonardo Santos — a throwback jiu jitsu fighter with minimal striking starch him with a straight right. I do wonder if he’s still struggling to adjust: maybe the move up in weight will help. While he has cheater arms, and strength, he’s has brilliant technique on the ground. He has a wrestler’s power in getting the fight to the ground, but a BJJ expert’s speed in sliding into position for a finish.

Insight from past fights?

David: Lee only superficially profiles like the fighters that beat RDA. The biggest difference is that Lee is never interested in fighting one-dimensionally. This can either a) provide openings for RDA that wouldn’t otherwise exist in similar matchups or b) maximize Lee’s ability to level change effectively.

Phil: RDA has lost to a lot of aggressive power grapplers throughout his career, from Tibau to Guida to Khabib to Usman. The key here, then, is aggression. Lee’s most committed pressure fight came against Barboza. This will be a far more challenging style matchup- RDA doesn’t put himself into the fence like Edson does, he’s a bigger puncher and he’s infinitely more dangerous in the clinch. However, it does speak well of Lee that he can recognize basic style matchups and gameplan accordingly. His tendency to double down on rote striking may have gotten him in trouble in the Iaquinta fight, but it does also indicate that he is very coachable.

X-Factors

David: Other than weight, expect nothing less than two healthy dudes threatening each other’s health with grace.

Phil: It’s Lee’s first trip up to 170. RDA himself spoke about how it took him a couple of fights to really get used to the extra weight. Perhaps that’s why he was so happy to take this one...

Prognostication

David: I said above that I thought this fight has the potential to be a snoozer, and I stand by that. I could see Lee taking it to the ground, and I could see RDA being aggressive enough on the feet for Lee to avoid the risk that comes with it. In other words, I could see Lee fighting coherently by accident. I think the difference here is that RDA is simply winding down. There have been moments in recent fights where his persistence has waned, and that was always his strength: that’s what earned him an actual title. He’s not nothing without it. But without it, he’s not better than Lee. Kevin Lee by TKO, round 3.

Phil: This is one of those fights where I feel like there’s a better, more skilled fighter to pick... and I can’t pick him. RDA at the moment has a more coherent game, sticks to a gameplan better, and is more dangerous in more areas. However, the essentials of this fight have been written in block capitals. Get in on RDA, force him to clinch up, take the shots, and wear him out physically. It’ll be immensely tough to pull off, and will be the achievement of Kevin Lee’s career by some distance if he can, but for my sins, I still believe in the Motown Phenom. Kevin Lee by unanimous decision.