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The Sideboard: The unused arsenal of Rafael dos Anjos

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Rafael dos Anjos may be on his last legs as an elite fighter, but his tools aren’t.

UFC Fight Night 18 Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

We’re gonna talk about MMA technique, but before we do that, we’re gonna talk about Magic: The Gathering. I want you to know that I was actively ashamed of playing the game in college. And why not? A trading card game with artwork like this and this wasn’t — at least back then — the type of nerdery that was socially acceptable. Magic nerds didn’t have super chads like Joe Manganiello repping the game. Nor did it have intellects fueling the culture the way comic book fans had Alan Moore. So I’m gonna make up for lost time. Bear with me if you’d like.

While Magic is a silly tabletop game of minotaur monks and zombie frog beasts fighting on scenic landscapes, there’s a large competitive scene nonetheless. In competitive Magic, you start each best-of-three series with a 60-card deck. That deck is built with literally thousands of available choices. After game one, the following two games can be played using what’s called a sideboard. The sideboard is a list of 15 extra cards you can use to create a ‘new’ 60-card deck.

The strategy of creating a 60-card deck that can win consistently through 12+ rounds spread across multiple days is hard. Harder still, is figuring out how to sideboard effectively. Is your sideboard varied, allowing you to trim around the edges to keep your original deck lean? Or is it concentrated, giving you specific answers to specific threats? Do you have a starting deck that wants to sideboard a lot, or just a little? Is your sideboard designed to be transformative, and thus wants to utilize all 15 cards in order to cheese out wins with unexpected tech? The latter is a very rare (if not ill-advised) strategy, but remember how Jeremy Stephens tried to beat Anthony Pettis? Exactly.

You might say that MMA fighters have a ‘deck’, if you will — their “cards” are their skills, and their primary weapon is their starting deck, or full arsenal. These fighters learn enough skills to have access to what you might call a sideboard, or the equivalent: skills they learn, but either don’t use, don’t use often enough, or can’t fit into their primary method of attack. Competitive Magic is like MMA in the way you have a meta as well. A ‘meta’ is what we might call the languages and models that form the most efficient tactical disciplines at any given time.

This long-winded analogy finally brings me to the whole point of what I hope will be a running feature. I want to pose the question here, that I posed on social media: does Rafael dos Anjos have a skill or tactic he doesn’t use enough? Or in Magic terms, what is dos Anjos’ best sideboard card?

Naturally, I couldn’t choose a worse fighter to start with. Dos Anjos has been a well-rounded machine throughout his career. His success has been less about his explicit talents, and more about his approach. When a fighter dumpsters an opponent as bad as RDA did Pettis, you can typically point to a specific strike, move, or position that the defeated couldn’t overcome. Everyone loses to Khabib’s chain wrestling. Everybody loses to Adesanya’s movement, etc. For RDA vs. Pettis, the approach more than the skills won the fight.

Just to clarify, this is not a strict analysis of fighter techniques, or a specific break down of RDA’s matchup for Paul Felder this weekend. Hell, I’m not even here to contextualize dos Anjos’ skills in the context of his career up to this point. After all, dos Anjos wearing down physically, and the diminishing returns of his approach against bigger men doesn’t help answer my specific question. As mentioned, we’re just interested in RDA’s weapons, and which ones he has access to that he maybe doesn’t access enough.

UFC Fight Night: Lawler v Dos Anjos Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Dos Anjos has had a lot of brilliant performances throughout his career. It’s kind of his birthright: few fighters have had such a rich history at multiple weight classes across so many matchups. In fact, I’m struggling to even think of a parallel. The history-makers like Randy Couture and B.J. Penn just kind of dipped their toes in and out. Alistair Overeem would fit into that criteria, except he wasn’t a serious contender at light heavweight. RDA had to serve the menu and wash the dishes, trying to clean out each division he fought in. That’s not only rare. It’s unheard of. As such, I decided to re-watch the best example of a fighter sideboarding I could find: dos Anjos vs. Robbie Lawler from UFC on FOX 26.

You could call that fight peak RDA, even moreso than his win over Pettis, but I don’t think ‘peak’ is the right word. ‘Peak’ implies this was RDA at his physical best. But was it? That fight, after all, would precede a 1-4 run (extreme quality of competition notwithstanding). So maybe it wasn’t ‘peak’ RDA, but it was definitely dos Anjos at his most versatile, and adaptable. It was dos Anjos sideboarding in a way he hasn’t since. In retrospect, it would have been silly to trade with Lawler. Dos Anjos had already been knocked out twice at LW. Now he was up against one of welterweight’s most punishing brawlers. Bad idea, right?

Dos Anjos has never been a one-note fighter or anything, but his striking has always followed a traditional pattern of penetrating, in-and-out pressure. Despite what looks like a basic approach, he’s one of the more layered technicians, as his sliding footwork makes his otherwise basic approach a little harder to read and react too. Guys like Edson Barboza and Anthony Pettis get more credit for their striking than RDA, but look how easily Tony Ferguson broke them down versus how he got it done against RDA. The why is simple: dos Anjos had and has always had access to a sideboard guys like Pettis and Barboza simply don’t.

Of course, Dos Anjos owes a lot to very good coaching. And that’s why the bout against Lawler stands out, in my opinion. RDA managed to include something he has done a lot less of in his career: extended clinchwork.

It’s hard to extrapolate a ton of lessons from the bout because RDA did so much to make Lawler look inept: standing in the pocket, right hand entries to the body, counter straights, etc. Still, his clinchwork seemed to make Lawler uneasy everywhere else the fight went. In the clinch, not only would RDA dig to the body with knees, but he showed a real strength and confidence at manipulating Lawler’s bodyweight. As my colleague Phil MacKenzie once pointed out, he’s ‘never figured out a way to avoid the clinch.’ He meant that as a criticism and it’s a criticism I agree with. In part, because until the Lawler fight he had never really done anything with it. However, maybe the Lawler fight also explains why; he can damage at that range.

UFC Fight Night Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

RDA is an adaptable fighter and that’s why his career, like Magic, will always have a special place in my heart. As fight analyst Danny Martin put it, “I’ve seen glimpses of RDA demonstrating the single most well-rounded skillset in MMA history throughout the course of his career. I don’t know if he’s ever had complete access to all of his skills at one point in time, but if you look for a specific tactic, you’ll find it in RDA.”

Moreover, we’ve seen a wide variety of adaptations from RDA before. Against Kevin Lee, RDA doubled up on the jab more to interrupt Lee’s very basic power punching template. Against Ferguson, RDA turned to switching stances to draw more traditional movement out of Ferguson’s janky footwork. Against the most powerful puncher he’s ever faced, he used the clinch to cut distance without losing his trademark pressure or finding himself on the end of Lawler’s punches.

It’s possible that RDA’s clinchwork in the Lawler fight was just his one room to breathe, so to speak. His lightweight career has been filled with toolsy strikers he could either pin (Pettis), or outwork at range (Diaz). Or just downright obliterate. Welterweight, meanwhile, has been an obnoxious stream of big bodied grapplers who don’t allow him to utilize the clinch for any sustained length.

Against Felder, RDA will have access to a full sideboard. Whether that will serve him well is another matter. Felder presents a number of different obstacles. I think the biggest obstacle might be what RDA has left.

No longer a man who will crash into his opponents for space, he’s more selective, and for a fighter who’s never had any one elite skill, that’s critical to his deterioration; more so than simply the increased size of his opponents. Felder is not Lawler. And dos Anjos is no longer the fighter who fought Lawler. But maybe he could use those clinch cards he dusted off from the sideboard against Lawler. Just like sideboards in Magic: it’s better to have that Goblin with suggestive artwork and not need it, than to need that Goblin with suggestive artwork and not have it. Same with dos Anjos’ clinchwork.