UFC Vegas 14 was surrounded by uncertainty. Between Islam Makhachev’s staph infection, how Paul Felder would look after semi-retiring, and whether the drop back down to lightweight might affect Rafael dos Anjos — there was a lot going on for such an underwhelming card on paper. Except who has ever been a more certain fight commodity than dos Anjos?
There was never any doubt both men could put on a show. The question was always about whether fans would get the best versions of both men. And boy did they deliver. Felder seemed to do things he’s sometimes criticized for, initiating more in the pocket, and forcing exchanges instead of trying to bait out counters with orthodox and unorthodox attacks alike. He took some heavy shots, and never waivered.
At the other end was dos Anjos, who looked exactly how he’s always looked: an elite fighter winding down, but still humming along beautifully. It was a joy to see him fight someone his own size. There was a real pop to his strikes: as if he brought some welterweight strength along with him. He didn’t lose sight of a gameplan he had to adjust on the fly, and I must admit a childish glee watching him ‘sideboard’ — a term that requires a lot of explanation if you’re willing to tolerate nerd-specific naval gazing.
A lot was made of Felder taking the fight on short notice, and having to cut weight. And let’s not diminish that. By all accounts, it sounded like a nightmare for Felder (even if he was able to turn it into an inspirational speech). But Dos Anjos had just as much riding on the line. Not only would a loss have provoked the dreaded ‘R’ word, but so much is always said about the fighter who takes the short-notice fight, and not the fighter who has to take the short-notice matchup. Whatever your opinions, and whether you land on one side more than the other, it’s hardly cut and dry.
The fight was competitive, but never close. This distinction is something Chris Lee, the judge who inexplicably scored the fight for Felder, might want to remember by heart. While Chris Lee has everything to be ashamed of, the same can’t be said of dos Anjos, who’s at a really interesting spot in his career.
Dos Anjos has had a pretty distinctive path in every division: fight every contender and reach the top, or fight every contender. The closest thing RDA has ever had to a ‘gimme’ was Jason High in 2014. And that was after fighting Khabib Nurmagomedov. Since then he’s fought nothing but champs, former champs, and interim champs across multiple divisions. That’s more than seven hours of Octagon time in his career. If anyone has earned some ‘go big or go home’ matchmaking it’s dos Anjos.
Makhachev has already called him out, hoping to run it back, so to speak. Dos Anjos already has the most obvious fight in mind. “We have three former interim champions: Tony, Gaethje, and Dustin Poirier. The only two real champions in that division were me and Conor (McGregor),” he told MMA media at the post-fight press conference.
It’s the Conor fight he wants. And Conor appears happy to oblige. Personally, I agree, assuming Conor wins. I don’t know if dos Anjos is in the twilight of his career. Surely, he has to be, right? Nonetheless, dos Anjos is a great example of legacies being whatever we want them to be in MMA. Winning a belt and quality fighting need not be mutually inclusive in the same way not winning a belt and quality fighting need not be mutually exclusive. Were that the case, we might remember Jens Pulver, Matt Serra, Forrest Griffin, and Frank Mir more fondly.
I guess what I’m getting at here is that we all appreciate dos Anjos. But words like ‘underrated’ and ‘well-rounded’ don’t even scratch the surface. Dos Anjos is a certified hall-of-famer, but you can’t help but wonder when he’s gonna begin that inevitable decline. You can clock his Octagon time on a Criterion Collection. Surely he’s gonna hit that proverbial wall. Knowing that, I hope the UFC respects this, and gives him the kind of fight that will reward his status as one of the truly great fighters of the modern era.
I know. I didn’t say ‘great champ.’ That’s what I like about RDA. His legacy goes beyond gold. For most fighters, that might be a slight, but not RDA. Give him the winner of Poirier vs. McGregor at UFC 257, and who knows. Maybe we include the gold too. Or as Teddy KGB always says... pay the man his money.