A no-brainer title eliminator on network television is almost always going to be a good look, but UFC on Fox 26 this Saturday in Winnipeg, Manitoba, blesses us with former welterweight ruler Robbie Lawler throwing hands with onetime 155-pound kingpin Rafael dos Anjos. It does not get much better than that, apart from the whole “Winnipeg in December” thing, of course. Our headliners, who reside in Florida and California, respectively, must be thrilled.
As 2017 draws to a close, Lawler-dos Anjos gives us one more late “Fight of the Year” contender by virtue of Lawler’s presence alone, plus a glimpse into the immediate future of the 170-pound division. UFC President Dana White promised the winner the next shot at defending champion Tyron Woodley, the man who plucked the title from Lawler in devastating fashion in July 2016. However, courtesy of the Santiago Ponzinibbio-Mike Perry clash, Lawler-dos Anjos may wind up being the second most exciting welterweight clash on the main card. Not to be overlooked is the return of Oluwale “The Holy War Angel” Bamgbose, owner of truly the worst nickname on the entire 650-fighter UFC roster.
Who is next to challenge for Woodley’s 170-pound championship? Let us dig into UFC on Fox 26 and find out:
WelterweightRobbie Lawler (28-11, 1 NC) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (27-9)
ODDS: dos Anjos (-115), Lawler (-115)
ANALYSIS:: This is a pick-’em fight and no wonder, with two strong competing forces. Dos Anjos’ reemergence over the last six months as a welterweight has been a sight to see, as he dominated Tarec Saffiedine for 15 minutes in June before positively blowing Neil Magny out of the water in less than four minutes at UFC 215 in September. Meanwhile, since Lawler was knocked out brutally and lost the UFC welterweight title to Woodley almost 17 months ago, we have seen him just once, when he hammered out an entertaining unanimous nod over Donald Cerrone in July. Lawler is 35 years old and had three straight years of violent brawls, and since 2013, no one has absorbed more significant strikes -- 781 of them, to be exact -- than the “Ruthless” one. How much does he have left?
In the interest of checking all the boxes of technical analysis, let it be said that if dos Anjos is able to trip up Lawler or put him on the canvas early or with some regularity, it is obvious who has an advantage on the floor. Lawler’s submission defense has long been his foremost Achilles’ heel, and as dos Anjos’ destruction of Magny proved, his top game is as big a threat as ever. Will dos Anjos look to push a wrestling game here? It may not be in his best interest. The Brazilian gives up three inches in height, four inches of reach and considerable overall size to Lawler; dos Anjos has already shown he can deal with physically larger men, but he is still a body size smaller than the former welterweight king, who is also the more explosive fighter, even now. More than all that, Lawler remains an expert dirty boxer who can potentially turn those physical advantages into real, damaging offense in close quarters.
It is more likely that dos Anjos hybridizes his pressure fighting style, blending in more low kicks -- which Lawler famously never checks, to his detriment -- while being more selective in diving for Lawler’s legs. Failed attacks are a problem against Lawler, who can turn a single counter or pancake sprawl into a volley of strikes that can have an opponent on the ropes. There is also no need for dos Anjos to play into Lawler’s hands if the rangier American wants him to rush; dos Anjos can steadily kick away and cash in, especially during those rounds where Lawler takes his foot off the gas and gets a breather.
Both men are southpaws, but Lawler is a truly ambidextrous puncher who can create critical hits with his lead right hook and land with both hands while coming forward on a wounded opponent. He still has the fast-twitch ability to ignite with heavy kicks and flying knees, though that sort of approach may not serve him well against dos Anjos. This incarnation of Lawler, especially in a five-round affair, figures to bide his time and load up counter combinations on an encroaching dos Anjos before inciting a grimy clinch battle if he can.
Dos Anjos has enough power to surprise Lawler and crack him, but the bigger man has the bigger home run threat in both of his mitts. Given how dearly either man could pay for overcommitting and getting countered, I think we see sudden explosions with lulls in between. If dos Anjos can dump steady kicks and jabs into said lulls and capitalize on Lawler’s round-off strategies, he will be better for it. However, as the Carlos Condit fight reminded us brilliantly, Lawler’s heavy power shots often atone for strike differentials; Condit landed 82 more significant strikes than Lawler and still lost, the largest such differential in a decision defeat in UFC history. Lawler remains the more predatory, powerful hitter, and on top of that, he still has a unique ability to do damage in an economic fashion, absorbing volume from his opponents to crack them back even harder and wow the judges. Lawler wins via close decision over a rugged 25 minutes with some peaks and valleys, setting up one more UFC title challenge for the old war horse.
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