No one foresaw his rise to power in the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight division.
Rafael dos Anjos transformed himself from borderline-journeyman to pound-for-pound A-lister with a remarkable 11-fight run -- he went 10-1, losing only to Khabib Nurmagomedov -- from May 15, 2012 to Dec. 19, 2015. Honing his skills under Kings MMA mastermind Rafael Cordeiro, he paired a sharpened standup attack with world-class grappling ability and entered his 30s as one of MMA’s premier fighters. Dos Anjos was no stranger to adversity, but he offset disappointing losses to Jeremy Stephens, Tyson Griffin, Clay Guida and Gleison Tibau with high-profile victories over Donald Cerrone (twice), Nate Diaz, Benson Henderson and Anthony Pettis. The 32-year-old Brazilian will be back inside the Octagon on Nov. 5 (online betting), as he meets Tony Ferguson in the UFC Fight Night 98 headliner in Mexico City.
In a career with its share of defining moments, here are five that stand out:
1. Gold Digger
Dos Anjos had an answer for everything Pettis threw his way, as he became the seventh lightweight titleholder in Ultimate Fighting Championship history and earned a surprisingly one-sided unanimous decision over “Showtime” in the UFC 185 headliner on March 14, 2015 in Dallas. All three judges scored it the same: 50-45 for dos Anjos. Pettis was on his heels from the start. Dos Anjos bottled up the Roufusport star with merciless forward pressure on the feet and a continuous stream of takedowns across 25 minutes. The Brazilian made few mistakes. Dos Anjos bashed the Milwaukee native with left hands throughout the five-round fight, leaving him with serious damage to his right eye. He was the superior fighter in all phases: According to FightMetric figures, dos Anjos connected on 144 strikes, 90 of them significant, and was successful on nine of his 10 takedown attempts. He passed the Pettis guard five times, moving to his back in the third, fourth and fifth rounds. The loss halted Pettis’ run of five straight victories and left a new man in charge of the lightweight division.
2. Rough Sailing for ‘Smooth’
Dos Anjos was at one point a +449 underdog to Henderson ahead of their UFC Fight Night 49 headliner on Aug. 23, 2014. The odds mattered little, and it became clear from the start that the Brazilian upstart was up to the challenge. The two lightweight stalwarts traded punches and kicks throughout the first 90 seconds, with neither man gaining a discernable advantage. Dos Anjos backed “Smooth” into the fence with a pair of thudding overhand lefts and mixed in a flying knee that had the MMA Lab rep clinging to a weak takedown attempt. As Henderson tried to return to his feet, dos Anjos blasted him with a clean left hook that briefly knocked him unconscious. Referee John McCarthy was on the scene in a blink, calling for the stoppage 2:31 into Round 1. With that, dos Anjos became the first man to stop the notoriously durable Henderson with strikes.
Stephens carries enough thunder in his hands to knock out a Clydesdale, a truth to which dos Anjos can certainly attest. The Brazilian made his organizational debut opposite Stephens at UFC 91 on Nov. 15, 2008 in Las Vegas, and it did not go according to plan. Dos Anjos performed well through the first 10 minutes, as he held his own on the feet, executed four takedowns and employed an active submission game, working an omoplata in the first round and threatening with an armbar in the second. It was not enough to keep the aggressive Stephens at bay. The Iowan reversed into top position late in Round 2, applied his ground-and-pound and turned the tide. Stephens made certain the judges would play no part in the outcome early in the third round, as dos Anjos took a defensive posture and elected to circle on the outside. Stephens clipped him with an overhand right and then sent a wicked right uppercut crashing into his chin. Dos Anjos hit the deck in a dazed state and was in no condition to defend against the barrage of right hands that followed. The end came 39 seconds into Round 3. Such a devastating defeat might have shaken the confidence of lesser men, but it only served to spur dos Anjos to greater heights.
4. Gone in 66 Seconds
Dos Anjos made Cerrone look ordinary in the second of their two meetings, as he blasted through “Cowboy” with a wicked body kick and follow-up punches to retain the lightweight title in the UFC on Fox 17 main event on Dec. 19, 2015 at the Amway Center in Orlando, Florida. Cerrone succumbed to blows 66 seconds into Round 1, his run of eight straight victories at an end. The champion got right to work. He jumped Cerrone with his ever-improving hands, softened him with a knee to the midsection and doubled over the Jackson-Wink MMA rep with a left kick to the solar plexus. Cerrone never recovered. Dos Anjos swarmed with punches, sprawled out of a desperate takedown attempt, wheeled to the back and put it away with unanswered rights to the head.
5. Wrong Side of History
Alvarez believed, even if few others did, as the Philadelphia native took out dos Anjos with first-round punches in the UFC Fight Night 90 headliner on July 7, 2016 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. Dos Anjos absorbed a hellacious beating, until referee Herb Dean had seen enough and called for the stoppage 3:49 into the first round. Alvarez picked his spot and did not miss. The former Bellator MMA champion whipped a wide right hook around dos Anjos’ defenses and set him on rubbery legs. The Brazilian was not afforded the opportunity to regain his wits. Alvarez flew in with an incredible burst of power punches, briefly wound up on his back after a wild attempt at a flying knee and closed out the Kings MMA rep with a final volley of violent hooks and right uppercuts along the fence. The loss snapped dos Anjos’ five-fight winning streak and made Alvarez the first fighter in history to capture both Bellator and UFC gold.