The “undisputed” champion of the world. That is what Rafael dos Anjos confirmed with his 66-second evisceration of Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. One well-timed knee to the body softened up Cerrone as dos Anjos battered him down to a prompt stoppage from referee John McCarthy.
“My career has just started. This is my division. I am here to stay,” dos Anjos said emphatically.
Training under Rafael Cordeiro and Kings MMA, dos Anjos has won 10 of his last 11 fights. He’s beaten everyone’s favorite lightweights, from Cerrone (twice) to being the first man to knock out Benson Henderson to dominating superstar-in-the-making Anthony Pettis for five rounds to win the belt. He also steamrolled Nate Diaz, who also won impressively on Saturday.
The amount of fighters who have done better than dos Anjos in the last two years can be counted on one hand. He has been on an unstoppable warpath and has looked nearly perfect with a slight hiccup against Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is the division’s strongest grappler and another man who has been near perfect in his own right. Yet for everything dos Anjos achieves it seems he cannot catch a break among the MMA community.
Coming in to his title defense, he opened close to a 3-1 favorite but got bet down to 2-1. The public was heavily favoring Cerrone despite already having lost his earlier fight with dos Anjos. Maybe it was the new drug testing policy and IV ban coinciding with the drop in performance from several fighters including former champions. Or it was simply a case of dos Anjos being underestimated. Yet again.
Dos Anjos put on the performance of his life as a 4-1 underdog against Pettis earlier this year. At this time, Pettis was a budding superstar with sponsorship deals, a coaching gig at The Ultimate Fighter and having his clean-shaven face all over Wheaties cereal boxes. He was the man and dos Anjos was being put in the background.
He dominated Pettis for five rounds. He fought with a torn ACL and never relented from his breakneck pace. He walked through Pettis’s best shots including a head kick. These were no mere mortal feats and whether dos Anjos is clean or not shouldn’t take from him just being that damn good.
But the MMA community’s hesitance to bow before dos Anjos may stem from his career as a mid-level gatekeeper. Dos Anjos is 14-5 under the UFC but lost his first two fights. He debuted against Jeremy Stephens and suffered one of the most violent knockouts ever. He didn’t finish an opponent until he one-punch knocked out George Sotiropoulos in UFC 132 in 2011, his seventh Octagon appearance.
He rarely ever got the lion’s share of the narrative. Against Khabib Nurmagomedov, he was the underdog and the hype was on Nurmagomedov to showcase his phenomenal wrestling (which he did) but dos Anjos’s five-fight winning streak was pushed to the background. Against Benson Henderson, the talk was on Henderson returning to the title picture and against Nate Diaz, a great deal of discussion focused on Diaz’s missed weight and issues outside the octagon. Even when he had short turnaround fights—something Cerrone is famous for—against Anthony Njokuani and Jason High nobody gave a peep.
Dos Anjos is a humble and respectful fighter and a family man. He’s never been one to trash talk his opponent or be vocally expressive about most issues. He didn’t have the constant highlight reels of Pettis or the exhilarating lifestyle of Cerrone or even the charming unsophisticatedness of Nate Diaz.
But one thing he has is accurate striking, relentless forward pressure, finishing ability and elite Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. With coach Cordeiro perpetually at his side, he should only keep getting better and if the drug testing and IV ban had detrimental effects on him it barely showed on Saturday.
Now he turns his focus to the sport’s meteoric talent, Conor McGregor who is aiming at fighting for the lightweight title some time in 2016. And if this fight indeed happens, dos Anjos will find himself in a spot he’s always been: as the less popular fighter and one whose humble narrative will be pushed into the background as the media will push McGregor into the forefront.
That all works for dos Anjos as he always has the hunger to prove the naysayers wrong. That fire will never burn out despite being the champion. And now that he’s actually defended his belt – something that is already a feat in 2015, a year that saw an unprecedented seven new UFC champions – maybe he finally convinces the majority of fans that he deserves more credit and that his recent dominance should be taken at face value.
Whether you doubt him or dislike him, dos Anjos is the undisputed champion and that goes beyond whatever value judgment the MMA community puts on him.