Who Takes It? UFC 185: Anthony Pettis vs. Rafael Dos Anjos

In the last installment of “Who Takes It?” we had a dominant champion in Ronda Rousey, one of the UFC’s most active titleholders and biggest stars, facing challenger Cat Zingano, whose emotional comeback story was among the fight game’s most compelling.

Zingano was the rightful “next in line” in the women’s bantamweight division, which unfortunately is known for its massive gulf between champion and challengers. But she was someone that fans wanted to believe in.

I did too, but thought she was in over her head; facing a superior athlete, who represented a poor style match besides. Sadly, I was right about that one – as Zingano fell in record time, as predicted, to a first round armbar.

This week’s bout, Saturday’s UFC 185 lightweight championship main event between Anthony Pettis (whose record stands at 18-2) and Rafael Dos Anjos (23-7), stands in stark contrast — in many ways.

Unlike Rousey, the defending lightweight champion Pettis has only fought four times in about three years, and he competes in a division known for its parity. Unlike the sentimental favorite Zingano, Saturday’s challenger Rafael Dos Anjos just doesn’t have much of an identity to fans.

Also unlike a few weeks back, I think the fans, and the oddsmakers, may be underrating the challenger here, who will enter the cage in Dallas about a +325 underdog.

In fact those were the same odds Dos Anjos faced in his greatest win, a TKO of Benson Henderson last August. That night, the decorated jiu-jitsu competitor Dos Anjos lured Henderson into trading power shots, and shocked the crowd by stopping the former lightweight champion with a hard right.

“Unbelievable,” Brian Stann would exclaim on commentary after the stoppage. “Every time they count this kid is counted out… wow! His striking looked incredible.”

Some in the crowd boo’ed the referee’s decision to halt the action.

“It stunned the crowd,” Stann said. “No one’s seen anyone do this to Benson Henderson before.”

Similarly, the straight forward and measured Muay Thai attack of lightweight contender Donald Cerrone found the ‘jiu-jitsu artist turned slugger’ a difficult style match. Dos Anjos mixed in damaging body punches into his combinations, scoring an early knockdown and mostly keeping Cerrone on his back heel.

That’s Dos Anjos, who also shows good top pressure and a solid grappling game. He’s not a counter puncher and he doesn’t come off terribly creative or flashy. He doesn’t dance or shuffle. He throws power shots, including some of the division’s hardest leg kicks, and slowly walks opponents down.

In his only losses in recent years, he’s found himself ‘grounded out’ — something Pettis, given his skill set and temperament, is unlikely to try. It’s not hard to imagine the champion running into one of those big shots trying to impose his own striking.

But then, the truth is Dos Anjos hasn’t seen anything like “Showtime” Pettis either.

Looking through the champion’s film, you’ll find an explosive striker with a dynamic style — often switching leads like many of his Tae Kwon Do ilk, and landing damaging kicks and punches.

The champion made quick work of a common opponent in Donald Cerrone, with body kicks from southpaw stance when they fought. Those came after Pettis strafed him with right hands.

Pettis didn’t set the body kicks up so much when he won the title from another common opponent in Benson Henderson; he simply cracked the southpaw a half dozen consecutive times from an orthodox stance. The fight quickly went to the mat, and Pettis snared a slick armbar from guard to end the bout.

In his last bout, Pettis out-struck Gilbert Melendez after a struggle against the cage, where Melendez seemed to have the edge. Then, a guillotine in transition sealed the victory, and Pettis kept his belt. Melendez had never been finished in his 25 fight MMA career.

So, who takes it?

While the line seems uncharitable, I have to agree that Pettis is the favorite. His movement is likely enough to keep away from Dos Anjos’ power. Look for some difficult times early on as Dos Anjos looks to impose his will in the clinch and on the mat. But I like Pettis to turn the tide with his dynamic striking game — finding range for his combinations to head and body, and getting a TKO stoppage in the fourth.

As always, enjoy the fights.