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UFC 185 Preview: Pettis vs. dos Anjos

Although UFC 185 lacks the name value of some of the promotion’s recent pay-per-views, this is one of the most stacked and potentially entertaining events the Ultimate Fighting Championship has put on in quite some time. At the top of the card, lightweight champion Anthony Pettis makes a quick turnaround and puts his belt on the line against the surging Rafael dos Anjos, who has strung together three impressive wins in the last nine months to stake his claim.

The rest of the main card is no less intriguing. Women’s strawweight champion Carla Esparzadefends her title against Polish striker Joanna Jedrzejczyk in an outstanding matchup, and former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks takes on the always-dangerous Matt Brown in a scrap that promises fireworks. If that were not enough to hold the viewer’s interest, uber-talented Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo gets a huge step up against former flyweight title challenger Chris Cariaso, while Alistair Overeem tests his suspect chin against vicious puncher Roy Nelson.

This is a great card. Let us take a look at each individual matchup at UFC 185 “Pettis vs. dos Anjos” on Saturday at the American Airlines Center in Dallas:

Anthony Pettis (18-2, 5-1 UFC) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (23-7, 12-5 UFC)

THE MATCHUP: Pettis makes a quick turnaround from his first title defense, a second-round submission victory over Gilbert Melendez, and takes on longtime UFC lightweight dos Anjos. The challenger dropped a decision to Khabib Nurmagomedov in April but rebounded with knockout wins over Jason High and former champion Benson Henderson to go along with a dominant victory overNate Diaz to stake his claim as the No. 1 contender. The champion is a substantial favorite, but dos Anjos is durable and mean, and everything seems to be coming together at the right time.

Pettis is a generational talent, a marvel of athleticism, killer instinct and ridiculous dynamism. The key to understanding his approach is space: Given a choice, Pettis will always want to be out in the middle of the cage. While he is still dangerous with his back to the fence, he is infinitely more so when he can circle freely, cut subtle angles and force his opponent backward. Freedom to move allows Pettis to utilize the speed advantage he holds over almost everybody, and space gives him the room necessary to uncork his absurdly fast and powerful kicks to the head and body. He is hardly a slouch with his hands, either, having added increasingly slick punching combinations over the last three or four fights, though he can be baited into throwing wildly with his back to the cage. His defense is not outstanding, however, and he tends to rely on angles and distance rather than head movement and parries, which could be a substantial issue in exchanges close to the fence.

Wrestling is nowhere near the problem it was for Pettis early in his career. He defends takedowns well in open space with a quick sprawl and uses the cage nicely if backed up. He is vulnerable to losing large chunks of time grinding against the fence, however, which limits opportunities for him to finish. On his back, Pettis is one of the most aggressive and dangerous guard players in the sport and immediately looks to secure wrist control or overhooks to work for triangles and armbars. He scrambles beautifully and can find the back in a heartbeat.

Dos Anjos has made incredible improvements to his game since coming under the tutelage ofRafael Cordeiro. Always an exceptional athlete, his full repertoire of skills has finally caught up to his prodigious physical talent, especially as a striker. He circles nicely and takes clean angles at range, strings together nice punch-kick combinations that work all three levels — head, body and legs — together. His strikes pack an absolute wallop. Even in a division stacked with powerful kickers, dos Anjos stands out from the pack. He kicks like a Thai, attacking the same spot over and over until the opponent proves he can deal with his sheer force and ferocity. Most of his game at range is predicated on intelligent pressure and moving forward toward the cage, and he throws the occasional flying knee when his opponent is backed up with nowhere to go. Striking defense is also a strong suit: dos Anjos rarely stands in his opponent’s range without moving his head and only has occasional trouble even while exchanging in the pocket.

The challenger is a good wrestler, if not an outstanding one. He shoots a nice double, especially against the cage, and finishes his shots with authority. His defensive skills are solid, but he has struggled with the elite wrestlers in the division, particularly against chained takedown attempts. On the ground, the longtime Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt shows off a heavy base, nice passes and strong posture that allows him to drop bombs on passive opponents. His guard is active and defensively sound, if not terribly dangerous.

BETTING ODDS: Pettis (-430), dos Anjos (+345)

THE PICK: This shapes up as an interesting matchup, particularly on the feet. Pressure has been a problem for Pettis before: Henderson and Melendez both succeeded in pinning him close to the fence for extended periods of time, taking away his free movement and much of the depth of his striking repertoire. Dos Anjos has shown the ability to do the same thing, and if he focuses on forcing Pettis to fight in the pocket and in the clinch with his back to the cage, he has a strong chance of making this a difficult night for the champion. I think that will be the case for most of the early going in this fight. Dos Anjos is durable and perfectly willing to walk through his opponent’s shots to impose his own game, but that only works for so long against a striker as dangerous as Pettis. Eventually, I think dos Anjos will walk into a high kick or uppercut while moving forward. The pick is Pettis by knockout in the third round.

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