Rafael dos Anjos put on a beautiful display of pressure fighting at UFC Singapore against a tough opponent in Tarec Saffiedine. We examine the tactics that brought the former Lightweight champion to victory in his Welterweight debut.
The UFC’s return to Singapore failed to garner much hype when it was announced. Unsurprising, considering the card holds the honour of having the lowest combined momentum between its fighters of any card in UFC history. Largely delivered on its promise of mediocrity, with one notable exception. Rafael dos Anjos and Tarec Saffiedine kicked the main card off with some excellent violence.
This fight was a must-win for both men. Dos Anjos came in on a two-fight skid after losing his Lightweight title to Eddie Alvarez by first round knockout and dropping a hard-fought decision to Lightweight contender, Tony Ferguson. Saffiedine entered on a two-fight skid as well, with a controversial decision loss to Dong Hyun Kim and a clear-cut decision loss to Rick Story.
Both men had a chance to wipe the slate clean with a win. Dos Anjos aimed to reinvent himself at a higher weight class, while Saffiedine looked to spoil the Welterweight debut of the former Lightweight champ and claw himself back into the win column.
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When discussing dos Anjos, the first thing that comes to mind is his relentless pressure. Though it was notably absent in his last fight against Ferguson due to some strategic directions regarding the stylistic matchup, his pressure game made a triumphant return against Saffiedine. Dos Anjos is constantly advancing, eating up space with feints and attacks, and moving in on diagonals to take away his opponent’s escape routes.
Dos Anjos is constantly advancing, eating up space with feints and attacks, and moving in on diagonals to take away his opponent’s escape routes.
Diagonal movement is necessary to keep an opponent against the fence, but strikes themselves can be an excellent deterrent to movement. Linear strikes impede forward movement and thus can be used to jam the pressure fighter’s advance, but sweeping strikes work in the other direction, cutting off lateral movement and forcing the recipient to stand in place.
Dos Anjos is famous for his southpaw round kick to the body and he used it to great effect against Saffiedine. When Saffiedine circled toward dos Anjos’ open side, dos Anjos would fire off the kick to impede his lateral movement and stand him still for punches.
When Saffiedine circled into his lead hand, dos Anjos would dig in brutal hooks to the body.
Dos Anjos also showed off a tool that played a role in his most recent defeat, adapting the kicks with the ball of the foot that Ferguson hit him with repeatedly to cut off Saffiedine’s circling and pierce his gas tank.
The effects of dos Anjos’ pressure compounded over the fight. The more he forced Saffiedine’s back to the cage, the more desperate Saffiedine became to escape, and the less concerned he was about hitting dos Anjos. With Saffiedine solely focused on escaping the pressure, dos Anjos was free to tag him as he circled off the fence.
One aspect of effective pressure fighting that tends to be overlooked is the defensive side. When a fighter’s game relies on coming forward relentlessly, he’s bound to get hit more often due to the amount of time spent within his opponent’s range. As a result of this dynamic, pressure fighters such as dos Anjos, Anthony Johnson, and Conor McGregor are often underrated defensively. Most of the best pressure fighters have a sound defensive system to mitigate that truth and limit the opportunities to land clean shots on them.
Dos Anjos is one of the best examples of an effective high guard in MMA. Studying dos Anjos’ use of the high guard does as much to bust the myth of “hands up” being the default recommended defensive position in MMA as studying Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson.
Very little of what dos Anjos does with his guard can be summed up with the phrase. Dos Anjos demonstrates that, in order to be used effectively, the high guard must be every bit as responsive as the footwork-first defense of a Wonderboy or Holly Holm, if not more so.
It’s not as simple as adopting a guard, or merely holding the hands high, and expecting shots to start bouncing off your arms. A good block must respond to the strike thrown in the same way a good slip does. Eating a shot blind on the guard can knock the recipient off balance and leave him open for followups, and there’s no guarantee a blind cover-up is sufficient to block a strike, especially with 5-ounce gloves.
An important skill for anyone using an active guard is the ability to discern in a split second which method of defense is most appropriate based on the opponent’s range, position, and attack patterns.
Dos Anjos sees Saffiedine’s hooks coming and rolls under them, keeping his guard up on the same side of the hook to cover his head movement.
Here Saffiedine leads with a jab from outside and dos Anjos adjusts his response accordingly. He parries the jab and keeps his lead arm tight to his head, denying Saffiedine’s follow-up straight. After throwing the straight, Saffiedine’s weight is on his lead leg and his center of gravity is moving toward his left.
The only punches he can immediately throw from here are a lead hook or a messy lead uppercut that won’t have proper weight transfer. Dos Anjos quickly senses Saffiedine’s most likely move from this position, tilting his lead arm horizontally across his face to cover the hook.
Another advantage of the high guard is that it provides a strong position for entering the clinch, as well as keeping the hands high to frame in response to an opponent’s clinch attempt.
Saffiedine tries to step into the clinch and wrap dos Anjos’ head, but the high, tight guard allows dos Anjos to control the inside position and prop Saffiedine’s chin up with his elbow to solidify a collar tie and start pushing him back.
The high guard is not without its downsides, however. A guard that relies on creating barriers between a strike and its target can be subject to having those barriers manipulated. Eddie Alvarez accomplished this against dos Anjos by pairing straights down the pipe with wide rear hooks, leaving dos Anjos unsure where to position his rear forearm whenever Alvarez swung at him.
Saffiedine had success pairing his southpaw jab with a lead hook, manipulating the position of dos Anjos’ rear hand. Though when he went back to it later in the fight, dos Anjos was able to cover successfully.
Although Saffiedine was overwhelmed by dos Anjos’ pressure, he did a far job of mitigating it.
Saffiedine used the inside leg kicks that troubled dos Anjos against Alvarez to break his stance when he stepped forward and briefly stave off the pressure.
I’ve written in the past about the advantages of stepping in and closing distance as an out fighter facing an aggressive pressure fighter. Saffiedine was often lead into body shots when he tried to circle out but had success stepping into the clinch and shifting back to the center of the Octagon around dos Anjos when pressed.
Saffiedine closes distance to take his back off the fence.
Saffiedine did a good job of using his footwork to interrupt dos Anjos’ pressure by pivoting away and changing directions along the cage, but he was unable to match the potency of dos Anjos’ offense. Ultimately dos Anjos didn’t have to worry about losing track of Saffiedine’s position in the cage because he knew he could just walk back up to him and start from scratch. Saffiedine used his jab in exchanges well to keep himself at range, but he largely failed to land meaningful counters that would score and generate threat to prevent dos Anjos from walking in on him.
Saffiedine lands a check hook while pivoting away and resetting his position, but it doesn’t land especially hard and dos Anjos is content to walk him down again.
Saffiedine would often try to sneak off the cage by sidestepping from orthodox or southpaw into the opposite stance, but dos Anjos had little trouble cutting him off from his new stance.
Saffiedine steps back into orthodox and takes a step to his right, only to be cut off by a dos Anjos body kick. He sidesteps into southpaw, but drifts too close to dos Anjos and eats a jab. Dos Anjos was able to keep up with the stance switches throughout the fight due to Saffiedine’s failure to generate threat.
Let’s compare Saffiedine’s use of the switch-step to Cedric Doumbe, who used it to great success against Nieky Holzken at Glory 42 last weekend.
Doumbe sidesteps into southpaw to circle out along the ropes. Holzken looks to cut him off with a leg kick, but Doumbe has set his preferred distance and is able to safely pull back. Doumbe was able to control distance and keep Holzken’s pressure at bay because he was successful in generating threat.
Doumbe takes that same sidestep, but this time as Holzken advances, he’s met with a combo that pushes him back. Doumbe quickly taught Holzken that he would be hurt if he didn’t reign in his aggressiveness, while dos Anjos never learned the same lesson.
Dos Anjos displayed some new wrinkles in the clinch, adopting a Thai clinch lock rarely seen in fights outside of Thailand.
Dos Anjos’ left arm is in a collar tie position with the forearm blocking Saffiedine from collapsing the distance, while his right arm wraps around the head and locks onto his left to control Saffiedine’s head. Dos Anjos’ forehead is aimed right at Saffiedine’s jaw, putting painful pressure on it and offering him better posture control.
Dos Anjos’ right arm is on the outside, which is less than ideal in a pure Muay Thai setting, but a useful adaptation in MMA as it further prevents Saffiedine from getting a bodylock. When Saffiedine brought his hands up to fight the lock, dos Anjos would shoot for a takedown on the exposed hips.
It’s likely he picked this up from his time at Singapore’s own Evolve MMA, which offers instruction from elite Nak Muays such as Sam-A and Sagetdao. The technique could be cleaned up a bit – the “S” grip creates more space to swim in than a gable or wrist-on-wrist grip, and dos Anjos seems to use it as a control position rather than the transitory staging point for attacks it’s treated as in Muay Thai – but he was able to lock it up on Saffiedine repeatedly and use it to land devastating knees.
The double collar tie is often thought of as the essence of the “Thai clinch,” but in reality the clinching of Thais is an incredibly complex game of transitions, strategies, and tactics (of which the double collar tie is a very small, relatively unimportant part). The Thai clinch isn’t well understood or represented even in Muay Thai outside of Thailand, let alone MMA.
Dos Anjos having so much success with one tactic from the Thai clinch against a top 10 Welterweight shows how much room there is for adapting Thai clinching tactics and strategies into MMA. Imagine a skilled Nak Muay who can defend takedowns well enough to work a similar clinch game – pulling his opponents off balance and sweeping them when they shift their weight to pummel in, transitioning seamlessly between control positions and working in elbows and knees.
Dos Anjos also had success using the double collar tie to create space and get his back off the fence. He starts out controlling the head with a collar tie on one side and overhooking on the other side to prevent being flattened to the cage with a body lock, and only slaps on the double collar tie when he’s ready to angle off. Note also how dos Anjos immediately establishes head position as he turns into Saffiedine.
This sequence perfectly sums up dos Anjos’ fusion of two very different methodologies in his clinch game. Dos Anjos pulls Saffiedine toward his overhook and when Saffiedine provides resistance, he slaps on the double collar tie and angles out in the other direction, landing a knee as he pulls Saffiedine’s head down. He continues angling out while pulling the head down to break Saffiedine’s posture and locks up the front headlock when it’s low enough, before angling out in the opposite direction and snapping him down.
The untapped potential in adapting other martial arts to MMA is still vast. Muay Thai has plenty of techniques and tactics to offer MMA fighters that aren’t currently in widespread use. Sanda could no doubt prove a valuable resource, as most MMA fighters can’t catch kicks for beans, and of course arts have been well adapted among MMA fighters such as boxing, various karate styles, and taekwondo still have plenty of room left for further adaptation.
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Dos Anjos put on an impressive performance in his Welterweight debut and demonstrated some improvements to not only in his own game but the metagame of MMA as a whole. I look forward to seeing the continued development of dos Anjos’ Thai-inspired clinch game and hope to see other fighters follow suit.