MICHAEL BANE, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
Rafael Dos Anjos could be in for a lengthier title run than initially anticipated if Saturday’s match is any indication of how far his skills have come. He put his foot on the gas and never let up in his absolute destruction of Donald Cerrone. Dos Anjos is showing power and technique in all areas of MMA at the moment, and his ferocity is making for a very scary opponent. There’s two logical and likely choices for the next bout, and an also logical, but less likely option.
Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis face off in the middle of January, with the winner being the most sensible option for a title fight. The timing works out right, assuming no injuries, and they’re both top four ranked fighters in the lightweight division. Alvarez picked up his first UFC win by defeating Gilbert Melendez back in June, despite suffering a broken orbital bone. He also made the mistake of trying to clear his nose when it was, in fact, broken, and blew his own eye up like a balloon, killing his depth perception. The tremendous attrition he showed demonstrated a willingness to dig deep that would come in useful against dos Anjos.
Pettis has the advantage of being Pettis. He’s a good looking, exciting fighter whom the UFC will gladly find a way to get back into a title fight. His title loss to dos Anjos wasn’t really close, but in addition to being a fan favorite, there aren’t a lot of other good choices at 155 pounds. Pettis got smacked early, and never really recovered enough to fight of dos Anjos smothering attack. Pettis has shown an ability to win fights from almost anywhere, and if he can avoid getting thrown off his game early, he’s one of the best at finding openings to finish a fight where others wouldn’t.
The less likely option is Khabib Nurmagomedov. Nurmagomedov is a perfect 22-0 in his MMA career. He also holds the distinction of being the last man to beat dos Anjos. Unfortunately Nurmagomedov that victory was also his last victory, and was almost two years ago. “The Eagle” has suffered injury after injury, and his new timeline has him returning to the Octagon by March at the earliest. Assuming he does make it back, the timing of a championship shot off of a victory for him may not work as well as the winner of Alvarez vs. Pettis. Nurmagomedov’s smothering wrestling game makes him a great foil to the champ’s reign, as he has shown an ability to control the fight from start to finish.
Out of the three mentioned, Nurmagomedov would logically stand the best chance of winning, as he has already beaten him. Assuming he is able to come back fully healthy, it’s possible he throws dos Anjos around like he did in their first fight. Dos Anjos has improved a lot in his wrestling and power, and he’s far more dynamic than the Russian in his striking. He may be able to avoid a repeat of the last fight. I’d love to see Pettis capture the belt again, but I think Alvarez would have a better chance of surviving a dos Anjos barrage and digging deep to gut out a decision. Alvarez is a fine fighter all around, and can take a beating and keep swinging with the best of them. Pettis would have the better chance of finishing the fight, but dos Anjos is getting better and better and taking away openings for fighters to capitalize on. At this juncture, I see at least one more successful title defense for dos Anjos. If he can beat Nurmagomedov whenever he comes back, we could see the dos Anjos era become a rather lengthy one.
FRANK HYDEN, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
I think you go with Tony Ferguson. He’s won seven in a row and has as good a case for a title shot as anyone. If Eddie Alvarez beats Anthony Pettis next month, then maybe you give him the shot, though. I still favor Ferguson. I think he’s done enough. No one is head and shoulders ahead of anyone else, so you go with Ferguson based on his win streak.
That said, there’s no way I’m picking anyone to beat dos Anjos. He’s been way too impressive. I can’t go against him. The way he took Cerrone apart was so thorough that it makes you wonder if dos Anjos can lose period. His submission skills are fantastic, and now his striking is at an equal level. How are you going to beat him? Maybe you catch him with an expected kick or punch, but that’s easier said than done. As it stands now, dos Anjos beats anyone they put him in there with.
DAYNE FOX, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
If it isn’t going to be McGregor (and I don’t think it will be), Tony Ferguson is the obvious choice. He has won seven fights in a row with five finishes in that streak of victories, while his constant pressure and unorthodox wrestling tactics make him an entertaining watch. Can he win? I don’t think so. Ferguson takes a lot of risks that fortunately haven’t been exposed by his opponents. Dos Anjos is the type of guy who can expose those type of risks. Khabib Nurmagomedov proved that dos Anjos isn’t infallible, but Ferguson’s wrestling isn’t strong enough to dethrone the champ.
BRAD WALKER, MMATORCH COLUMNIST
Honestly the next best guy in line is Khabib Nurmagomedov, and after him Anthony Pettis. Dos Anjos is a very different kind of dominant for the division usually it’s a guy who counters well or wrestles powerfully. Dos Anjos does everything without wasted movement and whatever they’re teaching him over at Kings MMA is surely aiding his game because he’s become an absolute killer.
DAN MOORE, MMATORCH UK COLUMNIST
In a division full of superstar talent, it’s amazing that no one clearly stands out as truly deserving of a title shot. Khabib Nurmagomedov was that man, but he’s frustratingly injury prone, can’t be relied upon, and, needs to fight someone else first. Eddie Alvarez couldn’t beat the guy that just got destroyed by the champion, yet, wins over Gilbert Melendez and Anthony Pettis may just swing it in his favour. Pettis himself has name value but dos Anjos dominated him nine-months ago, only an incredibly exciting win over Alvarez will keep him in the short-term mix.
Tony Ferguson has the best win record and is in great form, but victories over Josh Thomson and Edson Barboza are stepping stone wins. In almost every circumstances they’re not worthy of a title shot. However, with no one else more deserving, and assuming McGregor stays at Featherweight for now, it’s Ferguson who’s most likely to get the next shot as a stop-gap challenger if only by process of elimination.
RICH HANSEN, MMATORCH COLUMNIST
I think Tony Ferguson is getting the next shot, regardless of how the upcoming fight between Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis plays out. If Alvarez beats Pettis, he still has the stigma of getting whipped by Donald Cerrone attached to his name. Considering what the sitting champion (and Anthony Pettis as well) did to Cerrone, that’s going to be hard to overcome. If Pettis beats Alvarez, I just don’t think one win over a guy who isn’t a Dana-guy is going to be enough. Had he been remotely competitive against dos Anjos in dropping his title, had Alvarez a bigger UFC resume, had Pettis more than one total win after dropping the belt to dos Anjos, I would be on board with Pettis getting the shot with a sole win against Alvarez.
CASH NORMAN, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR
People act as if Rafael Dos Anjos is some un-defeatable force because he dispatched of Donald Cerrone, who has a history of being susceptible to kicks to the body. Cerrone was badly hurt from a knee to the body thrown by Melvin Guillard before he came back to dispatch him. Again Cerrone was badly hurt by a body blow before being polished off by Anthony Pettis. My question is, why are people surprised that dos Anjos was nearly able to disembowel Cerrone in their fight for the belt? It seems only logical that if Donald Cerrone has shown any glaring weaknesses it is his inability to take body blows.
As far as contenders that could dos Anjos, off the top of my head, I think that Tony Ferguson could give him problems. I know everyone will say Khabib Nurmagomedov because he’s the last guy to beat dos Anjos. However, I think Nurmagdemov has holes in his striking that, given a second opportunity, dos Anjos would be able to exploit.
Should the UFC give Conor McGregor the shot at lightweight? I have mixed feelings about whether McGregor should receive an automatic title fight. The lightweight division has a ton of depth and fighters like Donald Cerrone and Tony Ferguson have to go on 6-7 fight win streaks in order to earn a title shot. Already in a fighters career you’re looking at 2-3 years to get to that position, unless you’re Cerrone and fight 4-6 times per year. However, as Conor McGregor is now the “it” guy in the UFC going to lightweight brings greater attention to the division as well as more money for the guys fighting him. Either way, I think it’s problematic but exciting too.