Rafael dos Anjos is riding a six-fight winning streak and is also ranked at No. 6 in the lightweight division. He is taking on the undefeated Dagestani Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC on Fox 11 next month in a fight that will have massive implications for the 155-pound title picture.
Of the fighters above him No. 1 ranked Benson Henderson is coming off a lackluster win over No. 4 ranked Josh Thomson, while No. 5 ranked Nate Diaz recently asked to be released by the UFC. No. 2 ranked Gilbert Melendez is set to coach opposite reigning champion Anthony Pettis at The Ultimate Fighter 20 and No. 3 ranked TJ Grant is sidelined with a troublesome concussion.
TUF 20 isn’t set to start broadcasting until September, so it’s unlikely Pettis will fight anyone other than Melendez this year, but dos Anjos believes a win over Nurmagomedov should leave him in pole position for a shot at the winner of that match.
“I hope that a win over [Nurmagomedov] gives me a chance for the title. I’ve been working hard for that and it will be six wins in a roll,” he told MMAWeekly.com.
Dos Anjos was disappointed to initially be matched with Rustam Khabilov because he is barely in the top 15 in the division. To gain a chance at a title shot it’s normally necessary to work your way through higher ranked opponents.
When Khabilov pulled out with an injury and Melendez’s proposed fight with Nurmagomedov was put on hold while he negotiated with Bellator, the obvious move for the UFC was to turn the two proposed bouts between top lightweight contenders into one and that is exactly what happened.
While dos Anjos’s schedule was set back by a month or two, he is happy to finally get the match-up he feels he deserves.
“A win over Khabib will be a big step forward. Khabilov is a thought opponent, but the fight against Khabib makes more sense for me,” he said.
Khabilov and Nurmagomedov come from the same region in Russia and both have a background in Combat Sambo. Although the latter is higher ranked and has more experience, they fight in a similar style and dos Anjos believes this was a factor in his favor when the switch was made.
“They are very similar, so I will not make big changes on my training. I'm pretty sure my ground game is better than Khabib’s, but we’re going to fight MMA; it’s another game,” he said.
Dos Anjos was initially set to fight at UFC 170, which took place a couple of weeks ago, but is now not going to see action until April 19. It means he has had to make some adjustments to his training schedule, but says there is no danger he will be burned out by the time his fight with Nurmagomedov comes around.
“I took some rest so I don't run myself down and now I'm back to hard training again. I was training two times a day, six days a week. As soon I got a notice that my opponent got hurt, I decreased the training for once a day. Now I'm back to my full schedule.”
While the booking of the seemingly Bellator bound Melendez alongside Pettis to coach TUF 20 has at least made the title picture clearer, one great unknown is the much talked about possibility of reigning 145-pound champion Jose Aldo moving up a division.
Aldo ranks considerably higher than any of the current lightweights in the pound-for-pound list and could possibly be granted an immediate title shot if he did decide to move up, but dos Anjos hopes his compatriot will remain at 145 pounds.
“I think he should stay on his weight division. If he moves to 155 pounds and get a title shot it’s not going to be good for the others fighters who are waiting for their chances, like me, and also for the fighters of 145 pounds that are waiting too. It’s not going to be good for both weight divisions.”
Dos Anjos is desperate to become the first ever Brazilian to wear the lightweight belt despite the palpable lack of enthusiasm from the organization, which has surprisingly decided to only award his UFC on Fox 11 bout with Nurmagomedov preliminary card status.
It’s possible that part of the problem could be that dos Anjos hasn’t been finishing fights recently. His last four have all gone the distance, but he says putting elite level opponent’s away is easier said than done.
“I never get into a fight to win by decision, but some time it’s hard to finish the fight.”
If dos Anjos does defeat Nurmagomedov, he will potentially be faced with a dilemma. Does he sit on the sidelines for the better part of a year to wait for a winner to emerge from the Melendez vs. Pettis fight or take another high-risk fight against a top contender?
It’s a question which only the UFC matchmakers can answer, but if dos Anjos’ wish to fight for the title next isn’t granted then there is another ambition which he hopes to realize.
“It would be awesome to fight in Singapore. I feel like home there. I have many friends there and I had my full camp at Evolve MMA before UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi in 2010 and would love to have another full camp at Evolve MMA. It's the best place to train in the earth,” he said.
Dos Anjos is currently based at Kings MMA and Calvary Chapel in Southern of California, where he prepares for most of his Western hemisphere fights. He may not be a fighter that hogs the headlines, but the 26-year-old’s recent results speak for themselves and he believes fervently that his time will come.
“I'm one of the most underrated fighters in the UFC,” he said. “With hard work and my faith in Jesus my chance will come for sure.”
(Folllow @JamesGoyder on Twitter)