The Ultimate Fighting Championship just keeps hitting doubles. The promotional had trouble finding a main event for UFC on ESPN 4 this Saturday in San Antonio, Texas, but settled on Rafael dos Anjos-Leon Edwards -- a perfectly suitable fight to help shake out things at 170 pounds and supplement a solid lineup. Everything here has an angle, whether it comes in important fights from the lightweight Top 20, well-known veterans or even some exciting prospects on the deeper prelims.
Now to the UFC on ESPN 4 preview:
WelterweightsRafael dos Anjos (29-11) vs. Leon Edwards (17-3)
ODDS: Edwards (-120), dos Anjos (+100)
God bless dos Anjos, who has at least temporarily settled in as a gatekeeper to the welterweight elite while thanklessly being put in the path of every tough young fighter rising through the ranks at 170 pounds. Dos Anjos is the go-to example of overcoming a tough start to his UFC career. After losing his first two fights in the Octagon, including an obliteration at the hands of Jeremy Stephens, dos Anjos worked his way up through the lightweight mid-card and eventually won 10 of 11 fights, which included a dominant title win over Anthony Pettis and a 66-second finish of Donald Cerrone. However, dos Anjos surrendered the lightweight crown in an upset loss to Eddie Alvarez, and after dropping a follow-up fight against Tony Ferguson, the former lightweight champ decided to ply his trade up a weight class. Early returns were good. Dos Anjos’ game truly came together as a lightweight once his striking and ability to pressure clicked, and through his first three fights at welterweight, he managed to do much of the same. Still, the Brazilian soon ran into variation after variation of what has traditionally been his toughest style matchup: powerful, aggressive wrestlers. Even during dos Anjos’ lightweight days, Khabib Nurmagomedov managed to neutralize the Rafael Cordeiro protégé by forcing him backwards with constant pressure and grinding clinches of his own; and Colby Covington and Kamaru Usman managed to follow similar game plans to hand dos Anjos a winless 2018. In May, the UFC matched dos Anjos against yet another opponent in the same mold in Kevin Lee, but this time around, dos Anjos saw fit to remind everyone that he is still an elite fighter. While the narrative coming out of the bout was more about Lee fighting at a pace he could not keep, dos Anjos still hung with him in exchange after exchange until he outlasted the Xtreme Couture rep. Even with a win, it is back to yeoman’s work for dos Anjos. The UFC needed a main event for this card, so he has stepped up to the plate to take on yet another underrated talent in England’s Edwards.
It took a while, but Edwards’ transformation as a fighter is fully paying off. Coming into the UFC, the Birmingham native was touted as a one-shot knockout artist, but after losing his debut in the face of Claudio Henrique da Silva’s aggressive grappling, “Rocky” decided to change things, focusing more on grinding out wins himself. In retrospect, the fact that Edwards managed to hang with Kamaru Usman in a 2015 bout was probably the turning point for his wrestling, but it has taken a seven-fight winning streak for him to finally get noticed as an effective fighter on all terrains. Edwards’ dynamic finishes are sorely missed -- though he did still manage to score an eight-second knockout of Seth Baczynski early in his UFC tenure -- but wins over names like Cerrone, Vicente Luque and Gunnar Nelson more than make up for any Q rating Edwards may have lost moving up the ladder. The Nelson win was a realization of all the progress Edwards has made, as the Brit mostly neutralized a dangerous submission artist where he would have figured to be at his most dangerous. Coming off of that win, the obvious fight seemed to be Edwards-Jorge Masvidal after the two had an altercation backstage in London. Instead, Masvidal may have flying kneed his way right into the championship picture, and a win over dos Anjos would put Edwards right behind him.
This is a difficult fight to call, but the overall style matchup probably favors dos Anjos. In turning himself into a slow-paced all-terrain fighter, Edwards just does not bring the type of pressure that has typically kept dos Anjos on the defensive, so it will likely be the Brazilian staying aggressive and dictating the terms of the bout. The main concern is that Edwards still might just be strong enough in the clinch to turn things around on dos Anjos, whether or not he is the one forcing those battles. Again, Edwards hung tough with Usman just as he was trying to transition his style, and while Cerrone and Nelson managed to have their moments, “Rocky” either escaped danger or purely turned the tide on his opponent. Plus, Edwards is a proven 25-minute fighter at this point, so he will not have the type of cardio issues that got dos Anjos his last win against Lee. Without being able to calibrate who the stronger clinch fighter is in a strength-versus-strength matchup, the pick is dos Anjos via decision since he is the one likelier to be forcing the action and winning rounds. Even so, this is still some excellent matchmaking that should say a lot about Edwards’ worth as a title contender.
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