Dos Anjos putting BJJ back on the map
RIO DE JANEIRO -- The fight game attracts many a desperate man. For some people, there is no other option than to try and fight their way out of the slums.
Rafael dos Anjos is one such man. He swapped life in a Brazilian favela for one inside the ring. Fighting in the UFC means he can provide a home and, more importantly, a future for his family. But a career as a professional fighter quite literally saved his life.
Born in favela Boa Vista in the city of Niteroi, Brazil, dos Anjos first encountered jiu-jitsu when he was eight years old.
"I trained for six months, stopped and came back when I was 12. I didn't have the money for the academy. I always wanted to go back to training. My friend Junior came to me and said 'Rafa, I found a place for you to train for free.'"
Junior, drawn into a life of crime, died over 10 years ago. For young men in the favela, options are few and most end up involved in petty crime or drug-running. Few have access to an education, and often the only employment available is sporadic, low-paid manual work.
Dos Anjos, the son of a truck driver, owes much to the Arte Suave. "Jiu-jitsu saved my life. If I didn't have jiu-jitsu, I don't know I don't know how to do anything else."
One name, two very different styles
Dos Anjos and his UFC 132 opponent Saturday, George Sotiropoulos, cut very different figures.
Short and stocky, dos Anjos is a 5-foot-7 tank with thick forearms and cauliflower ears. Sotiropoulos is a long-limbed 5-10. Surface details aside, they still couldn't be more different.
Sotiropoulos funded almost a decade's worth of various training trips abroad with a succession of white-collar jobs in his native Australia before his pro career paid for itself. Dos Anjos has never had any other career than one that involves his fists. He went pro at the age of 20, fighting because he had no other source of income.
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Dos Anjos does share one thing with his opponent: they're both extremely talented grapplers and black belts in jiu-jitsu.
A handful of fighters seem determined to make grappling fashionable again, and George Sotiropoulos is one of them. G-Sots has out-grappled almost everyone he's faced in the UFC and is championing a style of jiu-jitsu developed by former UFC analyst Eddie Bravo. A trendy fusion of aggressive submission attacks and unusual positional controls, one of the major elements of Bravo's style is the use of the half guard as an attacking position.
Though dos Anjos respects the Aussie's skills on the mat, he doesn't fear his funky techniques.
"His style is dangerous; it has some techniques and positions that are dangerous, but not too much. It's ABC jiu-jitsu," he said, describing his own style as "traditional" jiu-jitsu.
Dos Anjos trains under the watchful eye of his coach, Roberto "Gordo" Correa de Lima, a gruff and burly man in his late 40s. Gordo is considered a pioneer in the jiu-jitsu world: he invented the position known as the half guard.
"Eddie Bravo's style uses half guard," dos Anjos said. "Gordo made the half guard! For this fight we had a very good camp, and I'm very confidant."
Gordo believes Sotiropoulos' ground game is dangerous. He had issues finding a grappling partner who could emulate the Aussie's style but still believes his fighter will come out on top.
"Yeah, it's true his jiu-jitsu is very different," de Lima said. "We had a difficulty finding someone to train with who moved like George. We tried to do our best; we think Rafael is going to beat him."
Battle for Brazil
As submissions become ever more scarce in the Octagon, Brazilian fighters need to remind the world that they invented the ground game. Their grappling monopoly came to an end long ago, thwarted by submission-savvy wrestlers and kickboxers who learned how to sprawl.
But it's not just the Brazilians who struggle to make jiu-jitsu work. The finishing rate by submission in the UFC is at an all-time low. Right now there is an average of 2.5 submission finishes every UFC pay-per-view event. Five years ago, the average was closer to 3.
August's UFC 133 in Rio de Janeiro is right around the corner. Dos Anjos will be one of two Brazilian fighters on UFC 132, with Wanderlei Silva facing off against Chris Leben in the co-main event. Strong showings from dos Anjos and the Axe Murderer will do much to give their countrymen confidence ahead of the company's first trip back to South America in over a decade. Truthfully, they need it. Although high-profile stars such as Junior dos Santos, Jose Aldo and Lyoto Machida have all been successful of late, the majority of Brazilian fighters are struggling.
It was an inspired piece of matchmaking on Joe Silva's part to put a dynamo like dos Anjos in with the slick Aussie grappler. Both men can bang but are better-known as technicians on the mat. More so, they're both coming off losses and will be eager to prove they belong on the UFC roster.
"We both lost our last fight; he is angry and wants to win a fight, but I am too. I was unlucky in my last fight, I broke my jaw in the first minute, and I'm very angry and want to win inside the Octagon."
The fight dos Anjos referred to was a brutal encounter with gatekeeper Clay Guida. A right-left combination from Guida shattered dos Anjos' jaw, but the Brazilian fought on until the third round. "I broke it in the first minute. I was superior in the first round, but I knew it was broken. I tried to bite my mouthpiece and I could feel my jaw moving about and in the second round I lost my confidence."
The loss weighs heavily on dos Anjos. He spent many weeks recovering from the injury and has been out of action for 11 months. Far from leaving him rusty, it's only served to stoke the fire inside him.
"UFC fans will see a stronger, angrier fighter, and I'm going to win this fight for sure. I'm angry man, I feel really angry.
"I want to win this fight. I need to win this fight. I will win this fight."
Hywel Teague is a contributing mixed martial arts writer for ESPN.com. He is a veteran reporter and edited the international MMA magazine Fighters Only for five years.
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