It’s taken 15 fights and a No. 5 ranking in the lightweight division for Rafael dos Anjos to finally reach main event status in the UFC and you won’t find a happier headliner in the entire company than this veteran Brazilian fighter.
Starting his UFC career six years ago, dos Anjos saw the ups and downs of jumping in the pool of sharks that is the lightweight division, but recently he’s come into his own with wins in six out of his last seven fights and a chance to take the biggest step forward in his career Saturday night as he faces former champion Benson Henderson.
"It’s my first main event against a former champion and I’m really happy with this opportunity that the UFC is giving me. I’m just happy," dos Anjos told FOX Sports on Wednesday. "No pressure in this fight at all and I’m excited to make a statement on Saturday. I want to prove to everybody that I’m ready."
One fight ago, dos Anjos was already on the cusp of a potential title shot when he took on Dagestani machine Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC Fight Night on FOX in Orlando, Fla. While he didn’t perform poorly, dos Anjos didn’t do nearly enough to counter Nurmagomedov’s formidable wrestling and grappling game and when the fight was over his five fight win streak was at an end along with his hopes of fighting for the UFC gold later this year.
Looking back on the experience, dos Anjos can pinpoint where things went wrong and much of it had nothing to do with Nurmagomedov on that particular night.
I think I’m stronger than him. I’ve been in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world a long time. I see a lot of holes in his game and I’m going to take advantage of that
— Rafael dos Anjos
"The fight against Khabib, after I fought against (Donald) Cerrone and I took an eight month break. I was supposed to fight against (Rustam) Khabilov, but he got injured and we got rescheduled and I ended up taking like eight months off between fights. That wasn’t good for me at all. I don’t want to make any excuses, but I think the long time off fighting was not good for me," dos Anjos revealed.
"I was feeling a lot of pressure in that fight because I was coming in with a win streak and if I lost I would go back to the end of the line. But I’m still here, I’m in the main event. I learned with that fight and I feel no pressure in this fight and really confident now."
Dos Anjos bounced back in quick order dispatching of Jason High in the second round of their matchup back in June, which set him up for the fight this weekend against Henderson as the main event for UFC Fight Night on FOX Sports 1 from Tulsa, Oklahoma.
The 29-year old Brazilian can’t completely eliminate thoughts of title shots from dancing in his head because the only person who has defeated Henderson in his career between the UFC and WEC is current lightweight champion Anthony Pettis. If dos Anjos can go out and finish or dominate Henderson en route to a victory, he knows that will go a long way with the matchmakers in proving he could fight and win the UFC lightweight title.
"He’s a tough guy, a former champion, and I think this will be a really big step towards the belt. The belt will come, but I don’t want to think too much about it. I really want my title shot, but I’m not stuck in this thinking. I just want to fight and be exciting and that will come naturally," dos Anjos said.
"A big win over Benson Henderson Saturday night and I will fight for the title I’m sure."
Without divulging his strategy for the fight, dos Anjos knows that beating Henderson is easier said than done considering all of the top lightweights who have already fallen to him previously. It’s no secret that Henderson has had several close decisions both during his time as champion and after losing the belt last year.
Henderson seems to be a puzzle only Pettis has been able to figure out so far, but dos Anjos is confident he’s found the key to winning and putting his name alongside the current UFC champion at 155 pounds.
"I think I’m stronger than him. I’ve been in the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu world a long time, I’ve been training since I was nine years old and I earned my black belt when I was 20 years old so I’ve had nine years as a black belt. I see a lot of holes in his game and I’m going to take advantage of that," dos Anjos said.
Dos Anjos knows getting Henderson to tap out or knocking him out is a tall order, but that’s the fun part about mixed martial arts — it’s finding a way to beat the unbeatable.
Considering how tough Henderson has been throughout his career and the kind of run dos Anjos has been on lately, the top five ranked fighter knows the real winner in this fight are the fans watching in the arena and tuned in on television at home.
"He’s a really well rounded fighter. He’s got amazing cardio and he pushes the pace," dos Anjos said. "The fans will win with this fight. It will be a war."