Rafael dos Anjos is a professional mixed-martial artist, and is paid big bucks for his ability to “bring the pain”, so you can understand my horror when I found out I had been volunteered as a training dummy for him to demonstrate some moves on. The man is an aggressive striker, and a formidable grappler with a fight record of 25 wins and nine losses. Before the former UFC Lightweight Champion started twisting my limbs and choking the life out of me, we had a nice and civil conversation about his life and career.
How did you start beating people up for sport?
(laughs) Are you talking about martial arts? I started training when I was eight years old. I was a hyperactive kid so it was a good way for me to use up my energy. I never stopped training, and ended up taking on my first professional fight when I was 19.
Rio de Janeiro is a tough place to grow up in but my neighbourhood was particularly rough, so everything I have today, I owe it to martial arts. I even got to know my closest friends, the people I trust the most, through martial arts. It kept me out of trouble.
So, why Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)?
At the time, a friend and I used to go to Blockbuster to rent tapes a few times a week. One of my all-time favourite tapes was of Vale Tudo Japan 1994, an MMA tournament where Rickson Gracie beat three huge guys in one night, using Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ). It was amazing. That really got my attention and became my biggest motivation to move towards MMA.
Tell me more about your first fight.
Usually, when you enter a BJJ tournament, you have to pay an entry fee. This fight, was a little different. At the time I held a BJJ brown belt, and some guy called me and said he’d pay me $200 to fight Adriano Abu in four days’ time. I’d never seen that much money before so of course I said yes.
But you lost that fight.
It was tough, but I didn’t think I lost. It was a split decision and we were fighting in his city, so of course he won. He had home advantage and it didn’t help that his mother was a big supporter of that particular fight promotional company.
In the first round, they rang the bell after three minutes instead of five because I was in a better position, on top of him. But, it didn’t matter to me though.
Two weeks later I fought Joao Paulo Almeida and won. That’s when my MMA career really took off.
Weight cut is a difficult part of the sport, and we understand you were suffering because of it right before the Alvarez fight. What happened?
Fighters want to have the size advantage over their opponents. Bigger, meaner, stronger. But having to cut weight before weigh-ins is tough. It was too much for me right before the Alvarez fight. I passed out three times before that fight. I almost didn’t make that fight. Looking back right now, I should’ve cancelled it. But I believe things happen for a reason. Anyways, I’ve decided to make the move to welterweight now, so we’ll see.
Fighters like Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone seem to have done better in the welterweight division. Do you think it’ll be the case for you too?
Sure, sure. I actually feel I haven’t fought at my best because I’ve always had to cut a lot of weight. I think at welterweight I’ll be fighting at 100%.
What would you say has been the toughest moment of your career?
It was probably when I broke my jaw fighting against Clay Guida. If I’m being honest, I thought my career was over, but that was when I came to Singapore. I stepped back, took account of my life and decided to put everything into my training. I worked my ass off and managed to bounce back, going on two winning streaks after that.
You managed to shut down Anthony Pettis to win the UFC Lightweight Title. Did you expect it to be easy?
It wasn’t easy, man. It may have looked easy, but I assure you it was not. Anthony Pettis is a dangerous guy. A lot of people forget, when I fought him, he was the number one pound-for-pound fighter in the world. He wasn’t just the lightweight champ. But I beat him. I was glad I was able to put my whole strategy and game plan to work, and win the title.
How did that feel?
It felt great, man. It was amazing. I’ll never forget that day.
How does it feel to be fighting in Singapore?
It’s brilliant. I’ve always said, Singapore is my home in asia, and I love this place. I have a great connection with my team at Evolve, and I have a lot of friends that live here. I also have many supporters in Singapore so I can’t wait to fight in front of them. It’s going to be great.
What’s the gameplan going to be like against Tarec?
It’s going to be the same as always. Keep moving forward, throw heavy punches, and push the pace. I’ll need to bring my “A” game, because the first one that gets tired is going to lose the fight. And that won’t be me (laughs).
Rafael dos Anjos will take on Tarec “Sponge” Saffiedine in a welterweight bout at Fight Night Singapore, happening on 17 July at Singapore Indoor Stadium. If you haven’t gotten your tickets, get them here.