Earlier in the week, former UFC lightweight champion #RafaelDosAnjos announced his departure from #KingsMMA and long-time striking coach Rafael Cordeiro, intent on founding his own gym. Though the split was amicable, with dos Anjos spending the first half of his camp with Cordeiro for his upcoming bout against #TonyFerguson at UFC Fight Night 98, it is nonetheless one of the more perplexing camp shifts in recent memory.
Camps, even major and credentialed ones such as #JacksonWink MMA and #Alliance MMA, can sometimes produce middling results, even when presented with stellar athletic talent. The reasons for this are numerous. However athletically gifted, all fighters have innate predispositions towards or against certain facets of the game; be it a preference for aggression or passivity, outside striking or pocket boxing, personality is a core component on top of which fighting styles are built. Though many fighters are flexible and capable of adjusting to a style which does not suit them, to fight out of type is mentally tiring and often an unnecessarily difficult proposition.
All coaches have habits and preferences for certain techniques which are often instilled in their students. In many ways, a coach’s character shines through in the techniques of his students; for example, a fighter trained by Henri Hooft of the #Blackzilians displays many of the hallmarks of Hooft himself, and the similarities between the approaches of his students are evident.
Hooft teaches aggression, constant forward motion and solid Dutch-style fundamental kickboxing. This is not a flaw. Fighters such as Anthony “Rumble” Johnson have come to be revered as among the most terrifying fighters in the sport since his reinvention under Hooft.
By contrast, #EddieAlvarez, the man who dethroned Rafael dos Anjos for the UFC lightweight championship in July, did not see similar results. A crafty all-terrain boxer who is most threatening when capable of utilizing all of his tools, Alvarez was perhaps hindered by the perpetual aggression preached by Hooft. Under Mark Henry, an equally brilliant but more boxing-centred striking coach, Alvarez finally obtained a UFC championship, his strengths evident and accentuated in each of his performances in a way not seen during his time with the Blackzilians.
This is not an indictment of Henri Hooft. While an excellent coach, the emphasis on forward movement and aggression in all stages was unsuited to a fighter like Alvarez. When an elite fighter seeks tutelage from an elite coach, synergy is required; otherwise, the results may be underwhelming. For Rafael dos Anjos and Rafael Cordeiro, this was not the case.
Approaching journeyman status, dos Anjos was a physically gifted athlete with a solid jiu-jitsu base and awkward, uncomfortable striking who struggled to find consistent success at the highest level. Training under Cordeiro from 2012, dos Anjos transformed into an almost unrecognizable fighter.
One of Cordeiro’s great virtues as a coach is his ability to instill unshakable confidence in his fighters. Kings MMA stalwarts are fearless by design, utterly assured of their superiority and intent on destruction.
This is most evident in his corner work; Cordeiro is quick to emphasise what his fighters are doing correctly, before suggesting strategic or tactical improvements which they can implement. Few coaches so deeply understand the benefits of mentally preparing a fighter for combat, and in the case of dos Anjos, it paid immense dividends.
Formerly a near-amateur striker, dos Anjos seemed to adapt to the Kings MMA style with surprising ease. Uncomfortable in the pocket and lacking refinement in every area of the standup game, his rebirth as a brutalizing power striker was both unforeseen and devastating.
Knockout victories over elite lightweights such as Benson Henderson and Donald Cerrone proved not only dos Anjos’ power, but that he so thoroughly embodied Cordeiro’s principles of striking: ruthless aggression, tight cage-cutting footwork, circular strikes to deny opponents’ spatial options, and confident high-volume pocket boxing.
This unflappable approach allowed him to march down Anthony Pettis, one of the division’s most feared strikers, and consistently bludgeon the then-champion, landing left crosses and takedowns seemingly at will to secure the UFC lightweight championship in an upset which proved to be as dominant as it was shocking.
Through Cordeiro, dos Anjos had found the perfect technical recipe to craft a game capable of toppling elite lightweights and propelling him to championship status. As such, a camp change seems bizarre, even in the wake of his recent TKO loss to Eddie Alvarez; “it wasn’t working anymore," dos Anjos would claim of his time at Kings MMA.
A camp change in response to a loss is not uncommon in MMA, but it is a gambit which has proven to have varying degrees of success. In response to a 2014 loss to Kings MMA’s own #FabricioWerdum, #TravisBrowne abandoned Jackson-Wink MMA, a premier gym, to train at #GlendaleFC under #EdmondTarverdyan, a coach known for mixed results. Since the move to Glendale, Browne has lost three of his last five bouts.
While the results of dos Anjos’ decision remain to be seen, there are reasons to be skeptical, especially at this late stage of his career. With reinvention unlikely, time will tell if dos Anjos will find new ways to refine his craft, or if the remarkable synergy he shared with his friend and former mentor was fundamental to the identity he had worked so hard to create.