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The Weekly Takedown: Rafael dos Anjos seeks to become the 'best Rafael ever' against Rafael Fiziev

The lightweight Brazilian knows well there's marginal room for error in Saturday's UFC on ESPN 39 headliner.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Rafael dos Anjos lost the lightweight championship in 2016. Half a decade later, he is taking steps to win the belt for a second time.

Dos Anjos headlines this Saturday's UFC on ESPN 39 card, meeting an incredibly dangerous, complete opponent in Rafael Fiziev. It is a risk for the seventh-ranked dos Anjos to fight down against Fiziev, who is ranked 10th in the division, but a victory would be a massive statement as he pursues the vacant lightweight title.

"This is an opportunity for me to put on a great show against Fiziev, then fight for the title this January," dos Anjos (31-13 MMA, 20-11 UFC) says. "I have a lot of respect for Charles Oliveira. I want to face him and see who is the best Brazilian in the game."

Dos Anjos enters Saturday's bout vs. Fiziev ranked seventh in the division with a 31-13 record.

Now 37, Dos Anjos is enjoying a career renaissance after returning to the lightweight division. He had fought eight in a row as a welterweight, but after initial success, he ran into severe roadblocks in the form of Kamaru Usman and Colby Covington, ultimately dropping four of five before moving back to 155 in November of 2020. That was initially scheduled to be a must-see fight against Islam Makhachev, but Makhachev was replaced by Paul Felder. Dos Anjos won the bout by split decision, then had an extended layoff of 16 months after injuring his groin. He was primed to return in February to fight Fiziev, yet that was postponed due to Fiziev's visa issues, and delayed again after a bout with COVID forced Fiziev off the UFC 262 card in March.

Dos Anjos still competed at 262, defeating Renato Moicano in a catchweight bout. There will be no short notice or replacement opponents on Saturday, as dos Anjos finally squares off against Fiziev.

"Fiziev is going to realize I'm the best Rafael ever in UFC," dos Anjos says. "A win will be three in a row, and that will put me in the title picture."

Another opponent that dos Anjos seemed destined to fight, but still has yet to meet in the cage, is Conor McGregor. The controversial superstar is always on dos Anjos' radar, though the timing does not appear to be in their favor.

"I would like that payday, but it's not what I am chasing right now," dos Anjos says. "If it happens one day, it happens. Right now, I'm not sure a win against Conor helps me get the belt. And I am chasing the championship.

"Conor is coming off injury, and I heard he's not fighting lightweight anymore. We were set to fight a couple times. A lot got in our way. I broke my foot, he broke the bus. He's recovering, and I'd be open to it, but we'll see what happens."

As exciting as it would be to see McGregor-dos Anjos, the sole priority at the moment is Saturday's bout against Fiziev.

"My focus is finishing Fiziev," dos Anjos says. "I want to put him away in the first round."

Jamahal Hill offers prescient advice to Sean Strickland ahead of fight against Alex Pereira

Alex Pereira used a left hook to knock out Sean Strickland this past Saturday at UFC 276, the single most impressive showing in Pereira's blossoming MMA career.

Strickland (25-4 MMA, 12-4 UFC) was walking forward, presumably in an effort to disrupt Pereira with pressure and jabs. But that strategy proved ineffective, as Pereira (6-1 MMA, 3-0 UFC) capitalized on their close proximity.

And Jamahal Hill saw it coming.

Hill, who knocked out Johnny Walker in a light heavyweight bout this past February, reached out to Strickland nearly a month before the fight about Pereira's left hook. That advice rang true at 276, as Pereira ended the bout in less than three minutes in the manner Hill expected. Pereira also showed off his precision by landing two extra shots during Strickland's collapse.

Now ranked sixth in the division, Pereira is expected to be the next opponent for middleweight champion Israel Adesanya, who defeated Jared Cannonier at 276. Everyone else in front of Pereira – a list that features Robert Whittaker, Cannonier, Marvin Vettori, Derek Brunson and Paulo Costa – has either already lost to Adesanya or is coming off a loss. Fortunately for Adesanya, he has Pereira waiting for a title bout – a perfect scenario for the champ.

Adesanya has already lost twice to Pereira in kickboxing, including getting knocked out by that left hook, but a great deal has transpired since they last met in 2017. Adesanya has won 14 of 15 fights in that stretch of time, cementing his place in MMA. While a fight in the octagon against Pereira represents one of the toughest challenges of Adesanya's career, it is also another chance to showcase his greatness.

If he wants to eventually become the greatest middleweight champ of all time, Adesanya will need this victory against Pereira.

The Pick 'Em Section:

UFC on ESPN 39 lightweight bout: Rafael dos Anjos vs. Rafael Fiziev

  • Pick: Rafael dos Anjos

UFC on ESPN 39 middleweight bout: Caio Borralho vs. Armen Petrosyan

  • Pick: Caio Borralho

UFC on ESPN 39 bantamweight bout: Said Nurmagomedov vs. Douglas Silva

  • Pick: Said Nurmagomedov

UFC on ESPN 39 heavyweight bout: Jared Vanderaa vs. Chase Sherman

  • Pick: Jared Vanderaa

UFC on ESPN lightweight bout: Michael Johnson vs. Jamie Mullarkey

  • Pick: Jamie Mullarkey

Last week: 3-1

2022 record: 74-42

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.