Mixed Martial Arts: Favelas' champion Rafael dos Anjos eclipses the show

Having fought hard times, Rafael dos Anjos now has the UFC lightweight title

THE world of mixed martial arts is still buzzing about Brazilian Rafael dos Anjos' 25-minute masterclass delivered in front of a stunned Dallas crowd 25 days ago.

His opponent, American Anthony Pettis, was heavily fancied to retain his Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) lightweight title and extend a four-year unbeaten streak.

In fact, the tagline for the card was "Welcome to the Show", a nod to Pettis' "Showtime" moniker.

Fans were given a show, but not quite what they expected. From the opening bell, 30-year-old dos Anjos' jabs, hooks and knees bruised the face and ego of his flashy adversary, two years his junior.

With 20 seconds left in the final round and cruising to a unanimous-decision upset, he delivered the final blow.

"I got Anthony on his back, locked him up, and whispered in his ears, 'the Show is over'," he said with a wide grin.

It was more mastery than mockery - achieved despite a torn medial collateral ligament that restricted his feet movement in training just three weeks before the fight.

Dos Anjos - who once survived on US$100 (S$135) match fees and accommodation with his future in-laws - did not let injury curtail a title shot he had waited seven years for.

"My secret for beating Pettis is simple - I have a lot of self-confidence and I prayed a lot," he told The Straits Times in an exclusive interview yesterday.

"People were talking about him like he was unbeatable, but he never faced anybody like me before."

Dos Anjos grew up in a Rio de Janeiro slum where half the residents lived below the poverty line. The youngster was taught to "settle problems on the street", a euphemism for fighting to survive.

But he returned to rapturous cheers in his neighbourhood last week, visiting the local gym which gave him free membership at age 12.

"I felt like Neymar," the 1.73m dos Anjos chuckled.

"Kids in the favelas used to only want to play football but now, they all want to be MMA fighters."

Dos Anjos, who is based in Los Angeles, is the 11th Brazilian to win a UFC title, following Anderson Silva and Vitor Belfort, who boosted the sport's profile in the country.

He made his debut for the Las Vegas-based promotion in 2008 after notching nine straight wins in Brazil. But two losses against superior opposition swiftly followed.

"I thought many times that maybe I was wrong, that this was not my calling in life," dos Anjos recalled.

"But there was no fallback because I had no education. This was it, I was forced to go on."

The Brazilian ju-jitsu black belt holder is now going places.

He is in Singapore this week - with wife Cris and sons Gustavo, 14, and Rafael, six - to train athletes at the Evolve Gym, which has been his stable since 2009.

He once lived in the Republic for months, to be tutored by Evolve's stellar coaching roster in disciplines such as muay Thai and wrestling.

Dos Anjos said: "My stand-up game has improved tremendously from my time in Singapore.

"I'm always looking to improve but for sure, I am a far better fighter than five years ago."

He hopes to fight here one day, though the UFC's plans for the region remain unclear after the recent departure of several key officials.

What is certain is with the belt on his front, there is now a target on dos Anjos' back.

UFC stalwart Clay Guida - who broke dos Anjos' jaw in a bout five years ago - wants a title shot, while Pettis is already calling for a rematch.

But the champion himself is focused on one goal.

"I have been through hell and back to get to where I am today," said dos Anjos, who sports the customary broken nose and "cauliflower ears" of an MMA athlete.

"I plan to keep this belt for a very long time."

nsanjay@sph.com.sg