LAS VEGAS — The list of contenders in the lightweight division keeps growing. The latest to establish himself as a bona fide contender is Rafael Fiziev, who knocked out ex-champion Rafael dos Anjos 18 seconds into the final round Saturday at Apex in the main event of UFC Vegas 58.
The next step for him, Fiziev said, is to determine who the best Rafael is. So, of course, when asked in the Octagon who he wants next, he called out tennis superstar Rafael Nadal.
If Nadal saw his fight with dos Anjos, he’d be wise to stay as far away from Fiziev as possible. Fiziev is a decorated Muay Thai kickboxer, but he showed the complete game on Saturday.
Dos Anjos attempted an astonishingly high 16 takedowns over the four-plus rounds, completing two. When a guy who strikes as well as Fiziev can also defend takedowns and keep the fight standing, he’s a problem.
And yes, Fiziev is a problem for the rest of the lightweights.
He’s got fast hands, accurate punches and, as he showed when he finished the fight, plenty of power in both hands. He caught dos Anjos with a crushing left that, for all intents and purposes, ended the fight.
Fiziev went after him on the ground and landed a couple of flush shots, forcing referee Mark Smith to jump in to stop it.
“I was tired so much in the fight, but I made a finish in Round 5,” said Fiziev, who called out No. 3-ranked Justin Gaethje. “That means something. [It proves] I can fight five rounds.”
Fiziev largely neutralized dos Anjos’ offense throughout the fight. Dos Anjos tried to slow the bout down, clinching with Fiziev on the cage and going for takedowns. But Fiziev’s takedown defense was brilliant and he repeatedly frustrated dos Anjos.
When they were in space, Fiziev’s striking was on point and he was picking dos Anjos apart with sharp and clean shots.
Fiziev never allowed dos Anjos to gain momentum and was racking up points with his striking.
Fiziev noted it was important to be patient as dos Anjos was fighting for the takedowns and not to try to get ahead of himself.
“My head, my brain is stupid sometimes and I start to fight like a drunken guy,” Fiziev said of the necessity of remaining patient. “I thought a lot and fought smart. I didn’t try to go crazy too much.”
The victory was Fiziev’s 12th in 13 pro fights and his sixth in succession in the UFC after a first-round TKO loss in his promotional debut in 2019 to Magomed Mustafaev in St. Petersburg, Russia.
But he’s now defeated dos Anjos, Brad Riddell, Bobby Green, Renato Moicano, Marc Diakiese and Alex White — a solid group of opponents — in his winning streak.
He entered Saturday’s bout ranked 10th in the division, but the division is loaded with killers and it may be difficult for Fiziev to move up much. Dos Anjos was seventh, Mateusz Gamrot was eighth and Tony Ferguson ninth ahead of Fiziev going into the fight.
Gamrot is coming off of an impressive victory over Arman Tsarukyan and UFC president Dana White told Yahoo Sports that he is interested in pitting Gamrot with No. 6 Beneil Dariush.
Fiziev called for a top five opponent, but that’s going to be hard given the lineup there: Charles Oliveira, Dustin Poirier, Gaethje, Islam Makhachev and Michael Chandler.
Oliveira is gunning for a fight with No. 12 Conor McGregor, although the UFC is interested in pitting him against Makhachev for the vacant title. Poirier and Chandler seem headed for a showdown, particularly after their confrontation at UFC 276 at T-Mobile Arena in Las Vegas.
So Fiziev may have to settle for either a fight with Ferguson or a match with Tsarukyan, either of which would be highly entertaining. He’s going to have to keep winning — and winning impressively — given the loaded nature of the division.
But he’s been doing just that. He’s now finished three of his last four fights, with only his bout against Green going to the cards. He was brilliant in that one, outboxing Green in a big way.
Gamrot also called out Gaethje, but with White’s intent to pair him with Dariush, it may give Fiziev the bout he wants. And he knows it would be fun.
“I think he’d make my face look like this, maybe [worse],” said Fiziev, who said he broke his nose early in the fight. “He’s dangerous. He’s a big challenge for me, too. He has a chance to knock me out, but I’d have a chance to knock him out. That’s a good fight, I think, and for the fans, too.”