The galactic forces that knocked Rafael dos Anjos out of a superfight with Conor McGregor over four years ago was a miniature big bang that indirectly spawned an iconic cross-promotional boxing match, a BMF UFC title and the most volatile rivalry in MMA history.
Put on the tinfoil hats, ladies and gents. It’s time to go deep-diving into a dystopian world of what-ifs.
What if dos Anjos never injured his foot and made the walk to fight McGregor? The trickle-down effect from that bout’s mere existence would carry any willing passenger on a never-ending journey, deep into a rabbit hole of abstract words like fate and destiny.
Take the title fight between welterweight champion Kamaru Usman and top contender Jorge Masvidal in the main event of UFC 251 for example. That fight might not have even existed if dos Anjos never suffered the ill-fated injury.
Make no mistake, Masvidal is a self-made man—a master of violence and a charismatic, yet terrifying, individual inside the cage. The road to the three-piece destroyer adorned in Ric Flair robes was a dilapidated one full of street fights and years of being snubbed at the professional level. It wasn’t until his knee ran into Ben Askren’s chin to form the best knockout pairing since “When Harry Met Sally” that people really started to take notice of his superstar potential.
That burgeoning superstardom morphed into reality after he was thrown on a pay-per-view card with Nate Diaz as his dance partner and a BAMF title on the line.
However, the same could be said for Diaz, who was shining like Leroy Green after getting the rub from McGregor in their impromptu feud back in 2016. It was only mere happenstance that bout ever came together in the first place.
The true art of matchmaking is accepting the fact that sometimes dumb luck is involved. Diaz just happened to be available at the perfect time to fill in for the injured dos Anjos. Not only did he commandeer a significant chunk of the spotlight in the build-up for the fight, but he eventually went on to foil the massive McGregor hype train.
Within an instant, the man UFC President Dana White once referred to as a non-needle mover was one of the biggest stars in the company.
That opportunity might have never arrived without dos Anjos going on the shelf. Diaz was 2-3 in his last five fights at the time and closer to the end of his career than the beginning. Why would his path ever cross with McGregor’s?
You can rest assured the UFC is glad it did.
That feud spawned not one, but two pay-per-view stars for the company with Diaz and, eventually, Masvidal. Fate made a way for two perceived journeymen to redefine their entire MMA existence in the latter half of their careers.
It sure as hell beat the depressing alternative—more UFC Fight Nights for Diaz and Masvidal continuing to go unnoticed and under appreciated.
Of course, the other side to that coin is the fall of dos Anjos. It’s hard to feel happy for Diaz and Masvidal without feeling sympathetic towards the former lightweight champ. There was a cruel irony in him being forced to sit out and watch an opportunity of a lifetime taken by Diaz, a man he’d already beaten convincingly nearly two years prior.
McGregor’s infamous “red panty night” phrase was specifically directed at dos Anjos before the two had ever agreed to fight. But dos Anjos would never get that money fight. The proposed superfight went on the back-burner after McGregor opted for a rematch with Diaz, and dos Anjos went on to lose the title to Eddie Alvarez in a cruel twist of fate.
Then came the salt in the wounds: Rafael dos Anjos actually had the fighting style capable of giving McGregor real problems.
A strong grappling base with black belt level Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu—at the peak of his career—dos Anjos had all of the tools to spoil McGregor’s champ-champ aspirations and knock the current combat sports trajectory out of orbit. One can only imagine what the landscape would have looked like if he walked away the victor.
Conor McGregor would have remained at featherweight and likely given Jose Aldo or Max Holloway a rematch.
Aldo was widely recognized as the greatest featherweight of all time and left in limbo after biting the dust in a 13-second knockout loss to McGregor. Not even nine consecutive WEC/UFC title defenses and 18 straight victories could quell the blockbuster pull of the brash Irishman. Aldo’s title reign evaporated into dust as if Thanos himself had orchestrated the snap.
If dos Anjos took the bout with McGregor, the co-promotional “Fight of the Century” with boxing legend Floyd Mayweather Jr. might have forever remained a pipe dream to be debated amongst by combat sports fans. McGregor’s lopsided victory over Alvarez and newly-cemented champ-champ persona, coupled with a more receptive Mayweather nearing the end of his boxing career, was like catching lightning in a bottle.
Timing is everything in the fight business, and the pairing worked out impeccably.
And then there’s the explosive rivalry with current lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s the ugly feud that led to cringe-worthy, personal insults, a dolly being thrown through a bus window and an all-out melee that left the T-Mobile Arena show floor in Paradise, Nevada looking like the Battle of Helm’s Deep. Maybe, just maybe, that rivalry would have never existed if dos Anjos stepped into the cage.
If anything, all of this serves as a reminder of the endless what-ifs in a sport where luck factors in as much as talent. It was simply bad luck that Rafael dos Anjos missed out on an opportunity to cash in on what would have been the biggest fight of his life.
But there is no fortune without misfortune in a sport with limited opportunities, where one man’s success breeds another’s failure. A million different possibilities and dos Anjos had to injure his foot on that day, that time and before that fight.
Some semblance of fate couldn’t be any clearer for even the snarkiest of nonbelievers.