Former UFC champion Rafael dos Anjos will make his return to the lightweight division on Saturday night for the first time in almost exactly four years. But he’s not coming back to his old stomping ground for a sense of nostalgia.
Instead, the 36-year-old Brazilian seeks a fresh start after spending his past eight fights at 170 pounds in pursuit of becoming one of only a handful of athletes to ever hold titles in two different divisions.
Dos Anjos came up short on that goal, but he still wasn’t resolved on leaving the weight class in order to return to 155 pounds. It wasn’t until he spoke to another ex-UFC champ that he began to think there was a future for him at lightweight.
“It’s a matter of trying to reinvent myself,” dos Anjos told MMA Fighting ahead of his return at UFC Vegas 14. “I moved up to welterweight, I had a good run. I got really close to being double champ. I beat top guys in the welterweight division. I had a good run. I fought for the title, but unfortunately, I lost, and then I lost again and I lost to [Kamaru] Usman and to Leon [Edwards] and the last one to [Michael] Chiesa. Sometimes you have to step out of your comfort zone.
“I spoke to Jose Aldo – he came to California – and he told me how much he felt good at 135. I got in touch with him and he put me in contact with his doctor in Brazil. In March of this year, I traveled to Brazil to meet the doctor, and I’m investing in my career. She said if we do good work and a good job we can make it happen.”
Since that meeting, dos Anjos has been on a mission to return to lightweight in the healthiest way possible. Even when he was champion, the drop down to 155 pounds was brutal on his body, which was one of the biggest reasons he knew something had to change if he was going to start competing at lightweight again.
“Since March I’ve been dieting – I changed my whole life,” dos Anjos revealed. “I changed my habits. I got back down [where] my walk-around weight was [previously] around 190 [pounds]. My walk-around weight became like 178 pounds.
“I made welterweight yesterday. I was 170 pounds after training. I’m feeling good. The last time I made 170 pounds I was feeling like crap. Yesterday, I was 170 pounds and feeling great.”
After he was originally slated to face Islam Makhachev on Saturday night, dos Anjos will now face Paul Felder in a five-round main event from Las Vegas.
In a way, this new matchup gets the former champion that much closer to his ultimate goal, which is to reclaim the title he lost back in 2015. Based on the current UFC rankings, Felder sits at No. 7 while Makhachev was No. 12, but the names don’t matter as much to dos Anjos as the opportunity to prove himself as an elite lightweight.
“I’m feeling very good now,” dos Anjos said. “I’m older now. Back then when I was champion, I was 31 years old. I’m 36 but I feel like I’m cutting less weight. I’m more disciplined. Being older, I’m more disciplined now even than when I was champion. I’m feeling very confident now.
“This is a new beginning at lightweight. I’m going after the title. Khabib [Nurmagomedov] left and the division is wide open.”
Dos Anjos refuses to look too far past his fight this weekend, but he sees some intriguing matchups available to him now that he’s back at lightweight. The title is the finish line, of course, but before he gets there, the former champion has some unfinished business with a certain Irish superstar he was scheduled to face in 2016.
“Tony Ferguson was interim champion,” dos Anjos said. “Dustin Poirier, interim champion. Justin Gaethje, interim champion. The only champions in that division was me and Conor [McGregor], and I think that’s the fight to make.
“I think the division is wide open, so why not? I want that fight.”
Dos Anjos participated in a heated press conference with McGregor after their matchup was first announced in March 2016. Sadly, a broken foot ruled him out of the fight. When he went 3-0 at welterweight, McGregor was again presented as a potential opponent in 2018, and again, the fight didn’t happen. He never forgot about the missed opportunity.
“We got close twice,” dos Anjos said. “I think that’s the fight that a lot of fans want to see, especially with me returning to lightweight. We were scheduled to fight, and unfortunately, it’s a combat sport. I broke my foot, but here I am again, training hard, working hard and I can’t wait.
“I’m going to have my hand raised on Nov. 14 and then shoot for the title.”