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Ex-UFC champ Rafael dos Anjos says size disadvantage helped bring him back to lightweight

LAS VEGAS – There was a time when former UFC lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos wasn’t sure he’d want to head back to 155 pounds.

After his run as a champ, the Brazilian eventually moved north to welterweight, where he found that extra 15 pounds he could keep on his frame instead of laboring over during weight cuts to be just fine. In fact, he won his first three fights at 170 pounds and got himself into an interim title fight with Colby Covington in June 2018.

But a decision loss to Covington put dos Anjos on a slide of four losses in five fights, and Saturday he’ll return to the division in which he became champ with a March 2015 upset of Anthony Pettis. Dos Anjos turned 36 in late October, but he doesn’t think getting back to lightweight will be an issue.

“I feel pretty much in the same shape that I was when I fought Anthony Pettis,” dos Anjos told MMA Junkie during a Thursday virtual media day. “Every goal we (had) during the training, during the cuts, my body’s been cutting more weight than we planned. My body’s responding really well. The hardest part is still to come, but I feel pretty confident the weight will come off easily.”

On Saturday, dos Anjos (29-13 MMA, 18-11 UFC) headlines UFC Fight Night 182 at lightweight against Paul Felder (17-5 MMA, 9-5 UFC), who took the bout on just five days’ notice after Islam Makhachev was forced out with a staph infection. The card streams on ESPN+ from the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Dos Anjos and Makhachev were set to fight at UFC 254 before dos Anjos pulled out with a positive COVID-19 test, forcing the booking to get rescheduled.

Dos Anjos said much of the impetus for the move back to 155 pounds had to do with his size at welterweight compared to some of his potential opponents there. And at lightweight, he might just find a clearer path toward title contention.

“My goal is to be a world champion, like I was, once again,” dos Anjos said. “In life, you have to make sacrifices. I think at welterweight, I had a good run. I fought for the title. But I think I’m not too big for welterweight. That gap, that 15-pound gap, is such a big gap. I put the work (in). I’ve been changing my whole diet, my whole body, for the past seven months. … I’m trying to reinvent myself and prove I can be a lightweight champion again.”

Dos Anjos admitted that road to a title shot can get muddied in a hurry at lightweight, though, and he said a lot of the blame for that goes to top-level fighters in the rankings being plenty picky about what fights they’ll take.

Lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov abruptly retired after his submission win over Justin Gaethje at UFC 254. And even though UFC president Dana White thinks Nurmagomedov may change his mind and come back, the presumption is the belt is up for grabs.

A planned fight between Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier in January could present an opening for the winner, and Gaethje is thought to be right at the top of the heap, too. Then there’s Tony Ferguson, Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira – and even Felder.

“There are a lot of new guys (at lightweight),” dos Anjos said. “It’s been changing a lot. The top five guys, they’re really cautious to take the next step. It’s been kind of a very strategic game played by them. Back in the day, everybody fought everybody. These days, people are really cautious to take the next step. Nobody wants to take any fights because they want to wait for someone else to take the fight, to wait for someone else’s results. It’s slowed down the division a lot.

“Fighters (have) got to fight. Fights (have) got to fight. You can’t just hide behind rankings and try to pick the best fight, the best match, and wait for results for fights that are still on paper. Fights (have) got to go there and fight.”

But at the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what other fighters at the top of the pack are doing or not doing if dos Anjos can’t beat Felder. A loss in his return to the lightweight division would give him a three-fight slide with losses in five of six fights, and any hope for a quick return to the title picture would be dashed.

A win, though, could have him in the position to at least get a chance to tangle with someone at the top, even if that will mean winning under less-than-ideal circumstances.

“I was training for a southpaw wrestler and Paul Felder jumped in. I met him and I think he’s a really cool guy. It was really good for us – we saved the show by him stepping in on five days’ notice. But he’s a striker, orthodox, and it changed for me a little bit. But I’m pretty sure we’re going to put on a good show for the fans.”

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