The UFC Fight Night 49 main event between Rafael dos Anjos and Benson Henderson hardly went as expected on Saturday.
Only one second past the midway point of the opening round, dos Anjos landed a barrage of strikes that resulted in Henderson's first career knockout loss. It started with a flying knee that forced a Henderson takedown attempt. As Henderson stood back up after failing to finish the takedown, dos Anjos cracked the former lightweight champion with a left hand that forced referee John McCarthy to step in.
Closing as a plus-440 underdog, dos Anjos wasn't given much chance to beat No. 1-ranked lightweight contender Henderson. If the Brazilian was going to mount an upset, most figured he'd do so with takedowns and top control.
Giving up 10 takedowns in his prior two outings, Henderson's takedown defense was looking like his biggest weakness. Aside from eating some hard body kicks from against Anthony Pettis, Henderson has rarely showed holes in his stand-up. Nonetheless, dos Anjos found a way to get his hand raised without even attempting a takedown.
In winning on Saturday, dos Anjos became the first person not named Pettis to defeat Henderson since March 2007 and only the third fighter to do so overall. Finishing a fighter like Henderson is a big deal and should elevate dos Anjos from his current No. 5 position in the lightweight rankings despite his fairly recent loss to No. 3 contender Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Dos Anjos has now won seven of his past eight fights, making him one of the very best in the 155-pound division. The Brazilian has always been a very good grappler, but his striking appears to have risen to a new level under trainer Rafael Cordeiro.
After scoring only two knockouts, one being via cut, during nearly 10 full years to begin his MMA career, dos Anjos has now stopped back-to-back opponents with strikes. In June, Jason High was the Brazilian's prior victim.
With his recent surge upward in the 155-pound class, dos Anjos is closing in on his first shot at the division's championship. The only thing that might get in his way would be Nurmagomedov capturing the belt before dos Anjos is named the top contender. The Brazilian has some work to do in order to prove he deserves that rematch, as Nurmagomedov defeated him soundly with takedowns.
Should Eddie Alvarez defeat Donald Cerrone in September, the former Bellator MMA champion would be a good matchup for dos Anjos. If dos Anjos is able to stop a former UFC champion and former Bellator MMA champion in consecutive outings, he'll be hard to pass up as a candidate for a shot at UFC gold.
Meanwhile, Henderson now has some serious work to do to earn his way back to the top.
With two losses to Pettis and now one against dos Anjos, Henderson is going to have a rough time earning a title shot unless somebody else rises above those two fighters. It's going to be near impossible for him to earn a rematch with Pettis, and he's going to have to go on a serious winning streak to get a second crack at dos Anjos.
Changing weight divisions can be an option for a fighter in Henderson's position, but it doesn't seem like a route open to him. The former titleholder has a rough cut to 155 pounds, so he's unlikely to be able to make 145 pounds, and a move up to welterweight wouldn't seem very beneficial.
At 30 years old, Henderson should be in his prime still. However, two losses in his past four fights suggest Henderson might be headed in the wrong direction already.