After 2016 saw him drop his lightweight title and be summarily written out of the 155-pound title picture by back-to-back losses, Rafael dos Anjos looks reborn at welterweight.
That was the takeaway from Dos Anjos' impressive first-round submission win over Neil Magny on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 215. The victory gave the 32-year-old Brazilian two in a row at 170 pounds and abruptly put the top contenders in his newfound division on notice.
Now that Dos Anjos no longer has to nearly kill himself making weight, he's back to being bad, bad news.
"I was struggling so much to make weight [at lightweight]," Dos Anjos told UFC color commentator Joe Rogan in the cage after the fight. "I want to see my kids grow. I want to see my grandkids. That's why I decided to move up."
With a dearth of fresh title contenders for welterweight champion Tyron Woodley, it's possible Dos Anjos might find himself filling that void without much further ado.
He entered this fight at No. 10 on the UFC's official 170-pound rankings, following a unanimous-decision win over former Strikeforce welterweight champion Tarec Saffiedine in his divisional debut in June. After effortlessly dispatching the sixth-ranked Magny, it's a good bet he'll be knocking on the door of the top five when the next batch of rankings are released.
The 30-year-old Magny entered fresh on the heels of a victory over former champ Johny Hendricks at UFC 207, but Dos Anjos made short work of him on this night at Rogers Place in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Dos Anjos rendered Magny's significant height and reach advantages null when he scooped the Brooklyn, New York native off his feet with a powerful low kick in the early going. From there, Dos Anjos presented a clinic on how to use top position to work for a finish.
He moved from half guard to mount with an ease befitting his status as a Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt. On the way, he threatened with a guillotine choke and pestered Magny with a series of elbows and a wicked knee to the gut.
As Magny tried to reposition himself to avoid Dos Anjos' elbows, the former champion locked up an arm-triangle choke and slid back to the side. Magny couldn't fight it off for long and tapped out with just three minutes, 43 seconds gone in the first round.
Call it a return to form for Dos Anjos, who went 10-1 between 2012-15 and won the 155-pound title from Anthony Pettis at UFC 185. During that run, Dos Anjos made his name as an aggressive striker and hard-nosed grappler while taking out a series of other well-known UFC attractions like Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz and Donald Cerrone.
Dos Anjos never really caught on as a drawing card, however, and he unexpectedly lost his title to Eddie Alvarez in July 2016, at the low-profile UFC Fight Night 90. That event took place on a Thursday night and aired exclusively on the UFC's digital subscription service, as part of a three-night extravaganza leading up to the gala UFC 200 fight card.
It made for an ignominious end to Dos Anjos' run as 155-pound titleist. When he also lost his next bout, to the surging Tony Ferguson in November of that year, he essentially dropped off the crowded lightweight map. It seemed like the end of him as a championship-level fighter.
But on a UFC 215 pay-per-view card that had to be revamped after Demetrious Johnson's scheduled flyweight title defense against Ray Borg was scratched just before weigh-ins, Dos Anjos roared back to contender status.
Despite that earlier win over Saffiedine, he needed this victory over a solid, middle-of-the-pack welterweight like Magny to prove he's a serious threat there.
It would be a meteoric reemergence if Dos Anjos managed to roll these two victories straight into a title fight against Woodley, but it also isn't impossible.
Woodley is just shy of two months removed from a tepid victory over Demian Maia at UFC 214. His previous title defense against Stephen "Wonderboy" Thompson at UFC 209 didn't earn rave reviews, either.
If UFC matchmakers are looking for a challenger who can match Woodley stylistically and push the pace against him physically, they may have found their man in Dos Anjos.
His arrival in the 170-pound title picture is well-timed, too. The top end of the division is currently clogged with guys Woodley has already beaten, including Thompson, Maia, Robbie Lawler and Carlos Condit.
Assuming the landscape remains the same, fight company brass might not have many good options to give Woodley next, aside from Jorge Masvidal or Dos Anjos.
"Tyron, I respect you," Dos Anjos said at the post-fight press conference, "but I'm coming for that belt."
Exactly what happens next, of course, might hinge on the plans of returning former champion Georges St-Pierre. After a lengthy negotiation over his comeback bout, St-Pierre is booked to take on Michael Bisping for the middleweight title at UFC 217 on Nov. 4.
Depending on how that fight goes, GSP could choose to remain at 185 pounds or return to the welterweight division he ruled with extreme prejudice from roughly 2006-13.
For now, however, Dos Anjos appears well-positioned in his new home.
If all that was keeping him from competing at his full potential at lightweight truly was the massive weight cut, the welterweight division has a new—and very dangerous—contender on its hands.