Observing the career of Rafael dos Anjos, one thing is clear: Winning the UFC lightweight championship is no easy feat.
The Brazilian fighter needed to post an 8-1 record over three years, featuring wins over Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone and Benson Henderson, in order to be considered for his first shot at the crown. He needed five rounds of damn near perfect fighting in order to take the crown from a seemingly invincible Anthony Pettis.
But after observing the careers of former UFC lightweight champions, another thing is clear: recovering from losing the UFC lightweight championship is no easy feat either.
Six men have held the UFC lightweight championship over the past eight years. All of those who lost the belt followed their championship defeat with a run filled with considerable struggle.
It starts with B.J. Penn, arguably the greatest lightweight champion in UFC history. Where he once looked like an unmatched fighter at 155 pounds in wins over Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, he ran into Frankie Edgar. Edgar proved to be a faster, more technical fighter, proving he had an answer to “The Prodigy” and his combination of Brazilian jiu-jitsu and crisp boxing.
Just when we thought Edgar’s UFC 112 unanimous decision win over Penn was a one-off result, “The Answer” cemented his dominance over the fallen champion with an even more convincing victory over the talented Hawaiian at UFC 118.
But the struggles didn’t end there for Penn. Save for a flash knockout over a shopworn Matt Hughes, Penn went on to author three bad losses to Nick Diaz, Rory MacDonald and Edgar while mixing in a majority draw against Jon Fitch.
Dating back to Penn’s last title defense in December 2009, Penn has gone 1-5-1. He’s no longer a UFC champion, nor is he a competitive fighter at 145, 155 or 170 pounds.
Then there’s Edgar, who followed Penn’s dominant reign with a memorable run of his own. Looking to avenge his then-only career loss to Gray Maynard, Edgar welcomed “The Bully” into the Octagon for his first title defense. After nearly getting knocked out in the opening round of both his first two defenses against Maynard, Edgar went on to earn a split draw and fourth-round KO.
But then came Benson Henderson, who fought five gritty rounds before being awarded with the lightweight crown Edgar had worked so hard to defend.
Receiving an immediate rematch just like the previous fallen champion, Edgar fell short again. He was subsequently awarded an undeserving chance at the UFC’s featherweight crown against Jose Aldo, only to realize the Brazilian champion had no plans on relinquishing the crown.
Following his only title defense as UFC lightweight champion, Edgar went 0-3. His future wouldn’t be anywhere near as grim as Penn’s, winning five straight before being rewarded with a chance for the interim featherweight title.
Henderson went on to defend the throne twice against Nate Diaz and Gilbert Melendez before meeting a familiar foe at UFC 164 in 2013. Pettis, who’d dethroned Henderson under the WEC banner three years prior, proved he had “Smooth’s” number. Several kicks to the body cemented the opening round for “Showtime,” but a slick submission in the round’s final 30 seconds cemented the win for the challenger.
Henderson avoided the initial trend of struggling out of the gates, earning a controversial split verdict Josh Thomson before submitting Rustam Khabilov at UFC Fight Night 42. But then came the devastating loss to dos Anjos and a troubling loss to Donald Cerrone. Henderson was no longer a champion, and was too far removed from title contention to justify continuing to cut down to 155 before moving up to welterweight.
Pettis, however, took the worst tumble of them all. After defending his belt against Melendez at UFC 181, the Milwaukee native went on to suffer a devastating five-round beating against dos Anjos, a one-sided loss against Eddie Alvarez and a tough defeat to Edson Barboza. The first fighter to be featured on the cover of a Wheaties cereal box, Pettis fell from grace faster than any former champion had in recent memory. Thankfully, a trip to 145 has seemingly resurrected his career.
Finally, we make our way to the most recent man to fall of the lightweight pedestal. Arguably the most dominant of any previous UFC lightweight king, dos Anjos was last seen eating punch after punch as Alvarez worked his way toward a stunning upset over the incumbent champion.
RDA begins his journey post-championship Saturday, meeting Tony Ferguson centerstage in Mexico City; likely hoping to avoid the seemingly inevitable dip experienced by his predecessors.
But in a division as dense and competitive as lightweight, it’s hard to see how dos Anjos can make his way back to the throne unscathed. “El Cucuy” will be no walk in the park, nor will whoever’s next. With Khabib Nurmagomedov, Edson Barboza, Nate Diaz, Michael Johnson and Michael Chiesa all in the mix, dos Anjos will need to tap into the unfounded success of yesteryear to ward off the dozen other names jockeying for top position at 155 pounds.
Thus is the curse of the fallen UFC lightweight champions.