Four years later, former UFC champion Rafael dos Anjos still very much looks like a viable title contender at lightweight.
Dos Anjos (30-13), who moved back down to 155 pounds on Saturday after a 4-4 run at welterweight, made a strong statement about where he still stands at age 36 with a dominant victory in a hard-fought split decision at the UFC Apex facility in Las Vegas.
Two judges scored the five-round main event in favor of dos Anjos, 50-45. The third judge surprisingly scored it 48-47 for Felder (17-6), who saved the card by taking the fight on just five days' notice after Islam Makhachev pulled out with an illness.
Felder, 36, was originally scheduled to work the fight broadcast for ESPN as a commentator but was able to accept the fight due to triathlon training, which had him close enough in range to make weight. Even though his stamina was strong for 25 minutes, dos Anjos relied on six takedowns and dominant control of the grappling to leave no doubt.
"It has been a crazy roller coaster this camp," dos Anjos said. "I went all the way to Brazil and my whole family got COVID and I had to pull out of the fight. We got to reschedule it and I got the news that [Makhachev] had to pull out due to an infection. I was training for a southpaw wrestler and Paul Felder is a very technical and strong orthodox striker.
"I am not too happy with my performance, I wish I could do better. It is my first fight back in the lightweight division but I feel like I still have adjustments to make."
The attention heading into Friday's weigh-in was focussed upon whether dos Anjos, who lost his lightweight title in 2016 via first-round knockout to Eddie Alvarez after a weight cut in which he later said he almost died, could look healthy back at 155 pounds. It turned out he was as RDA came in shredded and had proved to have no shortage of cardio in the championship rounds.
The real weigh-in scare turned out to come in Felder's camp as he was forced to shed an extreme amount of weight in just a matter of days yet happily gutted it out. The sacrifice led to him securing a fight of the night bonus in defeat.
"I cut 22 pounds in one week. Thursday night was one of the darkest night of my life cutting that weight," Felder said. "I said I was going to be the first on the scale and I was. I wanted to come in here against a former champion and fight hard. I did that."
Felder was able to strike fairly even with RDA anytime the action was contested in the center of the cage. He opened a cut above dos Anjos' right eye with a left hook in Round 1, but the Brazilian native was able to sway each round into his favor by backing Felder up to the cage and eventually dragging him down.
As the rounds progressed, the sharpness of dos Anjos' striking also began to help him build separation on the scorecards, along with a consistent flurry of hard body kicks. A left cross from dos Anjos opened up a bad cut above the right eye of Felder late in Round 4, which created a bloody mess throughout most of the final round.
"I got a little tired there in the fifth round," Felder said. "I really think the problem was that I was in really good cardio shape for the triathlon but I haven't grappled. I haven't stepped foot in an MMA gym in almost four months. That was based on pure endurance training and pad work."
Dos Anjos credited Felder being so open about having nothing to lose entering this fight with making the end of fight week even harder on him because he knew how hard Felder was going to compete. But despite flirting with retirement talk at various points over the last year, the experience of taking this fight on late notice and focusing his efforts on honoring the memory of his late father seemed to recharge Felder's fighting spirit.
"I can tell you guys with certainty that I'm not going anywhere right now," Felder said.
For dos Anjos, the victory saw him add himself to an already deep pool of viable title contenders at lightweight. The former champion feels he should be in consideration for a title shot right now despite entering the fight with four losses in his last five outings at welterweight.
"I think I want to face whoever is on the line for that belt," dos Anjos said. "I know I have a lot left in me still. At 36, tonight was my 30th UFC appearance. I think if Khabib [Nurmagomedov] is really retired, it will leave the division wide open. If you look at the contenders, me and Conor [McGregor] are the only real champions in that division. Everyone else has been interim champions. If the division is really open, me and Conor is the fight to make."