For UFC's Junior dos Santos, the time is now
On Saturday night, the Ultimate Fighting Championship takes one of the most important steps in the promotion’s history, running its first event on network television. Fox offers an opportunity for the burgeoning sport to rise to a new level and cultivate a new base of fans. Taking center stage and fighting to unseat UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez is an unlikely challenger.
Junior Dos Santos does not fit the image many casual fans have of a rising sport built on hand to hand combat. He does not have a menacing look or boisterous personality. He does not talk trash about his opponents or wear a threatening scowl. In fact, his defining characteristic may be a warm smile. It’s a personality that makes him easy to like, and it’s hard to find someone in the world of MMA who has a bad word to say about the Brazilian heavyweight.
Unfortunately for opponents, Dos Santos’ likeable personality belies a ferocious fighting style centered on the best boxing in the heavyweight division and devastating knockout power. Dos Santos is undefeated in seven UFC bouts with wins over the likes of Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum, Roy Nelson and Mirko Cro Cop. Those wins have established him as the unquestioned top challenger for the UFC heavyweight title. Now, on the biggest stage yet for the sport of MMA, he will look to win over a new crop of fans while proving himself the best fighter in his weight class.
Standing in Dos Santos’ way is a formidable challenge: undefeated UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez. Velasquez was an All-American wrestler at Arizona State and has added striking and a ground game to his excellent wrestling ability. Dos Santos identifies Velasquez’s well roundedness as his greatest strength.
“Cain Velasquez is an excellent fighter,” Dos Santos says. “This has all the ingredients for the best heavyweight fight ever. Both Cain and myself attack. We look for punches, kicks and don’t sit on our laurels. Cain is a very complete athlete. He has no weaknesses and is good everywhere: standing, on the ground and in terms of cardio. He is a fighter that doesn’t stop. My objective is to control the pace of the fight.”
Controlling the pace of the fight against Velasquez is usually a very tough order. Velasquez is renowned for his conditioning and keeps coming like a fighter in a much smaller weight class. However, it’s possible Velasquez won’t be in top shape for this fight. Velasquez hasn’t fought for over a year following shoulder surgery for a torn rotator cuff. Velasquez is a very hard worker, but getting into peak fighting shape is not easy. Dos Santos for his part expects and desires the best Velasquez possible.
“I believe he’ll be in great shape,” Dos Santos says. “It’s his first title defense and I’m sure he dedicated himself a lot. And that’s what I want. I want to fight the best Cain Velasquez. That’s the person I want to fight and that’s the person I want to beat.”
To prepare for Velasquez, Dos Santos has centered his training camp in his hometown of Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. Working with longtime mentor Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira as well as fellow Team Nogueira members Fabio Maldonado and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Dos Santos has continued to improve his ground game while keeping his striking sharp.
Dos Santos’ longtime association with the Nogueiras leads most to trust in his ground ability, but it is a skill that he has rarely shown in his UFC career. While Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira has used submissions more effectively than any other heavyweight in the history of the sport, Dos Santos has relied instead on defensive wrestling and striking. Against a wrestler the caliber of Velasquez, Dos Santos’ ability to threaten on the ground will be tested.
Training with Nogueira and a team of jiu jitsu standouts gives Dos Santos confidence that he will be able to meet the challenge. He speaks glowingly of his teacher, who also fought Velasquez but fell via first round knockout.
“Rodrigo has been an older brother and a mentor to me from the beginning of my career,” Dos Santos notes. “The reason for my confidence and the success in my career is his mentorship from the beginning of my career. He has been everything to me.”
The loss that Nogueira suffered to Velasquez is a reminder that standing and trading with the heavyweight champion is not the safest of routes. Velasquez has the ability to mix wrestling with striking to keep Dos Santos off balance, a potent combination. But Dos Santos believes that Velasquez ultimately is going to want to keep him on the ground.
“I think Cain will for sure try to take me down and work his ground and pound,” Dos Santos observes. “He’ll try to keep me up against the cage. I’m sure of that. But all fights start standing up and those moments I will be looking for my knockout.”
While Dos Santos’ career has to this point been defined simply by the fights, now he has to deal with an added element: the stage itself. He has dealt with the biggest media blitz of his career, doing interviews every day for a variety of outlets. He says that he is happy to provide that communication with fans, but that can create a strain with fighters used to simply training and preparing to fight.
Additionally, Dos Santos now finds himself in one of the most important MMA bouts of all time. If the fight promotion clicks and he turns in a great performance, he could become one of the biggest stars in the sport overnight. But if he loses decisively, that will be lost and he will have to work his way back up the ladder. The stakes are high and the pressure is on for the affable Brazilian.
There is yet another variable in the crowd reaction to the fight. Throughout his career, Dos Santos has generally been well received by UFC audiences. But Saturday night, he will be fighting Velasquez in Anaheim, California. The proud Mexican-American is very popular in California, which will likely lead to Dos Santos playing the role of villain or at the very least spoiler. Dos Santos says that’s no problem for him.
“I’ll probably get booed,” Dos Santos acknowledges with a laugh. “I was there for Cain vs. Brock in Anaheim and the crowd largely favored Cain. I expect the same this time around, maybe even more so. But I keep my focus on the fight. And even though the majority will be rooting for Cain, I have my fans too. I’m sure there will be fans from all around the world cheering for me and sending me positive energy. I don’t focus on the negative.”
Saturday night, Dos Santos will have the opportunity to grow that base of fans exponentially. The biggest opportunity of his career beckons.
Photo: Junior dos Santos speaks during a news conference on Sept. 20. Credit: Victor Decolongon / Getty Images.