Junior Dos Santos
has been for some time one of Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira
's star pupils, but ever so slowly, Dos Santos has moved out of the shadows and into the spotlight. The iron-fisted heavyweight won his fifth straight UFC bout -- all by KO or TKO -- in blasting through Gabriel Gonzaga
in just three minutes, 53 seconds in the co-main event of the UFC on Versus.
"If you guys like to watch good knockouts, I'm here to give you good knockouts," Dos Santos said afterward.
As the master likely begins a slow fade towards retirement, the protege rises.
Dos Santos, at 6-foot-3 and 238 pounds, is a huge and powerful man. The question now becomes if he's huge enough and powerful enough to compete with the supersized heavyweights at the top of totem pole, guys like 6-foot-4, 265 pound champ Brock Lesnar
, 6-foot-2, 265-pound Shane Carwin
and 6-foot-3, 265-pound Frank Mir
. Even those numbers aren't completely telling, as Lesnar and Carwin each cut about 10-15 pounds to make the heavyweight limit and are naturally even bigger than that.
While fans enjoy Dos Santos' exciting boxing style, there are still plenty of questions about him. He has spent nearly all of his time in the octagon upright. What happens if he faces a relentless takedown artist like Lesnar or Cain Velasquez
? Will he wilt under a heavy ground-and-pound barrage? Would a jiu-jitsu standout like Mir have an insurmountable advantage in the grappling department?
Right now, Dos Santos (11-1 overall, 5-0 UFC) is a powder keg full of potential, ready to burst. We just don't know how big the explosion will be.
During the week of UFC 103 back in September, Nogueira told me Dos Santos would unquestionably wear the heavyweight title belt one day.
He saw that day in the distance, as at the time he was coming off a win over Randy Couture
and still felt that he was in the title mix himself. In their two-man totem pole, Nogueira held the top position. At least that's how they saw it. But the reality is different now. Nogueira is no pushover, he's a legend who deserves every accolade thrown in his direction. At 33 years old, Nogueira may even defy critics and stage a second act. But after losing two of his last three, after seeing how his previously iron chin is no longer holding up under heavy fire the way it once did, it's fair to say that Nogueira has been leapfrogged by Dos Santos in his standing in the MMA world's heavyweight division.
Even Dos Santos seemed to signal that he was ready for top-line billing.
"Fight with the best," Dos Santos said when asked what he saw as the next step in his career trajectory. "I think I'm ready. I'm ready for the title shot if the UFC wants. I'm ready."
For now, that will probably have to wait at least one more fight. Mir and Carwin are scheduled to fight at UFC 111
on March 27, and Lesnar is waiting in the wings for the winner. But a summertime, No. 1 contenders matchup with Velasquez would make sense, with the winner getting the eventual champion to come out of the Lesnar-Mir-Carwin scramble.
What kind of chance would he have? That would truly depend on who ended up with the belt. Mir is the weakest wrestler of the three, and that would give Dos Santos the best chance of staying upright and landing another of what is quickly becoming his trademark punch, his left hook. Carwin likes the standup game, so perhaps he'd choose to fight fire with fire rather than go for takedowns. And Lesnar's chin is still largely untested outside of the gym. Anything on the ground is a mystery, but training with Nogueira has to count for something.
Regardless, Dos Santos has spent a lot of time waiting for his time. With great respect, he has moved past a legend in the rankings. And now, he deserves the chance to build his own legacy, and bask in his own spotlight.