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It's been a while, but Junior dos Santos can smile again

Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

PHOENIX, Ariz. -- It didn't take long for that old, goofy grin to creep back across Junior dos Santos' face.

Fourteen months after Cain Velasquez grounded him into an unrecognizable and bloody paste, seven months after his superhuman frame failed to make its Brazilian homecoming, the man they used to call o campeão danced his fiendish dance across the blue canvas at Wednesday's UFC on FOX 13 open workouts, proving once again that there's few scarier to watch box the shadows.

Those uppercuts, the same ones he once used to knock the current interim champ silly... those still explode like gunshots, in case you were wondering.

It's been a while for dos Santos, the UFC's onetime heavyweight king who left his mystique lying somewhere in the bowels of the Toyota Center then disappeared for the better part of a year. Another casualty of the UFC's cursed 2014, dos Santos wasn't the only fighter throwing up hallelujahs each night as the calendar inched towards its fresh start. But considering the breadth of his path, a slow parade of injuries, adjustments, and cold realizations, plus one unshakable snapshot of UFC 166, dos Santos certainly isn't upset to see this wasted year come to an end.

"I have to be very thankful because everything is going good right now," he told

"The last year was really, really tough for me. Those injuries and everything that was happening. One year without fighting... we fight for a living, so it's very hard for us. But it's all in the past."

dos Santos will finally make his return on Saturday, squaring off against hungry blue-chipper Stipe Miocic. The last time we all saw the Brazilian, his forehead was thudding against the floor, the force of 274 blows rattling around somewhere between those mousy ears. A surreal image, that one was. The will of even the most willful finally saying ‘enough.'

Only a year before, dos Santos was supposed to be the next great heavyweight. Possibly the next greatest heavyweight. Because really, who else was there?

It's crazy how much 48 minutes in the cage can change things.

Now even the notion of sending dos Santos back in there with Velasquez for another mauling makes for a queasy thought. The heavyweight many consider to be the second best in the world has become the heavyweight farthest off from a crack at gold. Such reversal in narratives would seem trite if it wasn't so absolute.

"Every athlete in the UFC, I think they want to fight for the title," dos Santos says. "I'm no different. I really believe, it doesn't matter what happened against Velasquez. I won the first one and I lost the next ones. But I really believe I can be the champion again.

"I really believe if I put my mind in the right place, if I train very hard, if I have good support by my side, I can be the champion again and stay there for a long time."

Of course dos Santos says things like this because he has to, but also because he believes it. Because he was champion, a great champion, and very well could still be if a certain Mexican-American didn't bother to ever don a singlet. (Though one has to wonder what dos Santos thinks when he sees Fabricio Werdum blissfully parading around Brazil with that other 12 pounds strapped around his waist.)

Still, 14 months after Velasquez cemented dos Santos' need for change, dos Santos seems to have responded with surprising aplomb. He uprooted himself away from his self-admitted comfort zone and moved his camp to Rio de Janeiro's Nova Uniao. He's been there now for nearly a year, training alongside featherweight great Jose Aldo under the watchful eye of Andre Pederneiras.

At 30 years old, he calls it evolution.

"I was training all the same things all the time," dos Santos says. "So I changed it because I would like to see something different, to learn something different. Trying to understand the fight world like they understand it, like the other teams understand it. Nova Uniao, now I'm there training with them, and I think it's happening. I'm seeing a lot of new things.

"I'm really confident with my boxing skills, but you know I have jiu-jitsu. I have wrestling. I have Muay Thai. So why I don't use that too much with my fights? I want to be confident. I want to learn how to be confident to use all those things during the fight. If my boxing is not working very well, let's do jiu-jitsu a little bit, try to find some holes in my opponent's game.

"I really believe in my hands and my power to knock people out and I will try to keep looking for that, for knockouts. But I want to become better. I want to become more complete, because I really believe that if that happens -- I put that in my mind, if I get better mentally, it's enough for me to be champion again."

dos Santos says he hears other heavyweights like Brendan Schaub talk about retiring in their early-thirties and he marvels at the thought. Screw the damage. He wants to be a guy like Randy Couture, a legend, a fan-favorite who fights well into his forties. He wants to make those uppercuts sing for another decade. Draw out those dull thuds of meat on bone and the guttural shudders that follow. But mostly, he just wants to fight.

Because man, it's been a while.

"That's what I want, I want to be back to my winning streak," dos Santos says. Right on cue, there's that old, goofy grin creeping back.

"Because it doesn't matter who. I don't pick opponents. I don't care about who I'm going to fight. Of course I'm going to fight against the best, and I think it's happening now because Miocic is one of the best. He's really good. So right now I'm just thinking about going there and putting on a good show and winning this fight. I'm sure 2015 will be amazing, because 2014 wasn't... But the end of 2014 is going to be good!"

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