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Junior dos Santos is ‘a different fighter today’, but would knock Fabricio Werdum out again

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

A lot has changed since the first time Junior dos Santos was booked into a fight against Alistair Overeem, and "Cigano" has looked to make improvements ahead of his UFC on FOX 17 clash with the Dutch heavyweight.

A former UFC heavyweight champion, dos Santos moved his camp to Nova Uniao and returned to the win column with a hard-fought decision victory over Stipe Miocic in his only appearance inside the Octagon in 2014. Yet training in a gym full of lightweights wasn’t the right fit for a 240-pound boxer.

Fighting on Dec. 19, exactly a year after his last UFC fight, "Cigano" has decided to once again change camps, joining Florida’s American Top Team (ATT).

"I will be here in Miami my entire camp," dos Santos told "I came here before to visit the team and they all treated me really well, ‘Conan’ (Marcus Silveira), Dan Lambert, Ricardo Liborio. I was happy with the way they treated and welcomed me, so I decided to do my camp here. I’m enjoying it, and training has been great.

"I’m glad I spent some time working at Nova Uniao, especially with professor ‘Dede’ (Andre Pederneiras). He’s an amazing person and I will be forever thankful," he continued. "But I decided to come to ATT because I have more heavyweights to train here, and more light-heavyweights too -- I like to work with light-heavyweights because they are faster, so I can work on my speed. And everything is easier here in America."

Even though "everything is easier in America," dos Santos doesn’t regret staying in Brazil that long.

"Many people told me I should have come to the United States earlier for a camp, but I always insisted on training in Brazil because I felt better training there," he said. "I still feel good training in Brazil, but this time I decided to do this test, and I can see they were right. Things here happen in an easier way, and it has been great for me."

Training in a gym full of decorated wrestlers, the Brazilian heavyweight doesn’t look back and wonder where he would be if he had moved to American Top Team before his second and third fights against Cain Velasquez.

"I don’t think about that," dos Santos said. "That’s in the past. But wrestling is obviously strong here. We have several great training partners to help here. Steve Mocco, who conducts wrestling training and teaches the techniques, is… wow. His wrestling is such high level, and he’s a great guy too. Learning with him has been great. I’m learning a lot, working on a my wrestling and jiu-jitsu, adding a few kicks to my game with Katel (Kubis) to become a complete fighter, but I will never forget by boxing. It has been a great opportunity for me, and I’m training everything."

Wrestling is an important addition to dos Santos’ arsenal, but it's not something he expects to use in his upcoming bout. Sidelined from training for months due to multiple surgeries (right knee and deviated septum), the Brazilian heavyweight faces a decorated striker in Alistair Overeem next, and hopes the fight finally happens.

"The most important is that I have a date for my next fight. It doesn’t matter who I’m facing, I don’t pick opponents," said "Cigano", who had two previous bouts with Overeem cancelled before. "This is a great fight, he talked a lot and we were supposed to fight twice (in 2012 and 2013) but it didn’t happen, but I hope it does happen this time. Booking this fight brought me extra motivation to evolve, and I feel I’m getting better every day. I missed this, that’s what I wanted.

"I want to come back in great shape, especially against a guy like Overeem. He’s a veteran, a dangerous guy. He has a good kickboxing but also a good ground game, good guillotines and knees, so he’s dangerous. It’s going to be a great challenge to return against a high-level opponent, and that’s what I want. I want to fight the best to show everyone that I’m a different fighter today. Everything that happened to me in the past, my losses and the fights I didn’t perform well, happened because I wasn’t mature enough. I’m more mature now, more patient and confident to use my entire skillset."

"Cigano" believes he’s a different fighter since the first time he was booked to face Overeem, but also expects a completely different "Reem."

"He has evolved too," said the Brazilian. "He always showed up really strong, at the limit of the heavyweight division, full of muscles. And I think that moving to Greg Jackson was a good move for him. His experience combined with the experience of the team was good for him. He has evolved, he’s moving better."

Overeem weighed in at 247 pounds before his last UFC bout against Roy Nelson, the lightest he’s been since his 2008 victory over Gary Goodridge in Netherlands. The Dutch heavyweight tested positive for elevated testosterone levels ahead of his first clash with "Cigano" in 2012, and the Brazilian hopes the United States Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) test them "as much as possible" before UFC on FOX 17.

"I hear that people who used drugs and performance enhancing steroids before can’t simply stop using them, and I really hope USADA and the UFC do a good job," he said. "They want a clean sport, and so do I. I became a world champion without touching illegal drugs, so I want a clean sport more than anyone. If the UFC can really make this new anti-doping policy work, the sport will completely change.

"Several fighters that fans know and admire, who had good performances throughout their career, might change now. And fighters who lost close fights because they weren’t using anything, might win now," he continued. "I support this new policy, and I hope they test us as much as possible so everyone knows for sure we’re both clean on fight night. Everybody wants to find out who is the great champion, not a champion who hides behind drugs. I really hope this time Overeem doesn’t use anything, and let the best man win."

A win over Overeem would put dos Santos close to another shot at the title. However, with Fabricio Werdum vs. Cain Velasquez apparently delayed until March, you can’t make plans right now.

"I want to become the heavyweight champion again, showing that everything that happened completely changed me," dos Santos said. "I feel in great shape to fight and become champion. I’m sure it will happen, but I’m not in a hurry."

The only man to win both Werdum and Velasquez in MMA, "Cigano" believes he should be the next in line instead of giving Velasquez an immediate rematch.

"I was hoping to fight for the title now in a rematch against Werdum," he said. "He did well against Velasquez, and I think it was maybe the only opportunity to make this rematch happen in a good moment. He’s 38, and I think it was the perfect moment for a rematch. But it’s up to the UFC and we have other fights booked already. I have Alistair Overeem in front of me and that’s what I’m thinking. That’s what matters to me right now."

When "Cigano" says now could be the "only opportunity" to make this rematch against Werdum, it doesn’t mean he’s picking Velasquez in a rematch. However, he expects the former champion to show up in a better shape when they meet again next year.

"Velasquez is one of a kind, and he always shows up in great shape. He doesn’t get tired, except for this fight," said dos Santos. "He gassed in the first round this time. He blamed the altitude, and that might be the case. I believe Werdum fought a different Velasquez than the one I fought. But Werdum had a great performance, my hats off to him. However, if the altitude really affected Velasquez, it’s going to be a completely different fight for Werdum.

"Werdum has a good shot at winning again because jiu-jitsu is his best weapon, and Velasquez’s wrestling is his best weapon but he won’t take Werdum down. Werdum’s ground game is really dangerous. Even the best of all times was trapped by his triangle, so Cain Velasquez won’t risk. Werdum’s best weapon might complicate things for Cain Velasquez."

Gunning for another shot at the title, dos Santos believes he has what it takes to win the gold. He admits "Vai Cavalo" has evolved a lot since their first clash in 2008, when "Cigano" put him out cold with a vicious uppercut in 81 seconds, but hasn’t evolved enough.

"I have to be confident," said the former champion. "I’m faster than him, I have better striking abilities. He’s better now, professor Rafael Cordeiro improved his muay thai, but improving your muay thai is different than having striking as your main martial art. I’ve done this my entire life. I can create more opportunities standing.

"If the fight goes to the ground, he’s the favorite. But I see myself beating him again, and by knockout. First- or second-round knockout."