It was a make-or-break moment for former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos on Sunday at UFC Fight Night 86 in Zagreb, Croatia. Dos Santos had to face and get past surging contender Ben Rothwell if he was to ever live up to his statements that he'd rise to the top of the division again.
And, lucky for the man known as "Cigano," he did just that, earning a hard-fought but dominant unanimous decision win over Rothwell in the night's main event.
While there's no guarantee he'll get a title shot from the victory, it was a massively important fight to prove he belongs at the top of the division after many speculated wars with Cain Velasquez and Stipe Miocic had taken the Brazilian's best from him.
In defeating Rothwell, dos Santos showed his trademark jab, excellent footwork and overall superior striking. It was the kind of performance that inspires confidence and vaults him back to the elite of the UFC's heavyweight division.
"It's always good to go to the body especially when you're fighting a huge guy like him," dos Santos said of his relentless body work against Rothwell. "Like I was saying, you can't collide with those guys. I used my footwork and throw some hard jabs and punches. It worked well. Thank God, I won."
With this fight, dos Santos showed offensive patience. It's also a bout where he reunited with his long-time coach Luiz Dorea. Dos Santos noted he believes he's finally got the right system in place to push him as far as he wants to go in the sport.
"I think I'm doing good now. It's hard," he said. "I know I have to improve in my skills. Not just my boxing skills, my wrestling, my jiu-jitsu, but I can't go away from boxing. I have to know jiu-jitsu and wrestling, but I'm a boxing guy. I have to keep it there because I'm more confident. I'm feeling good. I think at this time now we are putting everything in the right place. That's why I'm saying I'm going to be champion again. It's not going to take too long."
That doesn't mean there weren't tense moments in the bout with Rothwell. The American never backed down, never stopped walking dos Santos down and landed a number of heavy strikes of his own. For those reasons, dos Santos couldn't finish him off, something he explained afterwards.
"Like I used to say: a fight's a fight, you never know what's going to happen, right?" dos Santos said "I had my strategy. I'm a boxing guy. I like to move a lot and throw some hard punches. That was my strategy, to move a lot, take advantage of the whole Octagon. I think everything went very well.
"Ben Rothwell is a beast, like he says he is," he continued. "He's very, very tough. Hits hard and as he normally does, he walks forward all the time. He was putting some pressure, so I had to move a lot. My strategy worked very well."
As for that title shot, dos Santos said he doesn't know when it's coming. To hear him tell it, it doesn't seem like he cares too much. Yes, he wants it and sure, he believes he'll be champion again. But the process of getting there has to be different this time. One challenge at a time, he noted, and everything will take care of itself.
"I don't really care about that now," he said of getting an immediate title shot. "I just want to fight. I was thinking about that too much, but now I just want to fight. I know it's going to happen at some point. Whatever UFC wants to do or any opponent they want to give me, I'll be ready for that."