To kick off the UFC’s partnership deal with FOX in 2011, Junior dos Santos turned an hour-long broadcast special into a 64-second blink-at-your-own-peril showcase of just how sudden things can change in MMA. Dos Santos not only delivered the first punch to the casual living room, he took the heavyweight title from Velasquez, setting up a brutal best-of-three series between the two, in which Dos Santos came out on the short end in subsequent tries. Some 5 1/2 years later, he is fighting for another title at UFC 211.
That is some serious perseverance.
JDS’s return to contention has been very subtle. He hasn’t vied for the spotlight the way some contenders have, nor lodged endless complaints about his standing. When times got tough for him, such as when he lost the third Velasquez fight at UFC 166 and had his daylights dimmed in the process, Dos Santos restored himself quietly. Over the years, his disposition has rarely been anything other than sunny. He wins, he loses, he stays fairly even keel. In some ways, he is everything the fight game can do without. There really isn’t a friendlier assassin, and marketing warmth is a hard trick to turn.
Yet if there’s ever been a pendulum fighter who gets tougher to figure out the further he goes along — who in fact confuses you on which way to swing your dread (towards him or his opponent) — it’s “Cigano.” He’s the only man to defeat the five most recent heavyweight champions: Velasquez, Fabricio Werdum, Frank Mir, Shane Carwin and Stipe Miocic. You know he can knock out anybody the UFC puts in front of him. Power in the hands makes up for any overarching benignity.
He also took those hellacious beatings against Velasquez, going out on his proverbial shield to the point where the public winced for his long-term health. There’s still a question as to just how much that rivalry took out of him (as well as Velasquez, who hasn’t been the same since, either). He followed that up with a classic back-and-forth battle with Stipe Miocic — whom he meets again tonight in Dallas — which was essentially 25 minutes of severe chin-checking. Despite facing every deadly name on the roster, dos Santos never gets knocked out fast and clean.
If he loses, he makes sure to take a toll.
Like he did against Alistair Overeem in Florida 18 months ago, looking like a shell of the man that won seven straight heading onto the original FOX platform. That fight, when taken in context with all the battles before it, kicked up a decent amount of career eulogies. I can remember being in Orlando that night, and how the tolls of so many battles felt almost tangible.
Dos Santos? He just brushed himself off. Not too high on the highs, not too low on the lows.
Four months later he showed up in Zagreb for his fight with “Big” Ben Rothwell a smarter, more intuitive fighter, with technique, patience and a refined air of self-perseverance. He was countering, he was moving; he was getting out of the way. Where did that version come from? Some place that Junior had in reserve? — or, some place that Junior realized is the only place left to draw from? That fight, which was enough to gain him a shot at the title, signaled a philosophical shift in JDS’s thinking. He dominated for 25 minutes, and never once gave into a careless impulse.
Chances are he won’t have as easy a time of it against Miocic in a heavyweight title fight. The first bout was a war of attrition that ended with dos Santos getting his arm raised. With Miocic being a powered-up action fighter who has put away his last four opponents via KO/TKO — the last three in the first round — dos Santos will in all likelihood find himself in a familiar gun fight, taking some to land some. It feels like a certainty that the fight will deliver, because both fighters have something to prove. Miocic that he’s the best heavyweight going; dos Santos that he’s still there.
And he is. He’s still there. The man who has stood in with, knocked out, and been battered by the best heavyweights in the world is going to mix it up with Miocic again in Dallas. Somehow he’s fighting for a title again. That’s a mighty chin that JDS has, one that is only matched by the drape-closing power in his hands. It’s the latter that made him a champion all the way back when the UFC kicked off its FOX deal. It’s the other thing that holds up so well that at times it feels uneasy.