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Leave it to Junior dos Santos to crash the heavyweight party

MMA: UFC Fight Night-Wichita-Lewis vs Dos Santos Kelly Ross-USA TODAY Sports

The last time Junior dos Santos won three fights in a row he was The Man in the UFC, fighting in Vegas on pay-per-views, usually with a title in play. This time through? He’s fighting off-Broadway for UFC Fight Night shows, winning heavyweight clobberfests in towns like Boise, Idaho and far-off Adelaide. On Saturday night, dos Santos — a Brazilian by passport — headlined the UFC’s first ever card in Wichita, Kansas, and ended up singing happy birthday to his two-year-old son with a room full of strangers.

It’s the kind of thing that should confound posterity.

Just like the latest development in the UFC’s weekend serials: Somehow, some way “Cigano” has punched his way back into heavyweight contention just a year-and-a-half after it looked like his career was winding down. On Saturday night he socked Derrick Lewis with his patented overhand right, hit him with a spinning kick to the torso, and finished the job midway through the second round with big shots while Lewis turtled up along the fence. It was vintage Dos Santos in that he took his share of trauma, too. Lewis, while doubled over in pain from that kick to his body in the first round, sprung a surprising uppercut that nearly took JDS’s head off.

Because Dos Santos staggered to recover his own bearings for those brief few moments — and because the UFC loves a fight when both competitors trade off teetering on the brink — he ended up taking home a Fight of the Night bonus. He also declared that he wasn’t dead quite yet. Not by a long shot. The guy who got savaged for five brutal rounds against Cain Velasquez and then knocked out three times between 2013-2017 has life left in him. In fact, if current heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier weren’t pinky sworn into a fight with Brock Lesnar for later this year, Dos Santos would have inside position to fight once again for the heavyweight crown.

Talk about a quiet, unexpected resurgence. JDS went and did exactly what the UFC is asking Stipe Miocic to do. When he wasn’t wanted (or needed) in the title picture anymore, he went about wrecking the periphery. For a while there it seemed like his record was echoing his fights — he’d take a punch, land a punch, take one, land one. He won a bloody battle against Miocic in 2014, and then got knocked out by Alistair Overeem in Orlando. I can remember the dirge music that accompanied that bout, especially after all the damage he’d taken through the Velasquez Wars. He came back and beat Ben Rothwell, then lost the rematch to Miocic, this time via first-round knockout.

He looked good and cooked, if we’re being honest. The beasts in the division were beasting on him in uncomfortable ways, and JDS’s relevance as a contender evaporated in real time. So what did the UFC do? It shipped him to Boise for a fight with Blagoy Ivanov a little over a year later, and built a show on the fumes of his earlier success. Dos Santos won a solid (if unremarkable) five-rounder there, and parlayed that momentum into an upset victory over Tai Tuivasa in Australia, in what was meant to be Tuivasa’s breakout moment.

Then came Saturday night in Wichita, a landlocked town that Dos Santos took to like a rescued dog. Unlike so many of his counterparts, JDS seems to beam happiness at his good fortune. He put on a retro-JDS show and then crushed everyone with his brand of enthusiasm and giddiness. He didn’t call anybody out, opting instead for the traditional “I just want to stay busy” routine, but he made it clear he’s right back in the rarified running.

He could have that trilogy fight with Miocic, a prospect that not so long ago would have felt inhumane. He could fight Francis Ngannou in a title eliminator, a fresh match-up that Ngannou himself seemed in favor of (judging by the contemplative emoji he posted on Twitter). He could fight Cormier if Lesnar doesn’t work out, and at this point nobody would complain. He’s in a position to fight any of them, and any of them will be big fights.

Big enough to be on a pay-per-view, rather than a random Fight Night. It didn’t seem likely a year-and-a-half ago, but Dos Santos is back. And for a guy that so many people forgot about, there’s really no place like home.

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