Junior dos Santos is at crossroads at UFC 252, as his heavyweight clash with Jairzinho Rozenstruik marks the first time the former champion is not featured in a main or co-main event in a decade.
“Cigano,” who always brings a smile on his face no matter what, changed a few things ahead of Saturday night’s match. He has slimmed down over the past months, reaching the same weight he carried when he beat Cain Velasquez for the belt in 2011. At 240 pounds and “one of the best shapes of my career, strong and fast,” dos Santos can’t wait to enter the octagon one more time.
Initially, the Brazilian was against his coaches’ advice of taking extra time off after his second knockout loss in a row, courtesy of Curtis Blaydes’ hands in January, by targeting a return sometime in May. When the COVID-19 outbreak hit the United States earlier this year, forcing gyms to close doors and the UFC to change its entire schedule, Cigano had no option but stay home.
“It was always my intention to come back as soon as possible since the last result was negative, but this pandemic kind of made it impossible to happen, and that was really heavy for me,” dos Santos said in an interview with MMA Fighting.
“Having to absorb an unwanted result and not being able to do anything about it sucks. You feel powerless, you know? It sucks, it’s bad, but the good thing is — let’s focus on the good things here — I got to spend more time with my family and my kids at home, and I can’t explain how valuable that is. That’s what matters the most in my life, and it brought me happiness and pleasure. Everyone around me saw that this time I got to spend with my family was great.”
Dos Santos feels great just being in Las Vegas now, hours away from a heavyweight showdown under the brights lights of the UFC even if there will be no fans in attendance inside the APEX.
Another downside of the pandemic, however, is that his longtime boxing coach Luiz Carlos Dorea won’t be in his corner due to travel restrictions. It has only happened once before in the UFC, when he met Alistair Overeem in 2015. Cigano admits that not having Dorea by his side will be “very complicated,” but UFC veteran Roan Carneiro was in charge of his training camp for UFC 252.
Rozenstruik, his UFC 252 opponent, is coming off the first loss of his MMA career, a 20-second knockout defeat to Francis Ngannou, and dos Santos thinks “it’s going to be a great fight.”
“Jairzinho came out with this negative result in his last fight, a super fast fight, he didn’t fight, really, so he’s definitely hungry for the victory as I am,” he said. “It will definitely be two heavyweight strikers going for the knockout at all times. I have no doubt that someone will get knocked out, and based on the work we’ve done, it’s going to be him.”
The experienced Brazilian has shared the cage with some of the best in the world since 2008. He made his mark in his UFC debut by stopping Fabricio Werdum—a top contender at the time—in just 81 seconds. Some question if Cigano can still hang among the best after getting knocked out in his past five defeats, and dos Santos has no problem responding to those claims.
“People say I’m not the same anymore, and I’m not,” he said. “Things evolve, things happen, things change. I’m in the UFC for more than a decade, I’m in the top-five for more than a decade, and that means a lot to me. It’s a huge experience. I’m a top-five since the beginning of my (UFC) career and I’ll continue that way. The goal is to become the No. 1. I have no doubt it can happen and it will happen.
“It’s about adapting. We have to adapt to the scenario and work our strategy better to be able to impose our skills to make sure everything happens the way we want. It’s a mix of your mental and physical. The physical is wonderful, brother. The mental, I’ve been working that a lot to stay on the right track as well. With both in sync, I have everything to become the champion of the world and stay there for a long time.”