Junior Dos Santos made his pro wrestling debut under the All Elite Wrestling banner this past weekend and hasn’t felt this happy in a long, long time.
Speaking on this week’s episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca, the former UFC heavyweight champion opened up on his final run in the company, where everything felt “forced and really weird.” Competing at AEW “lit a gigantic fire inside of me” after not feeling so welcome in the UFC anymore.
“They were really unprofessional, let’s put it this way, with the way they treated [me], like they [treat] everybody else,” Dos Santos said. “I wasn’t the first and won’t be the last. The last two fights I got were on those terms, ‘You take it or you’re out.’”
“Cigano” was on a three-fight winning streak over Derrick Lewis, Tai Tuivasa and Blagoy Ivanov prior to the four-fight skid that led to his release from the company in 2021. The final two bouts, which Dos Santos said were basically forced upon him, ended in second-round knockout defeats to Jairzinho Rozenstruik and future interim champion Ciryl Gane.
“I was always a nice guy because that’s how I like to be, I like being nice to people so people are nice to me,” Dos Santos said. “I learned to be that way in life, to never expect from others something I don’t give them. I was always a nice guy, treating everybody well, always smiling, and in a way they took advantage of it, or treated it as a weakness, kind of putting me down, I don’t know. They tried to take the most advantage they could of the athlete I built, of Junior ‘Cigano,’ especially the way the last fight was, something really odd.
“But honestly, that’s in the past. There’s nothing I can do, so I won’t carry that with me because, like I said, that’s in the past and it can’t leave the past. I’ve done a lot of therapy and learned to deal with that in a better way. We can’t resolve some things, so they’ll stay that way, and that’s the case with this [situation]. Let’s move on. This type of situation now with pro wrestling showed how much Junior ‘Cigano’ is beloved and how much Junior ‘Cigano’ can still perform.”
In his prime ,the Brazilian heavyweight was a big star in his native country when he reigned as UFC champion, earning wins over the likes of Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir, Shane Carwin, Fabricio Werdum and Mirko Cro Cop. He was no longer the champion when the UFC-Reebok deal kicked in but was heavily affected by it, eventually losing profitable sponsorship deals with Nike, TNT Energy Drink, Corinthians and CERS.
“The money I made to live came from my sponsors,” said Dos Santos. “The money I made in fights, I normally spent it all in my camps because I brought people from outside to help me and paid their costs there [in Brazil] with cars and a house. I gave them a good structure with my fight purses. Monthly, whatever happened, the [sponsorship] money was in my account. It was extremely important for me and, in my case, [the Reebok deal] was a big hit. It put us all on the same level. Even though some fighters had contracts with Reebok or Monster, it was more of a symbolic deal, it wasn’t that good.”
No longer under contract with the UFC, Dos Santos is open to signing with a different MMA organization, but is focused on making the leap to the boxing world, where deals aren’t as abusive as in MMA. In MMA, he said “you sign an eight-fight contract and [they will] do whatever [they] want with you.”
“That’s what happens in the UFC and these promotions,” said Dos Santos, who had five bouts left in his deal at the time of his departure. “That locks up the athletes, [losing] great possibilities to negotiate, and they do what they want. The UFC has the safety to keep you locked for eight fights. Now, you lose the first one and they can let you go if they want, there’s no safety [for the athlete]. It’s different in boxing, you negotiate fight after fight, contracts and pay. My case in the UFC, for example, I fought seven times before [fighting for] the belt. I was making the same amount of money stated in my contract.”
Dos Santos’ disclosed pay for his first UFC title bout, a clash with then-champion Cain Velasquez on UFC’s first show live on FOX, was $220,000, which includes a $110,000 win bonus.
“Do you think a guy that is about to fight for the world title in boxing would make the same thing written in his contract he signed way back then? Of course not,” he said. “For a title fight, even as the challenger, I would’ve gotten an excellent purse because it’s made to be this way, you negotiate contract after contract.”
Dos Santos hopes for a better and safer future for athletes in MMA with, for example, the Ali Act in the sport. He isn’t holding his breath, though.
“There’s nothing helping athletes,” Dos Santos said. “Legally, we have no structure in MMA like boxing has with this law. … That’s very important for fighter’s protection because right now things happen the way [MMA promoters] want. They do as they will. If it worked, great. If not, they kick you out, they move you aside, lower your pay, do this or that. I think it would be very important if they would finally bring the Ali Act to MMA and make it all more clear and protect fighters more, with better contracts and a foundation to defend the athletes.”