On December 29 in Las Vegas, UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos defends his crown against the man he defeated for it a little over a year ago, Cain Velasquez. When we first caught up to the dynamic “Cigano,” he had made an immediate impression on UFC fans with his knockouts of Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve. Following our recaps of those first two Octagon bouts, read on for dos Santos’ thoughts before his UFC 103 bout against Mirko Cro Cop in September of 2009.
UFC 90 – October 25, 2008 – Allstate Arena – Rosemont, Illinois
In the flash of a single right uppercut from Junior dos Santos, heavyweight contender Fabricio Werdum saw a title shot in the near future disappear, as he was knocked out just 80 seconds into the first round.
After a few tentative early moments that saw Werdum confidently stalking his younger and smaller foe, dos Santos saw his opening and made the most of it, drilling Werdum with a right uppercut that sent the Porto Alegre native down to the canvas face first. A follow-up barrage brought referee Marc Fennell in to halt the fight at the 1:20 mark.
With the win, dos Santos improves to 7-1; Werdum falls to 11-4-1.
UFC 95 – February 21, 2009 – O2 Arena – London, England
Heavyweight up and comer Junior dos Santos made it two for two when it comes to big knockout victories in the UFC, following up his win over Fabricio Werdum last October with a 54 second destruction of Octagon newcomer Stefan Struve in preliminary action at the O2 Arena.
After some tentative action in the early moments of the fight, dos Santos (8-1) attacked and immediately hurt the 6 foot 11 Struve (20-3) with a left to the head. Struve tried to shake the shot off, but his legs weren’t under him and he sagged back into the cage. Dos Santos moved in for the kill and dropped the Netherlands fighter with a right hand. Struve gamely rose, but was sent back to the mat, prompting referee Dan Miragliotta’s stoppage of the bout.
Junior dos Santos – Walking the Tightrope
As heavyweight legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira made his way to the Octagon for his bout with Randy Couture in Portland last month, no one cheered louder than a young Brazilian man standing maybe 20 feet from his hero.
But this was no ordinary fan. This 25-year old from Salvador, Junior dos Santos, may very well turn out to be the heir to Nogueira’s crown as the best heavyweight in Brazil, and if all goes well, the best in the world.
“The great Brazilian fighters inspire me,” dos Santos told UFC.com through translator Derek Kronig Lee. “I try to do my work as well as possible, because I believe I can follow the same path and one day become a great champion.”
One of those great champions, Nogueira, is not just an idol to be admired from afar; instead, ‘Minotauro’ is a trainer and mentor to dos Santos, who has learned his lessons well thus far.
“In the ring, Rodrigo inspires me with his determination, his courage and the way he never gives up; he always keeps himself strong,” said dos Santos of the former PRIDE and interim UFC heavyweight champ. “Outside of the ring he is a great influence, a great friend, and he takes care of himself in all aspects; I have always been inspired by him.”
And dos Santos has delivered when it’s counted so far, winning eight of the nine professional bouts he’s had since entering the fight game in 2006. More importantly, ‘Cigano’ (a nickname which means “gypsy” in Portuguese, and one he was given when he started training jiu-jitsu because of the long hair he used to tie up which made him look like a famous Brazilian gypsy) has made an immediate impact on the UFC heavyweight division with two blistering knockout wins over Fabricio Werdum and Stefan Struve. All of a sudden, in the space of less than a year, dos Santos has become a fan favorite and must-see TV.
“I think it was because I was able to show my work the way I wanted to, and everything played out as I hoped it would,” said dos Santos of his immediate popularity. “The fans like watching knockouts, and that is always my objective in a fight.”
Oddly enough, despite his one punch knockout power, the 6-3 ½, 238 pounder’s initial fighting discipline is Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, an art in which the current purple belt earned the Bahia State championship. But don’t expect him to pull out his grappling skills unless he needs them, as he’s more than content with knocking people out when they try to stand with him.
“I don’t have any secrets, I fight where I need to fight, be it standing or on the ground,” he said. “If the fight goes to the ground, you will all see my jiu-jitsu skills.”
That may not be the case this Saturday night in Dallas, Texas, when dos Santos faces his stiffest test to date in fellow knockout artist Mirko Cro Cop. Of course, the feared Croatian striker has been doing this knockout thing for a lot longer, a fact that has earned dos Santos’ respect.
“He (Cro Cop) is a great star in MMA, a guy that must be respected,” he said. “I don’t remember the first time I saw him fighting, but I always felt that he was a dangerous guy and I still have that impression of him.”
Considering that impression, and the fact that Cro Cop has the type of power in his kicks and laser-like left hand to make any fighter reconsider his line of work, maybe this wouldn’t be a bad time for dos Santos to think about working that ground game into his routine. But ‘Cigano’ almost laughs at such a suggestion.
“I am very confident in my boxing skills,” he said. “I look for the knockout in all my fights, I don’t see why it would be different in this fight.”
Yet despite his bravado, that doesn’t mean dos Santos is planning on wading in recklessly against Cro Cop. Instead, he plans on implementing a measured attack that will eventually force the veteran into a fight-ending mistake.
“He can end the fight at any moment, all it takes is one hit,” said dos Santos. “So I have to pay close attention to his movements, always be ahead of his game, and I have to work cautiously and can’t make any mistakes.”
That’s a lot to ask from a 25-year old with nine pro fights who started training in 2005, the year Cro Cop decisioned Josh Barnett and knocked out Mark Coleman and Ibragim Magomedov in PRIDE. Add in the expectations that come with being the co-main event on a UFC pay-per-view card, and dos Santos could be in some trouble on fight night. But with Nogueira and middleweight champ Anderson Silva backing him, you can be pretty sure they’ve prepared their charge for whatever scenarios he may see in and on the way to American Airlines Center.
“I feel that I took the opportunities given to me (so far), and the UFC rewarded me with even better opportunities like this fight now,” said dos Santos. “I am already feeling better about the added pressure, and with time I will gain more experience which always helps with the pressure.”
As far as the possibility that he may see the second round for the first time in his pro career, again, dos Santos is confident he can handle whatever comes his way.
“I always spar for four rounds, one round more than a fight,” he said. “The intensity of my training is greater than the fight, so I always feel very well prepared to go the full three rounds.”
Well, if most pundits are correct, dos Santos and Cro Cop won’t have to worry about round two, because this bout is expected to end in explosive fashion within the first five minutes. Dos Santos would have no problem with that ending, and should he earn his third straight first round UFC knockout, that chance to become Brazil’s latest champion may come sooner than he thinks. Not that he’s rushing things.
“(UFC heavyweight champion) Brock Lesnar is a strong guy, experienced, dangerous and he is the champion,” said dos Santos. “But I am not in a hurry to be the champion; I am sure that the right time will come. I just try to do my work well and give my best in all my fights.”
UFC 103 – September 19, 2009 – American Airlines Arena – Dallas, Texas
Rising star Junior dos Santos has already displayed the ability to blast opponents out with ease. Tonight at American Airlines Center, he showed that he can stick to his gameplan, punish, and then finish a foe late, as he forced Mirko Cro Cop to verbally submit in the third round of their pivotal UFC 103 heavyweight bout.
“I feel very good,” said dos Santos, now 9-1 as a pro (3-0 in the UFC). “My training was very hard, and tonight I have one more victory in my career.”
Dos Santos went right at Cro Cop (25-7-2, 1 NC) from the opening bell, showing little regard for the reputation of the former PRIDE star. Cro Cop kept cook as he looked to counter, drawing a roar as he threw his patented left kick to the head. dos Santos blocked the kick and continued to move forward, landing shots on the inside that raised a welt above Cro Cop’s right eye. dos Santos was also bruised from the exchanges, under his left eye, and the two looked to be settling in for a long battle as the round came to a close.
The second round began slowly, but within 30 seconds the action started to heat up again, with Cro Cop scoring with a couple leg kicks while dos Santos sent Cro Cop backwards with punches to the head. As the round progressed, the bruise under dos Santos’ left eye worsened, but the Brazilian, in unfamiliar territory as far as being in the second round goes, refused to move backwards until a Cro Cop kick strayed low and forced a halt to the action. After a brief break, the fight resumed, and dos Santos was able to cut Cro Cop above the left eye just before the bell.
Cro Cop, perhaps sensing the need for more urgency, became the aggressor as the final round opened, but was unable to break dos Santos’ defenses. Instead, it was dos Santos starting to land more and more, particularly with his knees, which visibly rocked the Croatian, Moments after another couple hard shots from dos Santos, Cro Cop turned away and was unable to continue at the 2:00 mark, rendering ‘Cigano’ the winner via verbal submission.
“I hope everybody enjoyed my fight,” said dos Santos. “The United States has been wonderful to me.”
UFC 155 Flashback - Dos Santos Makes His Mark
“I am already feeling better about the added pressure, and with time I will gain more experience which always helps with the pressure.” - Junior dos Santos, 2009