A few days before a pivotal fight in his career, one that may determine whether he remains in the heavyweight title picture or tumbles down the top ten, Junior Dos Santos is still smiling. There is no mean mugging described as “focus,” no shutting off of the media covering his Sunday main event in Zagreb, Croatia against Ben Rothwell.
He’s still Junior, perhaps the happiest man in all of mixed martial arts.
“I have a good life,” he said. “I have a great family and I have so many positive things in my life. Sometimes there are negative things, but it’s part of life, so I’m happy. I’m a happy guy and I’m still doing amazing things. I love to work with who I’m working with, and it’s all about that. I don’t pay attention to negativity. I just pay attention to positivity.”
Sounds like the simplest explanation of all-time, but it could just as well be the most profound. It doesn’t cost anything to smile or be nice to someone, and the former UFC heavyweight champion figured that out a long time ago. Maybe it’s why, nearly a decade after he turned pro and after defeating local legend Mirko Cro Cop and Croatian-American Stipe Miocic, he’s been accepted by the people in Zagreb as one of their own.
“I feel good being here and fighting here,” he said. “I already fought two guys from here – Cro Cop and Miocic – so I’m surprised, because when I got here and went out to the street, people recognized me and came to talk with me. It makes me very happy. I’m enjoying it here.”
All this, even with two wins over two of their favorites?
“Yeah, they like me a lot, and I think on Sunday night I think they will be rooting for me and my victory, and that’s what I want to do – give them a good victory.”
Dos Santos could use one of those after a second-round TKO loss to Alistair Overeem in December. Coming off a year-long layoff after his Fight of the Night win over Miocic, Dos Santos was off target all night before getting stopped by “The Reem.” It was his first fight without longtime boxing coach and mentor Luiz Dorea in his corner, and “Cigano” noticed that things weren’t the same.
“Yeah, I missed him and I felt the difference,” he said.
So at the tail end of his training camp for Rothwell, Dos Santos and Dorea reunited in south Florida at the American Top Team gym, and the respected coach will be in his star pupil’s corner this Sunday in Zagreb.
“We brought him to help us at ATT,” Dos Santos said. “The last time, we couldn’t bring him to stay with me, and it was the first time he wasn’t there with me and the result was a little negative. But now I’m happy that I have him with me. He knows me very well, he knows how to motivate me and how to push me very hard in my training sessions. I like it a lot, and I think it’s gonna be very good for this fight having him in my corner, and listening to his advice. It’s better now that he’s here.”
And Dos Santos expects to be better against Rothwell than he was against Overeem. Sharper, more focused, and ready to get back in the title race. No matter who holds the belt. So this time around, there’s no talk of a fourth fight with longtime rival Cain Velasquez. There’s Rothwell and a quest for the belt. That’s it. And he says it with a smile.
“I don’t care about who’s the champion and I don’t care who’s gonna be my next opponent,” he said. “I’m glad that I got Ben Rothwell now, and all I want is to get my chance to fight for the title again. I really believe I’m gonna be the champion again, and I’m working for that. And about the opponents, it’s about the UFC. Whoever they put in front of me, I’ll be ready to fight against.”