If you ever find yourself questioning what kind of competitor Junior Dos Santos is, this weekend’s main event pairing with Curtis Blaydes and the timing of the bout should provide you with all you need to know about the former UFC heavyweight champion.
Three months ago, “Cigano” was forced out of a scheduled bout with Alexander Volkov in Moscow due to a particularly nasty staph infection in his leg.
Forced to spend more than a week in the hospital and endure multiple procedures and rounds of antibiotics to remedy the situation, Dos Santos not only exited the hospital and returned to his role as a competitor on the Brazilian version of Dancing with the Stars (Dança dos Famosos), where he and his partner ultimately finished in fifth place, but he also jumped at the opportunity to get right back into the cage against the third-ranked heavyweight Blaydes this weekend.
“This is what I love to do,” said the affable Brazilian. “I feel great when I have a fight, so that’s why I accepted to fight Curtis Blaydes now, so soon after all the surgeries I had on my leg because when I don’t have a challenge in my life, I feel bad and things don’t happen in a good way in my life, so I want to have a challenge.
“When they offered me Curtis Blaydes, I didn’t realize he was third in the rankings. I didn’t even think that he hasn’t lost to anyone besides Francis Ngannou.
“I know he’s a tough fighter and he has a very boring game, the kind of game that I hate, but it makes the challenge even more exciting for me,” he added. “It makes me more excited to go out there and knock him out or even submit him. Maybe it’s a good opportunity for me to go there and use my jiu-jitsu.”
Describing Blaydes’ style as boring is more gamesmanship than a genuinely apt description of what the Elevation Fight Team member brings to the cage.
While he is a former National Junior College National Champion wrestler who has racked up copious takedowns in his eight UFC appearances that didn’t involve Ngannou (and a couple in their first meeting), the 28-year-old looks to do damage from top position, rather than simply ride out control time and cruise to victory on the scorecards.
It’s also a chance to Dos Santos to preemptively address the questions and skepticism that often comes to the forefront when he’s paired off with someone who could very well take him to the ground multiple times.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt under Yuri Carlton, Dos Santos has just a single submission win in his career — a first-round guillotine choke finish in the second fight of his career — and has rarely even thought of changing levels inside the Octagon, prompting many opponents to question his credentials.
“If you want me to go there and take someone down, to use my jiu-jitsu, I will never do that; someone needs to put me down,” he began. “If you allow me to go the way I want, I’ll stay on my feet, banging.
“I train very hard in all aspects of fighting and the coaches are always on top of us. I don’t think I can’t do that — I can wrestle, I can do jiu-jitsu, I can kick; I can do it all, but I’m a boxing guy and I love to knock people out, so I’ll always be looking for that knockout.”
Though he is very much locked in on tackling his latest challenge, last fall’s unexpected health scare certainly had an impact on the jovial family man.
“I was in shock because I was feeling great and then somehow I got that bacteria in my leg,” said Dos Santos. “I was healthy, I take care of myself, and that’s when I realized how fragile we are.
“I was in the hospital for nine days. Even while I was in the hospital, I was thinking to myself, ‘I’ll be here for a couple days to recover from this and I’m not going to pull out of the fight.’ I was going to still fight, keep dancing, and keep my challenges. The doctor came to me after one week in the hospital, I told him that and he said, ‘You’re not understanding what is happening here. You’re lucky because if you took one or two more days to come to the hospital, you could lose your leg, at the very least.’
“That was one of the things that I couldn’t believe,” he added. “We have to pay attention to the good things in life because from nothing, I could have died. That’s crazy!
“I’m a family guy and now I give even more value to spending time with them because that’s the most important part of life — your family, your kids; there is nothing like this. My career is very important in my life, but I can deal with whatever happens in my career. It’s different with my family — I have to keep my focus on them, to care for my children, and guide my children to have a good life.”
That being said, don’t think for a second that the devoted family man has abandoned his passion for punching people in the face and his ambition to once again stand atop the UFC heavyweight division.
“I want to fight these guys (that beat me) again and to be the champion again,” said the former titleholder, who turns 36 next Friday. “That’s what keeps my career moving forward. I still have a lot of things to do in this division.
“Sometimes we make mistakes. My strategy with Ngannou was to keep away from him, especially in the first round, but I felt so good and everything started to kind of work that I paid a big price for trying to take advantage of the moment. I should have stuck to my strategy, but I didn’t and that’s fine.
“I really believe — and maybe I’m wrong, but I really believe that the reason I’m not the champion today, it’s because I made mistakes. For me, it’s just about correcting those mistakes and then I will be the champion. I have everything it takes to beat each and every one of the guys in this division, so when they offer me a fight, I don’t think about my opponent; I think about the opportunity.”
A victory on Saturday night won’t earn him a title shot, but it would certainly bring him one step closer and set the veteran standout up for another major challenge in a few months time, which is all Dos Santos wants, both inside and outside of the Octagon.
First up is Blaydes this weekend and then after that, another marquee fight is the obvious option, but don’t rule out a return to the dance floor.
“It was something different — a different challenge — and I had a lot of fun,” he said of his time on Dança dos Famosos. “It takes a lot of dedication too because we only had from Tuesday to Friday to learn and build the whole routine, which is a short amount of time.
“I had a lot of fun there and I was impressed with myself, how I was able to perform. I felt really good and I’m thankful for the opportunity,” he added. “Now I’m looking forward to getting the same opportunity here in America — to be on Dancing with the Stars.”