Violent, aggressive, and explosive; Junior dos Santos joined the UFC in 2008 and was able to put together a record-breaking win streak against remarkably high level competition with wins over the likes of Pride champion Mirko Cro Cop, world champion jiu-jitsu artist Fabricio Werdum, and the “Baddest Man on the Planet”, Cain Velasquez. With five first round finishes and FOTN bonuses added to the mix, dos Santos secured his rightful place atop the heavyweight rankings as champion of the most prestigious group of fighters on the planet. Once a UFC “newcomer”, “Cigano” had quietly developed a rivalry with an all-time great.
Almost a full year after his knockout loss to Junior, Cain Velasquez decided it was time to reclaim the throne. Velasquez illustrated that their first fight may have been a lucky shot, and cemented his legacy by dethroning the exquisite boxer/jiu-jitsu black belt, out-working him on the feet and on the ground with one of the most vicious beatings to ever grace the Octagon at UFC 155. dos Santos was changed by this mauling but he did not give up, coming back a few months later with an incredibly rare knockout of the granite-chinned Mark Hunt. It was then time to finish what he started with Cain, time to end the rivalry with a fight for the ages.
Both fighters had not only wanted this fight, but it was demanded by the fans. Cigano should have stayed home; after 23 minutes of being dominated, dos Santos was finished with a devastating slam followed by a series of punches that left him almost unrecognizable.
Dos Santos was a different fighter after encountering Velasquez for the final time. He was timid, he froze, and he did not have the aggression that made him so dominant. He seemed to be afraid it might happen again. He was an aging killer with a career on the rocks. He would continue to fight in main events but fans knew that his abilities were now in question. These concerns were legitimate as he was knocked out twice more by Stipe Miocic and Alistair Overeem in the years to come. His recent fights left him with an equal number of wins and losses, but dos Santos’ timidity looked as though it was turning him into more defensive fighter. He was becoming better known for his ability to pick people apart for five rounds with his beautiful boxing instead of landing a dump truck of an uppercut or an overhand someone would be lucky to survive, although he still had these weapons in his arsenal.
The turning point in his career came with Ben Rothwell. After all of his devastating losses, Junior looked incredible in this fight. Jabs landed at will, along with massive overhands and a push kick that threw a 265 lbs man across the cage. Was Junior making a comeback? This was followed shortly after by wins over men who were not on dos Santos’ level athletically or technically. He knocked out a street fighter in Tai Tuivasa, and a man who likes to swang and bang in Derrick Lewis. Both of these men are far cries from the lethal, world-class talent dos Santos was used to fighting. Maybe this acted as a confidence boost that ended up working against him because in his most recent fight he was matched up with a 6’4″, 255 lbs Cameroonian sand miner: Francis “The Predator” Ngannou. It wasn’t the savage beating he was given by Velasquez but after a split second mistake by dos Santos, a glancing blow landed by the UFC’s hardest puncher (on record), dropping dos Santos and ending the fight in the first round in a fashion that many expected.
dos Santos has had an incredible career so far with his only losses coming from undeniable talent: Cain Velasquez, Alistair Overeem, Stipe Miocic, and Francis Ngannou. There is no shame in losing to any of these men. With defeats like this come a silver lining; Junior has the soul of a champion. He never makes excuses and is always in good spirits. He insists he will come back and continue his career with more vicious knockouts but at 35-years old and two small children, maybe it’s time to hang the gloves up and focus on family. Seeing a man this kind lose consciousness and risk everything is heart breaking. Junior is a former champion, multiple UFC record holder, and in my opinion: a legend. His fatal flaw isn’t being backed into the cage or his head movement, it’s not knowing when to quit, a problem that plagues many fighters, they need to be protected from themselves.