On Oct. 25, 2008, a young and relatively unknown heavyweight named Junior dos Santos first stepped foot in the Octagon at UFC 90. Here was a guy who was heavily overlooked in his first UFC fight against Fabricio Werdum, and rightfully so. Werdum was only six years into his own MMA career, but he was not nearly as new in the game as dos Santos, who was just two years removed from his pro debut. Dos Santos entered the cage with few fans, but he exited it with many more converts after a stunning, explosive uppercut connected with Werdum’s chin. Werdum was out cold and dos Santos was banking “Knockout of the Night” bonus money. That’s where it all began for “Cigano,” who now, six years and 12 fights later, is set to compete in this Saturday’s UFC on Fox 13 headliner opposite rising contender Stipe Miocic.
The young Brazilian — he was 24 when he stunned Werdum — went on an incredible run of stoppage victories to prove that his knockout of Werdum was no fluke. He stopped top heavyweights such as Stefan Struve, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Gilbert Yvel and Gabriel Gonzaga before getting a crack at Roy Nelson at UFC 117. The card, which also featured the first meeting between Anderson Silva and Chael Sonnen, received a lot of attention, and dos Santos benefitted immensely, battering Nelson for three rounds and coming away with a dominant unanimous decision victory.
The UFC showed its confidence and respect for the up-and-coming Brazilian when it booked him against Brock Lesnar for a shot at the UFC heavyweight championship. Unfortunately, Lesnar pulled out due to ill health. With Lesnar out, dos Santos received a new opponent: veteran UFC heavyweight Shane Carwin. Dos Santos once again showed clear improvements by implementing the takedown when it was there and showing superior boxing skills against Carwin. The result was another unanimous verdict in the Brazilian’s favor.
That was when the big opportunity came. UFC President Dana White announced early in 2012 that Cain Velasquez was to defend his championship against dos Santos. And it was no regular title defense. Instead, it would be the showcased fight for the UFC’s first event on the Fox network in the United States. This was transcendent moment for the sport, and it was a spot that dos Santos rightfully and deservedly earned. After months of promotion and excitement, the day finally came. It was a hugely successful fight for dos Santos, who scored a knockout of Velasquez in just over a minute with a vicious overhand right. “Cigano” won the UFC heavyweight championship. Fittingly, it turned out to be his second UFC “Knockout of the Night” winner as well.
At UFC 146, dos Santos defended his title against Frank Mir, scoring a TKO in the second round to mark what would be his first and only successful defense of the heavyweight crown.
His second title defense came against Velasquez, the man from whom he had taken the belt. The fight took place at UFC 155, the year-end event for 2012, and many people picked the champion to retain. However, Velasquez implemented a smart strategy and utterly destroyed dos Santos from minute one to minute 25. This left dos Santos heartbroken and dumbfounded as to what exactly went wrong. He had lost his cherished title in a fight that was awarded to Velasquez unanimously on the scorecards.
The Brazilian bounced back in May 2013 to score a knockout of Mark Hunt. The contest was the first to earn dos Santos a “Fight of the Night” bonus, and it also put him back in line to complete his trilogy with another shot at Velasquez.
Disappointment struck again for dos Santos, unfortunately, when he stepped into the cage opposite Velasquez at UFC 166 in October 2013. The fight looked very similar to the previous UFC 155 contest, except this time Velasquez finished dos Santos via TKO in the fifth round.
The former champion was scheduled to come back on May 31 against Miocic, but he was forced out of the bout with a broken hand. Now healed, dos Santos is ready to meet Miocic in the headlining affair of UFC on Fox 13, which will be available for viewing live and free on Fox.
The critics may question many things about “Cigano,” but one thing they cannot and will not ever fault is his pure heart. He’s suffered setbacks. He’s experienced devastating losses. But, deep down, he is convinced he can win that heavyweight championship once again before he calls it a day in this unforgiving sport. He will strive and work toward that goal until he is no longer physically able. On Saturday night, dos Santos, now 30 years old, travels down that long and grueling road yet again to find out if he can be the baddest man on the planet.