Junior Dos Santos: Championship Crossroads

When Junior Dos Santos was floored and finished by Alistair Overeem in December 2015, the former UFC Heavyweight champion’s future looked uncertain. That loss had come a full year after ‘Cigano’s last fight prior, a close decision win over Stipe Miocic. For twenty-five minutes Dos Santos and Miocic went back and forth with heavy punches in a brutal Heavyweight encounter that showcased both contender’s incredible toughness and desire. For everything great about fights such as that one though, the truth is that there’s a very real long term damage that comes with them. Dos Santos’ main problem was that this wasn’t his first brutal encounter inside the octagon either, in fact he wasn’t far removed from one.

When Dos Santos entered the cage for that Miocic classic, he hadn’t fought in fourteen months, his last fight being a battering at the hands of then champion Cain Velasquez. It was almost a complete repeat of the pair’s second fight that had occurred a year prior, Velasquez’s pressure was simply too much and it resulted in Dos Santos sustaining a barbaric beating once again. Those two defeats had occurred within ten months of each other and whilst a dramatic knockout win over Mark Hunt had come in between, the perception was that Dos Santos’ career was likely only headed in one direction after soaking up so much damage in such little time.

That perception wasn’t altered much by Dos Santos’ showing against Stipe Miocic either. Whilst it has since become undeniably clear, Miocic’s potential ceiling was rather unknown at that time. He had shown genuine talent in an almost completely successful UFC career up to that point but it had come against somewhat limited opposition. Though he headed in with a 6-1 record inside the octagon, most still expected Dos Santos to overcome Miocic comfortably, pointing to his far greater experience and resume. On fight night though the gap would be minimal, and that concerned many onlookers who felt that Dos Santos looked much more stationary and sluggish than usual.

Any concerns surrounding Dos Santos and his seemingly inevitable decline were only heightened by that devastating Overeem loss. The combination of ‘Cigano’s proven power and Overeem’s perceived lack of punch resistance meant that many believed that the matchup was a favorable one for the Brazilian. Once again though that wouldn’t come to light inside the octagon as Overeem frustrated Dos Santos before violently finishing him with a vicious left hook in the 2nd round. After five years without a defeat, Dos Santos had now lost three of his last five, with each loss coming in alarmingly brutal fashion.

This time Dos Santos wouldn’t be inactive for long though and instead returned just four months later for a main event against the surging ‘Big’ Ben Rothwell. The American contender was in the form of his career heading in but Dos Santos desperately needed a win and delivered. Displaying more focus on his footwork and speed, Dos Santos beautifully peppered Rothwell with hard shots en route to a clear unanimous decision win. It was a much needed rebound win for Dos Santos and fast forwarding over a year later, a lot has since changed in the Heavyweight division.

Just a month following his victory over Rothwell, Dos Santos’ old foe Miocic claimed the Heavyweight crown, knocking out Fabricio Werdum in his home country of Brazil. Since Dos Santos had defeated him, Miocic had climbed the ranks with two strong stoppage wins and with one punch was now the champion, making it three in a row. Four months later and Miocic would get a title defense under his belt too, knocking out Dos Santos’ old conqueror Alistair Overeem in the very first round. Other circumstances since mean that this Saturday night, Dos Santos now challenges Miocic as he looks to reclaim the Heavyweight title.

Dos Santos finds himself in a situation rather unique for a fighter in an upcoming title bout. His status at this point is in many ways unknown, he looked sharp against Rothwell but seemed on the slide before that. Couple that with another year of inactivity and it’s unclear what ‘Cigano’ will actually show up. The result against Miocic won’t decide whether or not Dos Santos is still considered an elite fighter but it could play a pivotal part in deciding his future in the title picture. In some ways the question is: if this fight plays out similarly to its predecessor, does Dos Santos have another war left in him? The better question is will he need one?

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