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Junior dos Santos: Gypsy Road
by Chuck Mindenhall
Junior dos Santos has destroyed every UFC heavyweight he’s faced—but the division’s top contender has a big one-two combination that he’s looking to deliver…victories over Brock Lesnar and Cain Velasquez.
Juniordos Santos made his Octagon debut outside of Chicago against Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90. He came into that fight as a 5-to-1 underdog. He spoke virtually no English. At the time, most people couldn’t tell the difference between Junior dos Santos and Rafaeldos Anjos, the lightweight who also hails from Brazil. He was supposed to be nothing more than a warm body for Werdum to tune up with before his title shot against Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira or Frank Mir or Randy Couture or Brock Lesnar, a confusing list of legit, interim, potential, and purgatorial champions.
Junior? He’d never fought in the States before. He had just beaten a guy named Geronimo dos Santos in Salvador, which didn’t prove much other than there might be legions of untapped dos Santos’ in Brazil.The man they called “Cigano” was, essentially, heavyweight chum in the water to draw out the big fish. Just résumé tinsel for Werdum.
That’s when everyone realized how freaking uncooperative this dude was. Junior stood in the pocket and threw a ridiculous uppercut that flattened Werdum and, just that fast, put the heavyweight landscape into a greater muddle. He became a popular GIF for about a minute—a small violent GIF of him uncoiling that big, resonating uppercut. And despite getting Knockout of the Night—or maybe because of it—there was a brief moment in late 2008 that he was a fluke with power, who’d caught Werdum taking things lightly. The Brazilian was still pretty much unknown.
Then he beat Stefan Struve in London in 54 seconds (TKO, punches), then Mirko Cro Cop in Dallas (submission, punches), and then Gilbert Yvel in Vegas (TKO, punches). The trend kept going—aloud, particularly fistic trend that seemed almost obscene coming from a BJJ brown belt. He beat one of his icons next, Gabriel Gonzaga, with a violent flurry of punches. “Gonzaga tried to scare me, talking before the fight,” dos Santos says. Gonzaga was quickly muted. Then he put the beatdown on Roy Nelson for the number one contender spot, who, being no dummy, told dos Santos beforehand that he believed he was fighting a soon-to-be-champion, and that he’d put in the old frosh effort to try and prove himself wrong.
Big Country was the first to go the distance with JDS, and—as testimony to how far the Brazilian native has come in two short years, as well as the impossible threshold of Nelson’s chin—this was considered a moral victory.
Don’t all swerving roads lead to LasVegas? They did for dos Santos, and it’s a lonely place for a happily married man whose wife, Vilsana Piccoli, is home in another hemisphere. In a quick turn of events, Junior is living in a condo off Desert Inn Road that faces an empty dirt lot and has a constant stream of airplanes taking off overhead from McCarran Airport. He lives above a Spanish travel agency and a hair salon that look surprisingly slummy in the nuclear bright Vegas winter. Staying with him and/or very nearby are his training partners for his first big foray into North American pop culture, his coaching stint opposite Brock Lesnar on The Ultimate Fighter 13. His destined bout against Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight title was put on hold when Cain underwent rotator cuff surgery.
“I didn’t want to wait a year,” he says, brushing his arms as if he just materialized in Vegas. “I was already out five months after the Roy Nelson fight. That’s too much for me. I just fight. That’s what I do to make a living.”
It’s one hell of a consolation that, with Velasquez pushed to a more distant spot on the horizon, dos Santos ended up detouring to Vegas, to coach against—then fight—the sport’s most recognizable figure. Expected to be the most successful TUF in terms of viewer ratings, the opportunity gives dos Santos exposure, a solid payday, and a scrap he feels he’ll win. Yet, if it sounds dangerously familiar, it’s that too. Cigano made a name in the UFC by beating a number one contender in his penultimate fight in Werdum, and now, with the shoe on the other foot, he’s staking that position to keep busy.
But that’s not why he’s slapping his forehead. He’s doing that because he accidentally wore his microphone box home after a taped session at the TUF training center with a batch of what are—at the time of this article writing—nothing more than “mysterious welterweights.” Well, that and this: JDS doesn’t have any clothes.
“The UFC gives you these things to train in, but I don’t have anything else,” he says, referencing his gray and black TUF gear. “I have to go shopping today and get some clothes for the fights tonight.”
The fights he is referring to? His goodfriend and Black House training partnerAnderson Silva is set to defend his belt against Vitor Belfort at UFC 126. JDS presciently calls for a Silva knockout, and later, is the least surprised person in Sin City (aside from maybe Steven Seagal) by that straight kick that felled Belfort. “Anderson’s one of the best in MMA. Like Fedor, like Antonio Rodrigo Minotauro, he’s one of the stars,” he says. “I am happy to be a part of their team, to be part of Black House.”
It’s obvious that JDS doesn’t see himself as a star. In fact, he’s as nice of a person as you’ll ever meet—all smiles and bashfulness and happy familiarity. If he engages in a war of words or antics with Lesnar during the taping of the show, it’ll seem completely out of character for the guy sitting here now. He apologizes for his English early on, which is pretty good and seems to get better as he loses himself a little in what he’s saying. “After I started in the UFC, after my debut, we had to make a lot of interviews,” he is saying. “Now I am feeling a little bit comfortable in front of the cameras…I don’t care about them anymore…but the thing is, in the TUF show, it’s a little bit hard for me because of my English, you know…the guys speak English all the time, and I don’t understand sometimes what they’re saying, and I don’t have the words to explain to the guys what I want.” He says this, almost paradoxically, in very clear English.
He has picked the language up with a little schooling here and there, but mostly through immersion training at the Nogueira’s gym in San Diego and at Black House in Los Angeles. He is, he says, naturally inquisitive. “I pay attention, and when I don’t know a word, I ask Rodrigo, for example, ‘what means this?’” He worries that his English won’t translate for his team, or for the cameras.
But, and here’s what a man with a clear conscience can do, he shrugs his shoulders easy enough. He’s not the reason people are tuning in anyway. They are tuning in to watch Brock Lesnar, the sport’s biggest draw. He’s aware of this. He’s only too happy to warm next to that big bonfire before putting it out.
The familiar faces around him—strength and conditioning coach Rafael Alejarra, boxing instructor Luiz Dorea,and his Muay Thaiguy Billy Schieb, among others, all of them equally sequestered—laze about. Everything around them is white. The walls and carpet, very white and unlived in. The condo is much nicer on the inside than the out. Junior’s bags aren’t fully unpacked. When JDS, one of the game’s premier strikers, rubs his hands together as gently as he does, it’s easy to forget they have vanquished nearly everyone they’ve tried to.
“I grew up in the south of Brazil,” he says. “My family was very, very poor. My dad worked in construction, and my mom cleaned houses. I began working when I was very young to help. I sold ice cream in the streets when I was 10 years old, and then I became a newspaper boy.”
Life in Caçador, Santa Catarina, didn’t allow him to dream much bigger than of getting through each day. He says he wasn’t very athletic and didn’t fight or play soccer or anything like that. He just toiled in the streets to earn what he could hawking whatever was sellable. Other than fooling around with Capoeira when he was 14 years old, it wasn’t until he began lifting bricks, lumber, and bags of cement mix for his father that he put on some muscle.
“I was an assistant to those guys, and I worked with a lot of things that make you strong,” he says. “Heavy things, the whole day. Then when I was 18 years old, I moved to the other city, Salvador, by myself—just packed my things and went. When I got there, I worked as a waiter in the restaurants for a time, before I met my wife.”
It’ll never show up on the Tale of the Tape, but Junior dos Santos is a fast learner. Since his first bout in the UFC in late 2009, he has learned English well enough to co-headline an English-important reality TV show—a feat that guys like Anderson Silva and Fedor Emelianenko haven’t shown a willingness to do. He learned kickboxing by natural feel, and has racked up an 18-0 record in that genre. In MMA, he has faired nearly as well, going 12-1, with only Nelson still standing to hear the judge’s scorecards being read. In about in Sao Paulo in 2007, dos Santos took his only loss to Joaquim Ferreira in a rematch of an earlier win. He was tapped by an armbar. Though nobody has accessed JDS’s level of jits since Ferreira—“I don’t do too much ground game in my fights because the guys don’t put me down,” he says—he has learned quickly that very few people can stand and trade with him. In fact, there are no documented cases.
He wouldn’t have figured any of this if he hadn’t failed and failed again.
“I met my wife in Salvador, and we had a toy store together,” he says. “We had the store for two, almost three years, and then it did not make money. I got fat. I started training jiu-jitsu to lose weight. I learned the things fast and my coach, Yuri Carlton, said, ‘Hey, you learn fast.’ After one month of training with the gi, he invited me to train MMA with him. Then I started to train, and I learned quickly that I was strong.”
That was in 2005, when he was 21 years old—already a retired toy store owner, a former ice cream monger and waiter, and a burgeoning presence in the world of fighting whose nickname, Cigano, is Portuguese for “Gypsy.” A year later, dos Santos got his first professional contest against Jailson Silva Santos, who, with seven pro bouts of his own, had an experience edge. In retrospect, dos Santos remembers, there was only one way to treat somebody with a technical advantage like that.
“I went to the fight and I knocked him out,” he says. “I threw him down and kicked his face. That was allowed. I won the fight, and in that moment, I felt like this is what I am doing for the rest of my life. So I worked more and more and more.”
Carlton introduced dos Santos to his hero in Salvador, the former UFC and PRIDE heavyweight titleholder Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Junior’s second fight was on the short-lived Minotauro Fights in Sao Bernardo do Campo, when he choked out Eduardo Maiorino. Big Noghas long since become a mentor, confidant, master, icon and any other superlative word that might trump an ordinary term like “teammate.”
“I used to watch his fights, and I am a big fan,” he says of Big Nog. “For me, Nogueira is the toughest guy ever. We would never fight. He is my master and very much like my older brother. I would prefer to give my belt away than fight with him.”
As two ships passing in the night in the heavyweight rankings, he may never be asked to fight Nogueira. But, he wants to be the pupil who surpasses his master, which he could do by dethroning the man who demystified Big Nog. That is, he wants to take away the belt from Cain Velasquez, and if it’s later rather than sooner, so be it.
JDS is a Catholic. He doesn’t gamble or womanize. He doesn’t party or drink alcohol, not since his first fight when he veered off the rails a little bit. He rolls out the old badge of honor cliché that his hobby is—what else?—good, old-fashioned training. There’s so much sincerity when he says it, though, that you can’t help but believe him. This is his life.
And yet, there’s a little bit of a plan hatching in the back of his mind. It’s feasibility he can’t vouch for, but it’s there. It goes something like this: Beat Brock Lesnar on June 11 in Vancouver, look good doing it, get out of it unscathed, and then fight Cain Velasquez for the title two months later in his native Brazil on August 27, where the UFC returns for the first time in a decade. The prospect of it excites him.
“I would have two months to get ready? I would do it,” he says. “Yeah, I can fight with Velasquez in Brazil for the title shot. A belt in Brazil! To be the first UFC in Brazil [since UFC 17.5]. If I fought for the title there, it would be huge for me and Brazil. I hope they put that fight together.”
But, for somebody who’s always reluctant to stare down dreams through a pipe, there’s a humbling realist in him too. In this case, there’s a confidence in dos Santos that’s fed by his recent successes in the cage to go along with a long-standing sense of humility that may never go away.
“I can’t wait for my chance to fight for the title,” he says. “It is important. Who makes money? Champions or legends? I am nothing. I am just a regular fighter now. I’m going to be champion first, then a legend. I will give it all my best to be remembered one day. That’s my goal. Right now, I am nothing.”
Nothing is relative. Tell that to Werdum, Struve, Yvel, Cro Cop, or Nelson. Though he can walk down the Strip without being bombarded—so long as there aren’t any fights in Vegas when he does it—he is becoming more recognized all the time. Once TUF airs, his star will rise a little higher in America. He has principles, which is definitely something. He wins by highlight knockout almost everytime he fights, which, when the object is to destroy, can be everything. In Rio de Janeiro, dos Santos is already a star—and he’s admired by the stars themselves. The uber-popular Brazilian singer Lucas Lima is a dos Santos fan, as is his wife, the equally famous Sandy Lima. This is the antipodes of where he started on the streets, anonymous and forgotten.
“If I made $10,000 in my first fights, it was like a million,” he says. “I worked hard all the time because when I have todo something, I try to do my best. My career is going, going. I fought against big names. Gonzaga. I used to be a big fan of him. Everything happens too fast, very fast. But, I think for me, I believe too much in God, and everything you get—you deserve that. I deserve to be here, and I will try my best always. I keep working hard to get the belt and that is my dream.”
Yes, today he concedes he can dream, something he didn’t dare do before. He knows he can accomplish the things he sets out to do, as well. One of his goals is to try boxing at some point, to put on the big gloves and do what he considers his most natural way of fighting.
“I love boxing,” he says. “I like Floyd Mayweather, and Pacquiao—he’s very tough. Who is not a fan of Mike Tyson? I’m a big fan. I want to fight boxing one day. I want to try. As an MMA fighter, boxing is very, very normal for me. It’s very natural for me. I train boxing every day. I have a different way of boxing, but I train with very good guys and I’ve done well. I think I could do a good fight boxing someone.”
If he has his way in June, that’s exactly what he’ll do with Lesnar. He will try and “touch him” on the chin while things are still vertical. Junior says he sees what you see, that the one red flag coming out of Lesnar footage is his in ability to take a punch. He doubts the former WWE superstar will want to prove otherwise in their big tilt in Vancouver, and right now, early in the six-week taping, he says he finds Lesnar, of all things, sort of likeable.
“I just met him here at the house, and he’s a very serious guy,” he says. “With me, he was pretty nice. Just said hello, things like that. Normal. He’s a little bit different when he’s showing. I think it is our job sometimes to be aggressive with words with other people because it’s like a strategy to win the fight. Like Anderson and Belfort at the weigh-ins. That is part of the strategy. After the fight, you’re going to see that they are going to shake hands. This is a sport. You don’t have space to be like street fighters, people who like to hurt one another.”
Yes, yes, but besides all that, what happens if he lands one of his patented shots to the pride of Alexandria, Minnesota? Here dos Santos smiles a big serene smile, as if he’s trying to explain how a string quartet and a glass of Chianti makes his feel.
“I will try,” he says. “I saw in his fights, he doesn’t accept punches very well. So that’s what I will try. Throw some punches at that face. He’ll probably start like he did with Velasquez…crazy like a bull, with that arrrrrrr. But then? (JDS makes a whistle sound, like somebody falling).
Junior dos Santos likes and respects Velasquez. Besides being a fast learner, one gleans he has Siddhartha-like patience. We talk for a while, and he has a million things to do before the fights. Things like purchase civilian clothes, and eat, and shower, and arrange his tickets, and return the microphone box to TUF headquarters. But you can’t tell by talking to him. You get the sense he’ll talk aslong as you wish. The only indication that time presses is that his training partners are shifting around a little impatiently.
“I don’t think he will accept the stand-up fight with me,” he says of Velasquez. “He’s smart. Some people want to be tough and to stay standing with the strikers or to go to the floor with jiu-jitsu guys. But I think guys have to be smart and to use all their own skills. I think Velasquez will try to put me down and use the ground-and-pound, because he thinks it is best for him. But if he puts me down, you guys will see my jiu-jitsu, and I know I can surprise him and submit him. I know that. I am not so good in jiu-jitsu, but I have very good positions that work for me.”
Right now he has a position that’s working for him fine—that of being the number one contender in the heavyweight division, and the consensus number two heavyweight in the world. It’s been along, zagging road from Caçador, Santa Catarina, and the way things were. What does it mean? He can afford himself the luxury of further dreams, for one thing.
“Now, yeah, now I think I have the biggest dreams, and how far you dream is how far you go, and the further along you’ll get,” he says. “My dream now is to be the UFC Champion and to stay there for a long, long time.”
If his first half a dozen fights in the UFC are any indication, that doesn’t seem all that unreasonable.