VANCOUVER, British Columbia – Junior dos Santos patted his midsection as if he was Santa Claus and chuckled audibly. The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s charismatic Brazilian star was explaining his improbable rise to the top of the heavyweight division.
Five years ago, he wasn’t the heavily muscled, high-performance athlete he is now. He was a guy with a paunch looking to lose the roll of fat around the midsection and so he walked into a gym in Brazil to take a jiu-jitsu class.
He was tired of huffing and puffing and having to suck in his midsection to fit into his pants.
“I was 240 pounds,” he said, “but it was a bad 240 pounds.”
The group of middle-aged sports reporters he was speaking to could clearly relate.
Dos Santos was about to embark on an amazing journey, one that has brought him to within two victories of the UFC heavyweight title, but he never for a moment dreamed he’d be a professional athlete, let alone a star, in one of the fastest rising sports in the world.
Fitness, not greatness, was the goal. Jiu-jitsu was a good workout and there was a gym not far from where he lived, so he gave it a shot. He wasn’t afraid of hard work, because he’d grown up dirt poor in Cazador, a small city in the south of Brazil. His family was in such dire need of funds that at 10 years old, his parents sent their son to the street to peddle ice cream bars and hawk newspapers.
He was a guy used to working hard every day, so when he went into the gym to take the jiu-jitsu class, he did what he always does: He threw himself into it.
But dos Santos, who meets Shane Carwin Saturday in the main event of UFC 131 at Rogers Arena, got quite a bit more out of those workouts than just a trim body and a flat midsection.
In a stunningly quick rise, he turned himself into one of the world’s great mixed martial artists. He’s a black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, but he’s arguably the best striking heavyweight in the world.
“Junior’s standup is extremely impressive,” said Carwin, whose standup isn’t half bad, either.
He credits much of his quick rise to a chance meeting with mixed martial arts legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira. Nogueira saw dos Santos working out and felt he had the athleticism and the composure to become an elite fighter.
He is 6-feet-4 and now a finely balanced 240 pounds. His manager, Ed Soares, said everyone who has seen him for any length of time marvels at his athletic ability.
“If he had been raised (in the U.S.), he’d probably have played football,” Soares said. “He just would have, because he’s so athletic. He’s one of the most agile guys we have out of all of our guys (at Black House MMA). He’s extremely athletic, extremely agile. He would have done well in any sport he would have put his mind to, but had he been raised in the States, with his athletic ability and his size, some football coach would have scooped him up a long time ago.”
Soares scooped him up for Black House not long after seeing dos Santos fight in a tournament in England. When he brought him to the UFC to fight Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90 on Oct. 25, 2008, he couldn’t wait to get UFC president Dana White to watch him work out.
“I told Dana, ‘You have to see this kid hit mitts,’ ” Soares said. “And Dana was doing something at the time and he couldn’t, but he told his camera guy to go in there and film Junior hitting mitts. He put that video on his blog later and the [betting] line in (Las) Vegas changed after people saw it.”
Dos Santos is a very crisp puncher who not only has fast hands and power, but is very accurate. In his last outing, he badly hurt veteran Roy Nelson in the first round and received some criticism for not getting the knockout.
It was the only fight he’s failed to finish of his six in the UFC, though much of that has to be attributed to Nelson’s sturdy chin. But dos Santos, who is something of a perfectionist when it comes to technique, said he got overeager.
“Roy Nelson has a hard chin, but I learned a lot there, too,” dos Santos said. “I was too anxious to knock him out. I think that was a problem for me. The knockout is the consequence, the result, of good technique in the fight. I learned a lot from that fight. I was anxious to knock him out and I threw punches a lot and it made me a bit tired.”
He’s going to have plenty of chances to trade blows with Carwin, who may be the single hardest hitter in the sport. Dos Santos expects Carwin, a one-time Division II wrestling champion, will try to take him down, but he’s made several public pleas for a standup war.
If he gets it and wins it, he’ll go on to meet UFC heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez for the belt sometime later this year.
It’s rare in any sport to make that kind of a meteoric rise – a person doesn’t just pick up a tennis racquet for the first time and win Wimbledon five years later – but it’s also rare that a man of dos Santos’ size is so quick and so athletic.
“He moves around in there and does things like he’s a middleweight or something,” White said. “He’s a great athlete and you see that in so many things he does.”
But though he may move like a middleweight, there is no question that he hits like a 240-pound heavyweight.
“He’s just got that natural power in his hands,” Soares said. “There aren’t a lot of guys that have that gift, but he’s one of them. When he hits a guy, they know it.”
Five years ago, no one knew it, not even dos Santos himself. If he goes on to win the title, he may inspire a whole generation of fat kids to hit the gym and try it themselves.
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