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The last few weeks haven’t been easy for Junior dos Santos. The former UFC heavyweight champion has been living on the edge as he has concluded preparations for a match Saturday in Phoenix on Fox against Stipe Miocic.
Miocic is an elite opponent who is the UFC's fourth-ranked heavyweight. He's one of the sport's better overall athletes and has lost just once in 13 career bouts.
But while dos Santos has great respect for Miocic as an opponent, his fears have nothing to do with their bout.
The affable Brazilian’s fear of getting injured during practice and being unable to fight is quite real.
He hasn't fought since Oct. 19, 2013, when he lost a title fight to Cain Velasquez at UFC 166 in Houston. He's nearly at 14 full months without a paycheck and can't afford to miss Saturday's bout at the US Airways Center.
Fighters are independent contractors and are only paid when they fight. They're also responsible for the costs of training camp, which makes a late-camp injury, such as the one before his planned May bout with Miocic, all the more devastating.
The fight went away when dos Santos injured his hand, but the bills for running his training camp certainly didn't disappear.
"I can tell you that right now, we are training very hard all the time," dos Santos said. "Anything can happen in training, and we can't be worried, but we also need to be careful. It's hard. We're fighting and we have to be prepared. We have to be ready to fight, so you have to train hard. Getting hurt [in training] is terrible because then there is no paycheck. Fighting is the only thing I do to make money to live.
"I don't want to get hurt. I don't want to get injured, but the reality is, sometimes it happens. It happened to me earlier this year [and I couldn't] fight. That's hard. This whole year has been tough and I just want to forget about it."
Dos Santos said he has been able to survive because of sponsors who pay him monthly.
He's one of the UFC's best, and most successful, fighters and is ranked near the top of the pay scale.
His plight raises plenty of unanswerable-for-now questions about the UFC's new rules on sponsorships in light of the deal with Reebok. If an elite and presumably highly compensated fighter such as dos Santos has it rough because of injury, it makes one wonder how mid-tier and lower-tier fighters will be able to survive without regular sponsors.
The uniform deal with Reebok announced last week means that all fighters will be paid each time they appear in the Octagon. Additionally, they'll receive royalties every time apparel featuring their likeness is sold.
But it also means the end of fighters wearing patches and logos from their sponsors into the cage. It's believed that most of those sponsors will withdraw their support from the fighters because without having their logos visible during UFC television broadcasts and in news photography taken of the events, there will be little exposure or value for them.
If a fighter gets injured, he or she will not receive the payouts for wearing the Reebok uniform. And branded apparel will clearly sell more briskly when a fighter is competing.
Dos Santos said he doesn't know enough about the Reebok deal, which will be implemented in July, to have an opinion. But he said he isn't sure what he would have done had he not had loyal sponsors to rely on to help him out in 2014.
"It's been very, very tough [without a paycheck]," dos Santos said. "Thank God I have very good sponsors by my side because if I didn't have those sponsors, I don't know what I would do to live.
"Maybe I'd have had to sell my own house to pay my bills and buy my food. It's so tough to do."
Velasquez delivered a frightful beating to dos Santos at UFC 166, clearly establishing himself as the best heavyweight in the world.
Dos Santos needed to take some time off after that fight to let his body heal, though he had no injury of significance. But because he fights twice a year, he had the luxury of taking time to heal.
That, though, became problematic when he injured his hand in May. He's tried to use the long layoff to diversify his game in order to compete better against powerful wrestlers like Velasquez.
He's pretty conclusively established himself as the world's second-best heavyweight, but the gap between Velasquez and him is clearly very wide.
He's not haunted by either of his two losses to Velasquez, though, and still believes they'll meet again. Dos Santos stopped Velasquez in the first round in 2011 in Anaheim, Calif., to win the title in a bout that was broadcast by Fox.
"You should remember when we talked before [UFC 166] that I was saying that Cain Velasquez and I would be fighting many, many times," dos Santos said. "I still believe that. He doesn't want to fight against me right now. I think he said it's not very interesting to him. But at some point, we'll be back against each other again."
The short-term goal is to be able to get through the final few days of training without being injured, and then to defeat Miocic on Saturday.
That will not only get him a check, but it will maintain his position as the sport's No. 2 heavyweight and should set him up for a solid 2015.
His story, though, shows how difficult this sport can be for fighters. Training injuries that force cancellations or postponements are far more common in MMA than in boxing because of the multidisciplinary nature of MMA.
At this stage, though, all dos Santos can think about is getting into the cage and hearing the bell sound.
"I'm ready to be back," he said. "I can tell you that. I'm very ready to be back finally."
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