*** This feature originally appeared in the July 2016 issue of Fighters Only ***
By Nick Peet
Former UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos insists he has finally put the worst two years of his career behind him and set his sights on reclaiming the belt. Now training at American Top Team (ATT) in Coconut Creek, Florida, ‘Cigano’ got his campaign back on track by overwhelming ‘Big’ Ben Rothwell in April and was a keen observer when Stipe Miocic KO’d Fabricio Werdum for mixed martial arts’ biggest prize in Brazil in May. With a win over each already, he plans on making up for lost time with a fresh title shot before the year is out.
Q: How relieved were you to get past Ben Rothwell in Zagreb?
A I really enjoyed the night over in Croatia. I needed to feel that joy of victory once again. I used my boxing skills and moved a lot, I threw plenty of high jabs and crosses, and the plan worked. I’ve been working so hard. I deserved this victory. I believe so much in myself. Rothwell is a very dangerous guy. He puts his opponents under a lot of pressure, so I had to fight smart. That’s what I did. Using my boxing skills is what I do best as well, so I was happy with that. It’s nice to be winning again.
Q: What was it like facing Rothwell in the form of his life?
A: He was coming from great victories, he was doing a great job and he was being talked about as a real title contender. Submitting Josh Barnett on the ground was very impressive. Plus, he was a huge guy and very strong. I knew I was going up against one of the top guys pushing for the title. I had to keep my focus, but we knew he was going to put me on top of the heavyweight rankings again and closer to a chance for the title.
Q: Were you tempted to put on a few extra pounds to handle his size?
A: No. I always stay the same weight, around 240lb-238lb, because I like it and it’s my regular weight. I don’t let the size of my opponent interfere with that. I feel comfortable and at my best at this weight, so I’ll never play around with stuff like that. I feel fast, I feel strong. I don’t need too much weight because that will only slow me down.
Q: Who would you like to face next?
A: Anything the UFC wants me to do, I will do. I’m just so happy to be doing this, because I love fighting. But I’m clear, deep in my heart, that I will be the champion again. Sooner or later those guys will see me there again at the top of the division. Right now I plan on taking some time off before I get back into the gym. I took some punches, but that’s OK. It’s part of the job. But I want to get back to my training and I look forward to my next challenge, whoever that may be. I don’t want to sit out too long.
Q: Is staying busy the key to your success?
A: It’s important for all the athletes to keep a good frequency of fights. I asked for this fight because I don’t want to stay waiting for a fight. In two years I did one fight – with Miocic – and I was injured in that fight. It was weird. It was so hard for me. In the UFC we just make money when we fight, so it was a really tough two years. But that’s in the past and now, I just want to focus on working hard.
Q: What forced you to take a 12-month sabbatical?
A: Right after the Miocic fight (December 2014) I had to have knee surgery after I tore the ligaments in my leg. It was the first time in 12 years I’d really had a break from fighting. I found out all the little injuries in my body were building up on me, so heading into the fight with Overeem I really wasn’t myself. I was flat. These last two years were so tough, man, so hard. I wasn’t normal in the Overeem fight. I was nervous and feeling kind of strange. Not taking anything away from Alistair – he did a great job. That’s why I came back quickly to fight, because I wanted to correct this. I now have to have a better frequency of fights this year, then I’m going to be feeling the same again.
Q: Are you planning on holding out for a title shot next?
A: My main objective is to fight for the title again. Some time ago I was asking to fight Werdum, so my objective will not change, but whoever has the belt is the next fight I would want. My goal is to win back the belt, not to defeat any particular fighter. That’s my target. Honestly, I don’t really care about that right now. Werdum lost to Miocic, and I just want to fight. I was thinking about the belt too much in the past. I know it’s going to happen at some point.
Q: Why did you move your fight camp from Brazil to Miami?
A: I’m at ATT, training with them, because I know a lot of guys from there. They’re a great team, they have a great structure to support us, and great coaches too. It’s been good to be out there and enjoy those things, trying to get better as a fighter. But I can’t abandon what I have already done to get me to this point. I still have a team in Brazil who have gotten me so far, but I’m just trying to be the best athlete I can be. And training at ATT is taking me to the next level, I believe.
I’m enjoying training in Miami, but I’m not living there. I am staying there a lot of the time and maybe in the future I will move to the United States full-time, who knows. Right now I’m travelling back and forth for my camps from my home in Brazil.
Q: Do you feel like you’ve improved in your short time in Miami?
A: I’m doing good now. It’s hard. I know I have to improve in my skills. Not just my wrestling and my jiu-jitsu – I can’t go away from boxing. I’m a boxing guy. I have to keep it there because I’m more confident. I’m feeling good. Now we are putting everything in the right place. That’s why I’m saying I’m going to be champion again. And it’s not going to take too long.
Q: It’s three years since your last KO victory, is that something that plays on your mind?
A: Not at all. Maybe I just keep fighting tough guys! I always want to entertain the fans and go for the knockout. But sometimes you have to fight smart also. There is no better feeling than the one you get from the fans after a big knockout, and while I may have disappointed some fans with my last performances, I hope they understand I want the KO as much as ever.
The fans, man, they motivate me more than anything. I have great fans who have supported me through all the tough times of the past two years and they’re still with me. They motivate me to come back stronger and get those victories. So I always want to give back to them. I always fight hard, I never hide. I never know how a fight is going to be, but the fans can always expect 100% from me. I aim to always make them proud for supporting me.