The stranglehold of the big two in the UFC’s heavyweight division is over, but Junior dos Santos has a chance to return to form against champion Stipe Miocic.
In 2013, Junior “Cigano” dos Santos found himself on the wrong side of the best UFC heavyweight trilogy in the modern era. Having lost twice in dominant fashion to Cain Velasquez, the Brazilian was on the outside looking at the top of the division he once ruled with an almost literal iron fist.
Injuries also began to play a part in his stellar career. Originally very active when he arrived in the UFC, Cigano competed only once in both 2014 and 2015. His fall from the peak was seemingly taking place before our eyes. Once the owner of a ten fight win streak, he has now alternated wins and losses for the past four and a half years.
In 2015, a year after holding off then contender Stipe Miocic in a controversial decision, dos Santos faced Alistair Overeem in a long-awaited match-up. The Brazilian was unable to find his range and timing before the Dutchman knocked him out in the second round. The loss was crushing and seemed to signal the end of his time as an elite heavyweight.
However, circumstances fell in favour of dos Santos in the heavyweight division. Fabricio Werdum had wrested the belt from Velasquez and Miocic had blossomed into an elite contender. Miocic would go on to win the title, but dos Santos remained in a prime position as he was the last man to defeat both fighters. Even more, the expected top contender Velasquez was once again out due to injury.
Cigano did his part, defeating Ben Rothwell in a dangerous match-up against an up and coming contender. When a bout between Velasquez and Werdum fell through for a title shot, dos Santos found himself once again in a fight for UFC heavyweight gold.
Now 33, dos Santos may be a step past his prime but remains one of the most dangerous heavyweights in the world. The two were well matched then as dos Santos took a decision that many felt could have gone to Miocic. He will have to be sharp as the American is on a dominant run. He upset the resurgent Andrei Arlovski to gain a title shot then decimated both Werdum and Overeem in title fights. In just one year, Miocic has turned the heavyweight division on its head by dispatching two of the best in the world at the height of their powers.
Dos Santos is no stranger to the champion. The two went five rounds in 2014 in what was Miocic’s introduction to the elite level. Stylistically, the Brazilian faces a tough test. The Cleveland native possesses incredible power himself and is a very disciplined striker. His victory against Overeem showed his tenacity and patience as he survived an early scare before picking apart the legendary striker on the feet.
It’s expected that Miocic will look to borrow from Velasquez, using his wrestling to push Cigano against the fence and wear down his early explosiveness. The longer the fight goes on, the more it favours Miocic as the heavyweight has displayed no issues with his cardio in several outings. For dos Santos to be victorious, he should look to stay on the outside and use his speed to dart in and out. His explosiveness provides an edge so long as he can defend the attacks on the inside from Miocic.
Should Cigano lose, he would be 3-4 in his last seven fights. Werdum and Overeem are scheduled to face each other in July and Velasquez could be a win away from his own title shot whenever he returns. For the Brazilian, another title run after nearly twenty fights in the UFC becomes less likely. It may be dos Santos’ final opportunity to obtain gold, but he has a better chance than most to get the job done on Saturday night.