As a novice in the arts of fighting and promotion, Junior dos Santos should be good at neither, and yet he is. In the first, he is a natural; in the second, he comes near it. Take the requisite demonstration of confidence, in which a fighter must at the same time talk up his opponent -- it does you little good to beat someone you've dismissed as a bum, after all -- while casually slighting him as a job that must and certainly will be done. Tied up with Brock Lesnar, who isn't the best heavyweight alive but might be the scariest, dos Santos manages matters artfully. It fits a quick study.
"I really believe that I can beat Brock," dos Santos said by phone from Salvador, Bahia, Brazil. "Brock is tough, Brock is a dangerous guy. He's very strong. But I think I'm faster. In my opinion he has a weak chin, and I will exploit that. I will throw some punches into his face."
It will be interesting to see how Lesnar handles the dos Santos uppercut, I offered.
"That's what I want," he said. "I'm training my uppercut every day. I believe so much in my hands. And I think my best takedown defense is my hands."
Dos Santos is perhaps the best heavyweight fighter in the world, at worst one of the top four. So it's charming to find that in an age of intricate strategies he looks at his fight with Lesnar -- which is scheduled for June 11 and will determine which of the two will have the next chance at Cain Velasquez's heavyweight title -- much the same way everyone else does, as a simple matter of whether he can hit hard and move quickly. Lesnar is frighteningly fast, but dos Santos is faster, and he has every chance of making the UFC's top star seem antique by comparison. The real question is: What then?
While he hasn't received quite as much credit as he might have for it, dos Santos is something of a prodigy. Coming from humble origins, he was an indifferent athlete growing up, never much for soccer and basketball and without the chance or means to do formal training in jiu-jitsu. He took up the sport at age 21 in 2005, and that simply because he needed to lose some weight.
"It was something unexpected," he said of his unusual progress.
His aptitude had his instructors quickly offering him extra training, and within a year he had taken his first professional fight, a win by knockout. This led to his jiu-jitsu instructor's taking him to the boxing coach who trains him to this day, and to his identifying as a boxer, rather than as a jiu-jitsu player. He trains straight boxing every day, with a typical workout being a dozen five-minute rounds. The results show: Four of his six UFC wins have been by one or another variety of first-round knockout, and a fifth, a decision win over Roy Nelson, would have been if not for Nelson's slightly horrifying ability to absorb limitless punishment without keeling over.
When not working his hands, dos Santos has learned the ground game under the legendary Nogueira brothers. They first met dos Santos when he served as a training partner on their occasional jaunts to Salvador, and eventually invited him to come to their academy in Rio de Janeiro. One of the more appealing aspects of a fight with Lesnar is that the former champion should be able to put dos Santos on his back, at which point we'll see just how good his jiu-jitsu skills actually are. If the fight never gets there, it will likely be because dos Santos has already laid Lesnar out, in which case the man's point about the value of fast, heavy strikes as takedown defense will be well taken.
As interesting a fighter as dos Santos is, though, what might be most interesting about him as the way in which the American public takes him -- or doesn't. Dos Santos is a 26-year-old fighter with an exceptional and unblemished record against high-level UFC competition. Had Velasquez ("a more complete fighter, and a better fighter" than Lesnar, dos Santos said) not injured his shoulder, the Brazilian already would have had a title bout. And yet, dos Santos figures as a bit of an unknown quantity.
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In the broad sense, this probably has largely to do with language, and culture. Were dos Santos a working-class son of the Inland Empire in California who randomly discovered at 21 that he had a nearly unrivaled gift for fighting and made his way to San Jose's American Kickboxing Academy and then tore up the upper levels of the UFC's heavyweight division while cheerfully observing that Brock Lesnar can't take a hit, he would, one suspects, be a sensation. As a Brazilian of roughly equivalent background, he presents a puzzle that American fight crowds have yet to entirely solve, just as the Nogueiras, Anderson Silva and Mauricio Rua have.
In the sense that MMA is still more a form of entertainment than a sport, one premised on bringing forward athletes through whom the masses can live vicariously, there isn't any mystery as to why this is: Americans tend not to listen to accented English. In the sense that this is very much a sport, though, and one in which the best are determined through a rather viciously Darwinian process, it actually is somewhat puzzling that dos Santos' exceptional performance hasn't yet marked him out as a great name. So it goes.
Either way you care to take it, the man is aware of the issue. His goals are to be the UFC champion, and to have fans all over the world.
"I want all of them to know my name," he said, "and to know who I am."
Given those hour-long boxing drills and the kind of drive that takes a man from being a non-athlete in need of some weight loss to the pinnacle of MMA in five years, there is every chance that they will. Whether they'll follow on by paying up to see him is a question on which we'll have to wait for an answer.