BURBANK, Calif. — UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos is nothing if not confident. Or honest. Or just a little touched. Perhaps some combination of the three.
How else to explain his stated belief that he could flatten WBA, IBF and WBO heavyweight champion Wladimir Klitschko?
Not under mixed martial arts rules in the octagon, mind you. In a boxing ring.
“I could knock him out,” dos Santos said. “He’s good, but he’s kind of boring.”
In a recent lunch gathering with Los Angeles-area reporters, dos Santos, who defends his title in a rematch against Cain Velasquez on Dec. 29 at UFC 155 in Las Vegas, launched unprompted into a monologue on why he feels he could beat boxing’s best on his own turf.
Dos Santos has proven himself MMA’s consummate boxer, scoring 11 of his 16 victories by way of knockout or TKO, including his 64-second finish of Velasquez to claim the title last year. The native of Salvador, Brazil, says that as a fan, he’s tired of seeing the Klitschko brothers, Wladimir and Vitali, bog down boxing’s marquee division with a plodding style.
“The [Klitschkos are], amazing, they have a brilliant strategy,” dos Santos said. “I like to watch them, especially Wladimir, but it’s kind of boring. It’s not like Mike Tyson time. He went out there and he finished fights. Heavyweights finish fights, you know, if you see a heavyweight fight, for sure you’re going to see knockout, someone’s going to get hurt. … [The Klitschkos] are too careful. They are very good, but they are too careful. They don’t go to the fight to finish the fights.”
The words come out of dos Santos’ mouth in matter-of-fact manner, no different than if one asked his opinion of the 22-ounce bone-in ribeye steak he was in the process of devouring as he gave his take on the heavyweight boxing game. There was no sense he was trying to talk trash or drum up controversy for its own sake.
Conventional wisdom has it that a boxer would get smoked if he had to fight under mixed martial arts rules and an MMA fighter would suffer the same fate in a boxing ring. But the UFC heavyweight champion appears to simply be stating an honest conviction that he could compete with boxing’s heavyweight king on the latter’s terms.
“I don’t know about other MMA fighters,” said dos Santos. “I’m talking about me. I think I would have success against boxing champions. I’m very confident. I can say I’m going to knock this guy out. I say this because I believe it. I work hard for that. There’s truth behind the words. I watch a lot of Wladimir’s fights and I see a lot of holes.”
You can’t blame dos Santos at this point if he’s beginning to feel like he’s living a charmed life. The 28-year old was, by his recollection, a shy kid who got into a total of three fights his entire childhood, none of which were by his choice. He showed up at the Nogueira brothers gym in Brazil seven years ago with no prior combat sports experience “because I was too fat and wanted to get in shape.”
The Noguerias, former PRIDE and UFC champion Antonio Rodrigo and perennial light heavyweight contender Antonio Rogerio, didn’t take it easy on the “fat” newcomer, treating him to a trial by fire.
“I used to train with ‘Minotauro,’ [Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira],” Nogeuira said. “I had days I couldn’t sleep, I had pain all in my body. But I learned from that, that’s how I learned. I know today how to defend myself better than I know how to attack my opponents. I am very thankful to them for letting me train with them.”
Somewhere along the way, dos Santos the human punching bag morphed into dos Santos the fighter and then developed into dos Santos the champion. “They were beating me,” he said. “I liked it. I learned to depend on myself. When I put something in my head, I follow it. After my first fight, when I won the fight, the sensation was so good, I said to myself ‘I want that again.’”
When dos Santos arrived in the UFC four years ago and knocked out Fabricio Werdum in what was considered a major upset at UFC 90, he didn’t speak a word of English. Eight more victories and a championship later, dos Santos is in the process of mastering his second language at the same clip he’s progressed in the octagon. The champ comes across as someone who understands the big picture.
“I think its very important to take advantage of the opportunity I’m having now,” said dos Santos. “In Brazil, MMA is huge, but I know its huge in America too. After this fight I want to spend more time in the U.S. I want to work with a better choice of training partners and I want to work on my English.”
If anything, dos Santos’ biggest challenge since defeating Velasquez for the title last November has been in warding off the opportunists, the human leeches who attach themselves to athletes and celebrities on their way up and scatter at the first sign of trouble.
“I now have people offering to be coach, to be partners, all these people come and try to stay close to me,” dos Santos said. “I have a good sense of intuition and sensibility and I can detect who the good people are and who is irresponsible. The new people who show up, they’re not they’re for you, they’re there for them. I feel that. When I feel that, I come to my coaches and tell them to make them go away.”
By sticking with the people who were loyal to him on the way up, dos Santos is able to keep his feet on the ground while shooting for the stars. Even if some might consider the idea of knocking out the heavyweight boxing champ nothing more than a fantasy.
“When I’m not preparing for a fight, I train pure boxing,” dos Santos said. “No kicks, no elbows, just pure poxing. I love boxing. But if you match up the MMA heavyweight champion vs. the boxing heavyweight champion, who’s the best? Of course it’s the MMA champion.”
– Dave Doyle