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His career had been left for dead, dissed and forgotten. Once one of the most impressive forces the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight division had ever seen, Junior dos Santos was widely written off after his knockout loss to Alistair Overeem in December. The combination of inactivity (two fights in a 27-month span), a pair of five-round destructions at the hands of Cain Velasquez and the listless performance against Overeem made dos Santos appear old and spent, even in a division where almost all the key players were older than him.
That was before he fought Ben Rothwell on Sunday in Zagreb, Croatia. It wasn’t just that dos Santos won a clear decision against an opponent who entered the fight on a roll with four straight impressive stoppage victories. It was the way dos Santos made it look easy. Dos Santos’ speed and athleticism were in peak form while his boxing was crisp and effortless. Rothwell by the end of the fight was basically grasping at straws, constantly throwing different looks at dos Santos in an effort to figure out something that would work. Nothing did. Dos Santos winning wasn’t a shocker, but the way he won sent a statement to the rest of the division: He’s still a force to be reckoned with.
It’s understandable it would take dos Santos a few years to return to the form he showcased before his second and third fights with Velasquez. Those fights with Velasquez were savage beatings, where he took the sort of prolonged punishment that is rare in MMA and tends to end careers when it occurs in boxing. Dos Santos was 1-1 the following two years but didn’t look like the same fighter he once was. In Croatia, he did.
Dos Santos’ resurrection is a pleasant development in the heavyweight division, not just because he’s one of the sport’s most amiable personalities but because it makes a whole range of potential matchups more intriguing. Dos Santos is the only fighter with a win over the two men involved in the UFC 198 main event: champion Fabricio Werdum and challenger Stipe Miocic. It makes him a natural title challenger in a convoluted mix of contenders.
A rematch with Werdum is a particularly interesting possibility for dos Santos because it makes for such a compelling story. Werdum was dos Santos’ first Octagon opponent and win, while the loss sent Werdum packing from the UFC for over three years. It would be a revenge fight for Werdum, a championship opportunity for dos Santos and arguably the highest stakes battle for Brazilian bragging rights since Anderson Silva-Vitor Belfort. With UFC 198 coming up in a stadium next month, the UFC could well decide to capitalize on the venue and start building anticipation for a Werdum-dos Santos rematch. Overeem and Velasquez have solid claims for a title shot in their own right, but dos Santos is right back in that mix.
Going into the fight, it was hard to imagine that dos Santos winning would feel like the most exciting thing for the division. Rothwell was all the talk going in, with his quirky personality and antics drawing attention outside the cage and his finishing ability drawing the attention inside of it. It’s a testament to dos Santos’ performance that Rothwell was so resolutely relegated to the background in defeat.
If dos Santos is able to build on his performance, it will be yet another significant comeback in a division full of them. Andrei Arlovski’s chin was considered beyond repair following four straight losses from 2009 to 2011. He would only lose once in his next 12 fights. A motorcycle accident and awful performances against Marcio Cruz, Dan Christison and Brandon Vera left most questioning Frank Mir’s future in 2006. He would win seven of his next nine and become interim UFC heavyweight champion. Mark Hunt had a losing record and six straight losses before a streak of great performances that earned him a heavyweight title shot.
It’s a comforting thought for any struggling MMA heavyweight that major comebacks are nothing new in the division. Heavyweights are often just getting started at the age that featherweights and bantamweights are undergoing irreversible decline. There are more opportunities to find the right training camp and develop the best techniques before no longer being able to keep up with the best on a physical level.
The flipside of the potential for rapid improvement is that there is still that potential for rapid decline. There’s no guarantee dos Santos’ upcoming fights will better resemble the fight against Rothwell than the most recent fights against Velasquez and Overeem. However, it’s uplifting either way to see the dominant dos Santos again. Dos Santos at his peak is a level above most heavyweights to ever have competed. Nobody enjoys seeing faded greatness, and dos Santos certainly can’t be counted out yet.