The fight card for UFC 146 features several Brazilians in high-profile matchups, but none are more high-stakes than Junior dos Santos’ UFC heavyweight title defense against former Strikeforce titleholder Alistair Overeem.
Since joining the UFC in 2008, dos Santos has conquered a number of talented foes, including Fabricio Werdum, Gabriel Gonzaga and, most recently, ex-champ Cain Velasquez. While “Cigano” took on legendary striker Mirko Filipovic in 2009, the Brazilian has never faced a world-class kickboxer in his prime. That is exactly the task he faces with his next bout against Overeem, a grand prix champion in the world’s most prestigious standup event, K-1.
“I think it’s the ultimate test for my striking,” said dos Santos, who has publicly contemplated an Olympic boxing bid for 2016. “It’s still the biggest challenge. He was a K-1 champion, which is the greatest striking event in the world. He’s a very strong guy, good, but I trust in myself a lot and I try for the knockout in all of my fights. Regardless of him being a striker or not, I’m going for the knockout.”
Of course, like any good champion, dos Santos has a backup plan to surprise the Dutchman.
“Jiu-jitsu can be Plan B. I’m an MMA fighter, training in everything,” dos Santos said. “I’m well prepared to fight, whether standing or on the ground, and if I find it necessary to take it to the ground, it will happen.”
Despite training alongside ground wizards the Nogueira brothers, grappling hasn’t been easy for dos Santos. After taking the belt from Velasquez in November, Cigano underwent knee surgery, which delayed his return to jiu-jitsu training. Now, however, all is well and the champ expect to be at full strength when he takes on Overeem at the end of May.
“The preparation has already begun. I’m training hard for the fight, feeling well. Now is the time to get strong, to then endure the hard training and get to 100 percent for the fight,” explained dos Santos.
Recently, dos Santos received some praise from an unlikely source. Middleweight contender Chael Sonnen, known for his controversial comments about Brazilians, named the heavyweight as a Brazilian who he admires in MMA.
“I was surprised, because he speaks ill of Brazilians and now names me as a favorite,” said dos Santos. “For me, it’s strategy, and if it’s working, I think he really has to do it. His focus is Anderson [Silva], but if I serve as inspiration or anything else, if I help him with anything, good for him and thanks for appreciating my work.”
Dos Santos’ teammate, heavyweight Antonio Silva, recently signed with the UFC and will also compete at UFC 146 against Roy Nelson. For now, the defending champ expects “Bigfoot” to be a sort of “guardian of the title shot,” even while acknowledging that the training partners’ paths may cross in the future.
“We will adapt to how things will be, but the important thing is to support each other.”
Leonardo Fabri contributed to this report.