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I have to be honest: I didn’t think we’d see this iteration of Junior dos Santos ever again. The former champion headed across the pond and battered a streaking Ben Rothwell in the UFC Fight Night 86 main event on Sunday in Zagreb, Croatia. He looked more like the man who pounded out Cain Velasquez for the heavyweight crown in 2011 than the guy who appeared to still be suffering from the two payback fights with the American Kickboxing Academy ace.
The manner in which dos Santos dealt Rothwell his beating was impressive. He was faster, fitter and lighter on his feet. It allowed him to outpace his bewildered opponent and continually hammer him to the body. The perpetual attack robbed Rothwell of his stamina and left him throwing single big shots in hopes of landing a Hail Mary that would have kept his four-fight winning streak alive. It wasn’t to be.
Still, it’s hard to envision JDS as the top-tier competitor he was in his prime. Since dropping the title back to Velasquez, he has been on a win-one-lose-one streak dating back to May 2012; and let’s not forget, this is the heavyweight division we’re talking about.
While I’d love to get onboard with dos Santos being reborn, it’s hard to overlook the absolutely devastating punishment he has taken over the last few years. He had the two wars with Velasquez, the knockout loss to Alistair Overeem in December and a slobber knocker against Stipe Miocic in which I still don’t think he earned the decision. This was the first relatively easy fight he has had in years.
Members of his camp at American Top Team told me they felt the return of Luiz Dorea was a huge benefit for him, both physically and mentally. I get that having a security blanket of sorts can be reassuring, but I was more impressed with his speed and agility, things that were lacking from his last couple outings. It makes me wonder if it had more to do with Rothwell than with JDS.
Perhaps I’m being overly rough, but it’s hard for me to imagine JDS getting back into position to challenge for a title. Then again, Miocic is getting a shot; Andrei Arlovski -- long left for dead as a viable heavyweight -- was recently in the conversation; and Mark Hunt of all people made a run to a title shot in the last couple years.
Perhaps I should heed my own advice and just let the heavyweight division play itself out without worrying too much. I don’t like to pick fights in the weight class because just about anything can happen when two mammoth human beings start wielding the meat hooks of death inside a fenced-in platform.
There aren’t too many nicer people you will meet in the sport, so it’s good to see JDS have some success, but I’d be lying to you if I didn’t note that I think he has probably taken as much damage as anyone in this sport’s short history. I am concerned about his long-term well-being, but this performance did alleviate some of those worries, if just a little bit.
One Scary Beast
I don’t know about you, but Derrick Lewis terrifies me when he gets down to business in the Octagon. His annihilation of long-time heavyweight stalwart Gabriel Gonzaga in the co-main event was as beautiful as it was horrific. Lewis -- a mountain of a man who swings like he is trying to detach his opponent’s head from his torso -- opened the affair with a snapping head kick that a man of his size should not be able to uncork. He then used some much-improved grappling defense to shed Gonzaga from the mount.
Think about that for a moment. Gonzaga is a highly decorated black belt, not some jobber on the ground. Lewis deftly made his way back to his feet after an early takedown and mount sequence before pulverizing his foe with a mind-eraser of a right hand that left Gonzaga’s brain scrambled and referee Marc Goddard clambering to call off the action.
All of this happened in just under five minutes.
Lewis has been an interesting prospect for quite some time because of his immense power, but he has been seen as an incomplete fighter by many who follow the sport. This performance may have shown just how far he has grown as a fighter, which makes him that much scarier to his fellow heavyweights.
One thing is certain: When Lewis fights, it’s must-see television.
Sherdog.com Executive Editor Greg Savage can be reached by email or via Twitter @TheSavageTruth.