Photo: Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC [Getty Images]
Junior dos Santos ranks as one of the most accomplished heavyweights in mixed martial arts history.
The former Ultimate Fighting Championship titleholder will return from more than a year-long layoff when he meets Blagoy Ivanov in the UFC Fight Night 133 main event on Saturday at CenturyLink Arena in Boise, Idaho. There, the 34-year-old dos Santos can reintroduce himself to a division suddenly in flux, with Daniel Cormer as champion and World Wrestling Entertainment superstar Brock Lesnar as challenger in waiting. Where he figures into the equation remains to be seen. “Cigano” last competed at UFC 211 in May 2017, when he succumbed to second-round punches from Stipe Miocic at the American Airlines Center in Dallas.
As dos Santos prepares to collide with Ivanov, here are five things you might not know about him:
1. He entered the UFC as an underdog
Dos Santos made his promotional debut opposite Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90 on Oct. 25, 2008, less than a year removed from a submission loss to Joaquim Ferreira. Werdum closed as a +800 favorite. Dos Santos needed a little more than a minute to introduce himself to the 15,359 fans in attendance. He circled on the outside, probed with punches to the body and head, threw in a leg kick and freed himself from an attempted clinch, all with the calculated precision that has become a hallmark. He then countered a looping overhand from Werdum with a devastating right uppercut to the face, the impact wobbling the ears of the two-time Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist. A bloodied “Vai Cavalo” hit the deck on all fours in a semi-conscious state, as Dos Santos prompted the stoppage with a volley of kneeling power punches 1:21 into the first round.
2. He was the first of his kind
Dos Santos on Nov. 12, 2011 became the first Brazilian to capture the Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight crown, as he knocked out Cain Velasquez in the UFC on Fox 1 headliner. He went on to retain the title against Frank Mir at UFC 146 before surrendering it to Velasquez in their December 2012 rematch.
3. His nickname has meaning
“Cigano” means gypsy in Portuguese. In a November 2011 interview with Combate, dos Santos provided some insight on the origins of his nickname. “When I had long hair, I used to tie it back, so the guys would say I would look like the ‘Gypsy.’ I used to hate that, but the less you like a nickname, the more it sticks,” he said. “Sure enough, that’s what happened.” It references a character from the 1990s telenovela Explode Coracao, portrayed by Brazilian actor Ricardo Macchi.
4. His influences include one of MMA’s most beloved figures
Dos Santos lists Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira as his hero. A former Pride Fighting Championships titleholder, Nogueira emerged as one of the great heavyweights of all-time in Japan, where he grew in stature due to his well-rounded skills and ability to withstand punishment. His epic battle with Bob Sapp at Pride Shockwave took place before the largest crowd in MMA history, as 91,107 fans poured into Tokyo National Stadium. The monstrous Sapp wrecked the Brazilian for more than 10 minutes, as he drove him headfirst into the canvas, slammed him repeatedly and pounded away from top position. Observers seated at ringside grew concerned that Sapp was going to seriously injure or even kill “Minotauro,” and the fight was on the brink of being stopped on more than one occasion. Nevertheless, Nogueira was cut from a different cloth than 99 percent of the world’s population and somehow weathered the assault, waited for Sapp to tire and searched for his opportunity. The resilient Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt snatched an exposed limb late in the middle stanza, scrambled to side control and pulled off a textbook armbar for the tapout 4:03 into Round 2.
5. He has built a hall-of-fame resume
Dos Santos holds the record for the longest winning streak in the history of the UFC heavyweight division. He rattled off nine consecutive victories between Oct. 25, 2008 and May 26, 2012, as he defeated Werdum, Stefan Struve, Mirko Filipovic, Gilbert Yvel, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson, Shane Carwin, Velasquez and Mir in succession.