After healing from a shoulder injury that had kept him out of action since April, Dos Santos (18-4 MMA, 12-3 UFC) will rematch Stefan Struve (28-8 MMA, 12-6 UFC) eight years after their first encounter in UFC Fight Night 105’s headliner.
Struve hadn’t exactly been featured as a priority on Dos Santos’ public hit list. So how, exactly, did the ex-champ feel about the matchup?
“What I wanted was to fight,” Dos Santos told MMAjunkie. “So I was happy he took the fight. It’s not relevant at the moment, but there were some athletes who kind of turned it down, made up excuses not to fight. So I was happy he took the fight.
“He’s coming off a good moment, good wins. He’s right there around the top 10 and I’m sure it will be a great fight.”
The fight technically may be a rematch, but the two are hardly the same men who were starting out their UFC careers at 2009’s UFC 95.
Following a successful UFC debut over a then-one-dimensional Fabricio Werdum, “Cigano” made quick work of Struve and won his next six until knocking out Cain Velasquez to retain the belt. He’s since lost the title and started a see-saw that now sits at a convincing decision win over Ben Rothwell.
After being brutally welcomed by Dos Santos into the UFC, Struve had 17 other chances to become acquainted with the octagon – at one point putting together a four-fight streak that culminated with a triumph over now-champ Stipe Miocic.
Now carrying back-to-back wins into the octagon, the “Skyscraper” is by no means being taken lightly by Dos Santos.
“Struve has really improved on his standup,” Dos Santos said. “But I still see him with good weapons on the ground. Like in his last fight, he pretty much pulled (Daniel Omielanczuk) to the guard. He did a good fight. So he’s an athlete who represents a big danger.
“No wonder he was the only one who knocked out the current champion. I beat Miocic, too, but it was a decision after a tough fight. The only one to knock him out was Struve – and I don’t think it’s by chance that the UFC matched us up, the only two guys who were able to beat the current champion.”
“It’s not about whether I’m asking for (a title shot) – I think I deserve it”
While the winner of the matchup does offer some instant championship fight appeal – after all, either would allow Miocic to try to avenge one of only two career losses – there’s still another heavyweight matchup that could determine the next title challenger: UFC 207’s rematch between ex-champs Werdum and Velasquez.
Dos Santos acknowledges that fight could derail his very clear plans of trying to reclaim the belt. But, as unsure as he is about what Miocic’s plans are now, he still believes a good performance over Struve makes him more poised than his peers for a new title shot.
“Of course, in the UFC it really depends on what they want to do,” Dos Santos said. “That’s why I talked about this issue of not getting a fight and getting back in action. I just came from a surgery, so it was important for me to get back into action to be ready for whatever happens. In case the UFC decides something else, like putting Velasquez or Werdum against Miocic, I’ll probably do another fight. I’m ready for that.
“But I don’t think it will happen. A win for Velasquez – I don’t know exactly, but I’ve heard he’s getting surgery afterward, which benefits me and puts me right there. And in case Werdum wins, I don’t think that will be a more interesting fight for the champion than me.
“A rematch between Miocic and I would be a lot more interesting, I believe, considering Werdum lost to him recently. That’s my opinion, of course. The UFC makes their decisions, but we need to be positive.”
In fact, it’s not just that Dos Santos simply wanted a title shot. He firmly believes he’s earned it.
“It’s not about whether I’m asking for it – I think I deserve it,” Dos Santos said. “I’m coming off a win over Ben Rothwell, the guy who was going to fight for the belt even before Alistair Overeem, had he beat me. He didn’t. I won the fight, so he fell a couple of spots. And I ended up not climbing any.
“So it’s not that I wanted to fight Miocic, I was deserving of it. Velasquez and Werdum both come off wins over Travis Browne, who wasn’t close to fighting for the belt. So, given all these factors, I think I deserved it. But unfortunately it couldn’t happen now. I know it will happen and it won’t be too long before it does. My goal right now is to perform well.”
“I doubted my own ability and I paid the price”
Whenever that chance comes, “Cigano” will be ready for it. Now 32, the former titleholder says he’s had time and experience to look back on the mistakes made in the past. And more than his skill set, which he believes is enough to get him to the top, he thinks it’s a newfound self-confidence that will ultimately land him on the No. 1 spot again.
“I’ve been maturing a lot, but mostly on the mental aspect,” Dos Santos said. “I think I’m becoming stronger in my own head. I look at the times I ended up failing in my fights. I see those were mistakes I allowed myself to make – such as doubting my ability to not only defend takedowns, but to fight on the ground, as well. And when you have doubts, things have a big tendency to fail. That’s what happened.
“I’ve been living a period of enlightenment. And I’m becoming more aware of my own skill. The way I see it now, among the heavyweights, I have heavyweight strength. I’m a lot faster than a regular heavyweight. I have skills – boxing is my main skill, but I train everything. I have all it takes to be the No. 1 in this division.
“I was just lacking that confidence of believing 100 percent you’re capable of doing something and then doing it. When there are doubts, you can make mistakes. I think that’s where I paid the price. I doubted my own ability and I paid the price.”
A win would also serve as an anticipated gift for a very special guest set to arrive a couple of weeks after the fight – Bento, his first-born. Certainly not lacking in motivation, Dos Santos has “no doubts” he’ll get a chance to reach his goal of attaining gold again.
After some harmful self-doubt, the Brazilian heavyweight is finally sure of himself. And he hopes the fight with Struve is enough to convince everyone else to do the same.
“When we say we love something – and I say it truthfully, I truly love my sport – when you love something you need to also have fun while doing it,” Dos Santos said. “So, now, I think this experience will take some of the pressure that I’d been putting on myself, and I’m going to have a little more fun and put everything I know in practice.
“And this fight will Stefan Struve will serve to do just that – to show everyone why I’m here and why I say these things. I sense people sort of questioned my skills and these things that I say. And I think it’s normal considering the moments I lived, it’s normal that they feel this way. And it’s up to me to prove them wrong.”