Thirty minutes after entering the cage against challenger Cain Velasquez, Junior dos Santos was smiling. His face may have been grotesquely swollen. He may have just endured a five-round beating for the ages. He may have just lost his UFC title and spot as the world's most dangerous man—but Cain Velasquez couldn't take away his grin, the unabashed smile of a young boy up to no good.
The story in the aftermath of UFC 155, both here at Bleacher Report and on websites across the world, is the return of Velasquez, an amazing fighter who regained the heavyweight title by administering a brutal beating to the man who had knocked him out and embarrassed him on national television in the UFC's Fox debut last year.
And rightfully so. There's a lot to unpack with a Velasquez win, plenty to parse—everything from wrestling's rise back to the top of the martial arts pack to Cain's role in reaching out to the teeming masses of Hispanic boxing fans whom the UFC hopes will embrace the sport's first Mexican-American champion. Cain, despite his dead eyes and even deader soundbites, is good copy.
But the image that remains for me, long after they've finally soaked up all of Joe Lauzon's blood and the remnants of dos Santos's battered pride and packed the UFC Octagon away for the next show, is the deposed champion's bravery and resilience.
Velasquez was unyielding for 25 minutes, but really it was a punch in the first five-minute round that ended the night for dos Santos, a crushing right hand that took advantage of Junior's propensity to back away with his hands down and his chin up.
Everything that came after was just mop up duty. Dos Santos was a dead man walking, never quite regaining his equilibrium, standing there and receiving punishment.
And though Velasquez's legendary cardio faltered a bit after three rounds, he never stopped coming forward, a fistic robot with the intensity set on high. Punch after punch, takedown after takedown (Velasquez set a UFC record with 11) and minutes of grinding his head into Junior's against the fence, and Velasquez still couldn't make the champion quit.
As the minutes counted down to zero, the enduring image wasn't Velasquez and his quiet competence and well-rounded game. It was dos Santos rising again and again to his feet, refusing the easy way out. Fighting.
As strange as it sounds, it's a rare thing to see in this business. Most men, when faced with that kind of onslaught, are happy to let the officials come running to their rescue, not exactly quitting, but not upset that the fight is called to a stop either. It's human instinct—living to fight another day.
Whatever is inside Junior dos Santos, it isn't anything resembling "normal." And make no mistake about it: We may call it courage and sing his praises, but it's horrible for him as a human being. After all, while the ancients may have celebrated warriors in song, the dirge is always about a dead man.
None of that makes it any less admirable. What dos Santos did at UFC 155 is unimaginable. It's easy to picture yourself as Velasquez, the hero who administers the beating, the Jason Statham of the cage, maybe even smirking out a wisecrack or two in the corner after propelling your fists into your enemy's head again and again.
What's harder is imagining yourself as dos Santos. In the midst of your greatest professional failure, in the middle of an extended beating that would have made viewers of Django Unchained grimace, to get back up. Even better, get back up and smile.
Cain Velasquez is a great fighter. But based on what I saw last night, Junior dos Santos is more than that. He's a great man.