It’s hard to believe a fighter like Junior dos Santos, a former UFC champion with a record of 16-3, may be a man with no place to go, but that’s the situation before him now.
Granted, the UFC will no doubt keep him busy with big-name fights against Top 10 competition, but what about after that?
Should dos Santos keep on winning, he will continue to rise in the rankings until he finds himself in the unenviable position of facing Cain Velasquez a fourth time. Considering just how badly he was beaten by the current heavyweight king in their past two outings, a title shot against Velasquez seems less like a reward and more like a punishment.
In truth, the only real reason for dos Santos to keep fighting is in the hopes some other fighter will dethrone Velasquez. In that scenario, dos Santos would once again have a chance to reclaim that which he wants above all else: the title.
However, chances are Velasquez keeps his belt and remains champion into the foreseeable future. Should he manage to defeat Fabricio Werdum, he will once again be a champion in dire need of legitimate threats to his crown; save for dos Santos, there won’t really be anyone else at heavyweight who stands an honest chance.
And so, dos Santos will likely be thrown to the lion once again. For many of the same reasons Jake LaMotta kept fighting Sugar Ray Robinson, it appears dos Santos is really the next-best fighter in the division, and as such he will once again find himself reminded that second-best is a painful place to be.
None of this is to say dos Santos doesn’t have a chance to defeat Velasquez or that he never had any success in the second and third bout with the champion. The truth is, dos Santos has done better against Velasquez than anyone else ever has, which is something to be proud of.
But the man dos Santos knocked out so quickly to take the title is light-years removed from the beast that currently wears the belt. This new version of Velasquez continues to tighten his game, and the result is a sleek steamroller who flattens anyone who gets in his way.
Thus, dos Santos waits for his next fight. Should he win, he’s one step closer to a door that seems closed to him for as long as Velasquez remains champion.
But all of this assumes dos Santos will only be truly satisfied if he wins the belt. He could be settling into a new mindset—one that saw Arturo Gatti become the champion of the hearts of boxing fans the world over.
If that is the case, then the belt, like the title of BJ Penn's book says, really is just an accessory. Should dos Santos hunger for nothing more than great fights, with potential title shots representing nothing more than a cherry on the top, then his career could indeed be very rewarding.
Fights against the likes of Alistair Overeem, Antonio Silva, Josh Barnett, Travis Browne and many others could be incredibly entertaining, and these are all fights dos Santos could win by knockout.
But if we know anything about dos Santos by now, it is he is a competitor who will never settle for being a perpetual No. 1 contender. No matter how many fights he wins in exciting fashion, as long as Velasquez holds the belt and owns the style that seems tailor-made to bind and batter him, dos Santos is just a good man who can only stand so much heartache.
But then again, LaMotta never seemed to get tired of fighting Robinson, so maybe the same is true of dos Santos. Maybe he will end up fighting Velasquez three more times before their careers are finally over, loving every minute of it, no matter how painful.
If that indeed comes to pass, I hope something changes for dos Santos. He’s a great fighter, and it’s hard to watch great fighters throw themselves against the wall too many times without at least some success.
But in the great sport of MMA, where so many things can change overnight, there is no place, as a fan, I would rather see dos Santos, other than inside the Octagon.