LAS VEGAS – Just a few short weeks ago, things really didn’t seem to be working out for top UFC heavyweight contender Junior Dos Santos (12-1 MMA, 6-0 UFC).
Despite earning a shot at the UFC’s heavyweight title, Dos Santos openly expressed his frustration at having that bout delayed when Cain Velasquez was forced to the sidelines following surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff.
But things have quickly changed, and Dos Santos is elated to take a role as coach on “The Ultimate Fighter 13,” which debuts in on Spike TV in March. And in fact, he’s downright salivating at the looming showdown with his opposing coach, Brock Lesnar (5-2 MMA, 4-2 UFC), a man he thinks provides a very favorable matchup.
“When they told me to come and make ‘The Ultimate Fighter 13,’ I was very happy,” Dos Santos said recently. “It’s a new opportunity for me. I was supposed to fight for the title, but Cain got hurt. When the UFC told me to come [to Las Vegas] and make this show with Brock, I was very happy.”
You see, while Dos Santos was saddened to have his shot at a UFC title pulled from the table, he simply wasn’t willing to sit on the shelf while waiting for the champion to heal.
“I asked for a fight,” Dos Santos explained. “Cain may not fight for one year. That is too much time for me to just wait for him.”
But as Dos Santos’ manager, Ed Soares, explained, the opportunity had to be right. After discussing the available options with UFC president Dana White, Dos Santos and Soares believed the “TUF 13” coaching gig opposite Lesnar provided all the Brazilian contender could want.
“We just wanted to make sure it was going to be a big fight and something that made sense,” Soares said. “Fortunately, Dana came back with Brock, which is definitely a fight that makes sense. It’s going to be the biggest fight of Junior’s career, and the exposure from the show is perfect.
“Our first choice, like always, was to fight for the title, but knowing that we weren’t going to be able to fight for the title, this is obviously the best thing that could have happened outside of fighting for the title. I think in the longrun, it’s going to help his career a lot.”
At just 26 years old, Dos Santos is the youngest coach ever to head a team on the long-running Spike TV-broadcast reality competition series. Nevertheless, “Cigano” believes his experiences at the Black House gym will have him more than prepared.
“It’s a new position for me, but I think I’m ready to do this,” Dos Santos said. “I have a lot of experience to share with my team. I’ve trained with a lot of great champions like Anderson Silva, the Nogueira brothers and the rest of the guys on our team, and I think I can do this very well.
“I will bring (Antonio) Rodrigo Nogueira, Anderson Silva, and I will see who else I can invite to come. A lot of good fighters will be here to help support us.”
With filming for “The Ultimate Fighter 13” just underway, Dos Santos knows there will be challenges. First up is the minor language barrier as the Brazilian works hard to improve his English. But perhaps more importantly, Dos Santos said he’ll need to get comfortable working in front of the cameras – a role he believes his opposing coach, a former professional wrestling superstar, is well-equipped to handle.
“I think he is already almost an actor,” Dos Santos said of Lesnar. “All the time he is in front of the cameras. That’s different than me.”
Of course, while both Dos Santos and Lesnar will be expected to help guide their team to victory in the 14-man tournament, the big prize is what awaits the winner of a season-ending matchup between the two heavyweights: a future date with Velasquez.
Dos Santos – who had never met his opposing coach in person prior to the start of filming earlier this week – admits he was a bit shocked at just how massive Lesnar really is. However, he’s far from intimidated by his giant foe.
“I’m very excited to fight with him,” Dos Santos said. “He’s a pretty big fighter, and I think he is very dangerous. But I think the fight against him will be very good for me because I think I am faster than him, and I’m going to use my boxing, for sure. I always use my boxing to win fights. That’s going to happen again.
“I think he doesn’t accept punches very well. I don’t know why. I guess because he’s from wrestling. I am from boxing. I have no problem with punches. The guys can punch me, and I feel nothing. I just keep going. That doesn’t happen with him. He’s got a weak chin.”
It’s about as close as you’ll ever get to trash talk from the always affable Dos Santos. But he doesn’t mean the words as anything other than what he considers simple fact after watching Lesnar’s recent fights with Velasquez and Shane Carwin.
“I think Carwin was good in his fight against Brock, but he got tired too soon,” Dos Santos said. “Brock showed how dangerous he is. Against Cain, I was there in the arena. The fight was very good. Brock started 100 percent – like a truck with no driver – attacking Cain Velasquez, and Cain just waited for the right moment to change the fight and beat Brock Lesnar. Cain was perfect.
“I think once you’re over 220 pounds, it’s all the same thing. All the guys are huge and strong. I believe in me. I think I can knock him out.”
With Lesnar’s inclusion as coach, “The Ultimate Fighter 13” appears poised to score some of the highest ratings ever garnished by the six-year-old series. But while Lesnar may prove the initial draw, Dos Santos is thankful for his opportunity to appear opposite the former heavyweight champion – and he intends to let viewers know what to expect this summer when the two finally square off in the octagon.
“I want to let the American people know who I am and why I’m here and what I do to be here,” Dos Santos said.