In the summer of 2006, in the freewheeling, fun-loving city of Salvador, a young Brazilian man made his mixed martial arts (MMA) debut.
A month shy of five years later, that man would be headlining his first UFC event with a heavyweight title shot on the line.
It may seem like a rags to riches story for Junior dos Santos but the 26-year old from Caçador has put in five years of brutally difficult work. It's paid dividends, taking him from his home country of Brazil to England to all over the United States before landing him in Vancouver where he is set to face Shane Carwin this Saturday, June 11, 2011, in the main event of UFC 131: "Dos Santos vs. Carwin."
Leading up to the event, we'll take an extended look at "Cigano's" career from his humble, albeit impressive, beginnings in Brazil to the bright lights of the UFC.
Up first: his MMA debut at Demo Fight 1.
Why is this fight significant?
Quite simply, it's his first professional fight. In his five-year professional career, dos Santos has gone from small, local shows in his native Brazil to coaching The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) and headlining UFC pay-per-views (PPV).
Some detractors might point to the fact that his opponent, Jailson Silva Santos, was a meager 1-4 at the time of the bout. This is true but not only was dos Santos making his pro debut, he also dispatched of Silva Santos in a fashion that suits a man who would be ranked as a top heavyweight in only a handful of years.
What happened in the fight?
In a move that will likely surprise many fans, dos Santos takes to the clinch almost immediately and shoves his opponent into the corner.
We're used to seeing an aggressive striker when "Cigano" steps into the cage but here in his debut, he is much more cautious. It may be due to the fact that he isn't fully confident in his stand-up ability ... yet.
Silva Santos does all he can to try to get out of the corner but instead is literally dragged to the mat by dos Santos. Inside of his opponent's guard, "Cigano" begins to soften up the body by delivering several hard punches to the ribcage.
A fight restart places the action in the center of the ring and dos Santos continues to attack conservatively. Ducking his chin down as he continues to attack the body. He unleashes a barrage at one point, posturing up and landing strikes to the head but almost as quickly puts himself back on top of Silva Santos.
The referee calls for a stand up after little action and both fighters return to their feet. A wild exchange leads to another clinch, this time with Silva Santos the aggressor.
They circle around, arms interlocked, and jockey for position. Again perhaps showing uncertainty in his stand-up skills, "Cigano" attempts a trip takedown in hopes of getting the fight back onto the mat. It fails and he finds himself pressed against the ropes.
He is finally able to shove his opponent off and they square off near the center of the ring. Dos Santos lunges forward with a knee and follows up with a short right hook while his opponent whiffs on two punches forcing another clinch. The footage from this fight is amateur-quality from the audience so it's hard to tell if dos Santos lands cleanly with either of his strikes.
I have to believe he does since upon clinching up with Silva Santos, he literally ragdolls him and tosses him onto the mat. For a man who minutes earlier he was having trouble taking down, such a display would have to indicate that Silva Santos is at least somewhat staggered.
From there, "Cigano" comes across with a vicious soccer kick to the skull that immediately turns Silva Santo's lights off. A consolation punch lands before the referee is able to officially call the bout to an end.
What do we learn?
This is the first example of the power that dos Santos possesses. While spending a majority of his time on the mat or trying to get the fight to the mat, "Cigano" ends up winning the fight on his feet and in particularly brutal fashion.
But it seems it would take some time before dos Santos gets comfortable and confident in his stand-up. Without getting ahead of myself, it wasn't until he reached the UFC that he became the highlight reel knockout artist he is now known as.
What is certain, however, is that dos Santos wanted to engage his opponent on the ground and was able to achieve that goal at least for a few minutes. He came in with a gameplan and stuck to it as evidenced by his trip attempt during the second clinch.
This was the birth of a dangerous and smart fighter.
For those wanting to watch the fight for yourselves (and also jam out like it's 2006), the video is provided below:
Tomorrow: "Cigano's" rivalry with Joaquim Ferreira