After earning a win in his pro mixed martial arts (MMA) debut, Junior dos Santos continued to work the regional Brazilian fight scene.
He closed out 2006 with a submission win over a Brazilian kickboxing champion and set his eyes onto the future.
Before he was knocking out opponents on the grandest stage of all, "Cigano" was a young prospect making a name for himself in Brazil. Now, less than a week (June 11) removed from UFC 131: "Dos Santos vs. Carwin," he finally gets his chance to fight for the most prestigious heavyweight title in the sport.
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.
Today we'll take a look at the only blemish on his record to Joaquim "Mamute" Ferreira.
Why are these fights significant?
A mini-rivalry was born in Rio de Janeiro on a cool April night in 2007. A heavyweight tournament was held at Xtreme Fighting Championship: "Brazil" with "Cigano" and Ferreira participating. They would meet in the finals with dos Santos coming out on top.
Ferreira was determined to right this supposed wrong and would challenge "Cigano" seven months later and hand the UFC heavyweight his first loss.
It was after this submission loss that he began to train with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira which would parlay itself into training with the highly touted Black House team with fighters such as Anderson Silva and Lyoto Machida.
What happened in the fights?
Despite lossing a decision in his previous bout, "Mamute" advanced to the finals as his opponent could not continue.
It was a grueling bout, one that many saw the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) expert winning so no one was upset to see Ferreira get the nod. But much like his opponent, he too was worn down and had a swollen eye to boot.
The exhaustion and the injury to the eye was too much to overcome and dos Santos was able to pick up the win after nearly 10 minutes when "Mamute" was too tired to continue.
"Cigano" walked away the victor but like there always is with tournament wins, some felt it should have come with an asterisk. Could have he defeated a fresh and injury-free "Mamute"?
In the time since their meeting in Rio, dos Santos was able to pick up a quick technical knockout (TKO) while Ferreira avenged his first loss at the XFC card.
Up next was avenging his second loss from that night while dos Santos sought to prove his victory was not simply a matter of circumstance.
In the first entry of this series, I discussed how "Cigano" seemed less than comfortable on his feet and would have rather fought on the ground. Without knowing a lot about his opponent, it could be attributed to either a lack of confidence in his stand-up or strategy to take advantage of a weakness in opposition.
Dos Santos' second fight with Ferreira is all strategy. This time, "Cigano" avoids the ground and stuffs an early takedown down his opponent. "Mamute" was already under the tutelage BJJ wizard Vinicius "Draculino" Magalhães and as such was considered a threat on the mat.
An exchange leads the current UFC star to grab his opponent into a Thai clinch and he throws a knee. Ferreira shoves him against the ropes and secures the takedown, landing in half guard.
A mixture of technique and sheer strength forces "Mamute" up and cover as dos Santos succesfully executes a sweep. Now on top of his opponent, it would seem in the young Brazilian's interest to stand back up.
His youth and inexperience show as "Cigano" stays in the BJJ player's guard and allows him to create the distance needed to slap on an armbar.
Now in peril of losing the fight or worse, getting his arm snapped in two, dos Santos is forced to flip over in hopes of wiggling out of the submission but he's stuck and has to tap seconds later.
What do we learn?
The big question mark in Junior dos Santos' UFC run is his ground game.
How good is it? Is it offensive- or defensive-minded? Hell, does he even have one? Despite being a BJJ brown belt under Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira but has still yet to flaunt his skills on the sport's biggest stage.
Although it was nearly four years ago, a two minute submission loss coupled with the aforementioned questions about grappling prowess lead dos Santos' ground game to be a mystery.
He's got great stand-up and some of the heaviest hands in the heavyweight division but he's never faced someone who poses as legitimate a threat to knock him out as he himself does. He's faced kickboxers in the past but none of them had the same power Carwin has.
Perhaps "Cigano" will realize that engaging his opponent this Saturday in a stand-up battle is akin to playing Russian Roulette and will try to drop "The Engineer" on his back? Then we'll finally get to see a glimpse of this vaunted ground game that "Big Nog" and dos Santos himself always talk about but is never seen.
Dos Santos' submission loss is presented below for your viewing pleasure:
Tomorrow: Dos Santos TKOs his way into the UFC