Photo via UFC.com
The heavyweight division had long been the preeminent weight class of combat sports.
In boxing, the likes of Mike Tyson, Evander Holyfield, and Lennox Lewis captured the public's imagination while also loosening its grips on pocketbooks and credit cards.
But much like Oscar De La Hoya, Floyd Mayweather, and Manny Pacquiao shoved the heavyweights nearly out of the public's mind inside the boxing ring, B.J. Penn, Georges St. Pierre, and Anderson Silva have done their best to have more attention focused on weight classes below 205-pounds inside the Octagon.
When Junior dos Santos steps into the cage this Saturday night (June 11) against Shane Carwin at UFC 131: "Dos Santos vs. Carwin," he not only fights for himself, but he also represents the heavyweight division as it travels the long path back to its former glory.
His Octagon debut at UFC 90 against a heavily-favored Fabricio Werdum was the beginning of his own personal journey, one that would lead him to a The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 13 coaching gig and the first main event slot of his UFC career.
That fight, which ended as surprisingly and brutally as any fight can, is the subject of today's piece.
Let's take a look.
Beginning in 2007, the UFC heavyweight division began to experience a renaissance. The heyday of Pride heavyweights was a mere memory at this point and it left a vacuum in its absence.
These were big-name signings that kicked up a ton of interest for the company but "Cro Cop" washed out while "Big Nog," while winning an interim title, didn't look or fight like he did in Japan.
While that group of signings dominated headlines, the following year another trio of fighters barely made any noise.
Cain Velasquez, Shane Carwin, and Junior dos Santos all made their debuts in 2008 at UFC 83, UFC 84, and UFC 90 respectively.
They represented a new breed of heavyweight -- big yet athletic, strong but skilled. And in Velasquez and "Cigano's" case, they were only in the early to mid-20s.
Between the three of them is shared a single loss inside the Octagon -- Carwin to former champ Lesnar. Velasquez would go on to best the diverticulitis-stricken fighter several months later to become one of the youngest UFC champs ever.
Dos Santos would carve himself a niche in the heavyweight crowd as the man you don't want to get into a slugfest with. In his six Octagon appearances, he has recorded four first round stoppages.
The most impressive of which was his debut in Illinois after current Strikeforce grand prix participant and Fedor-toppler Fabricio Werdum.
Going into the bout, "Cigano" was a 450-point underdog while Werdum was favored by 600 points. The bookmakers, unfamiliar with dos Santos, didn't give the young Brazilian a chance over the better known "Vai Cavalo."
Unfortunately for them, they made a few risk takers an awful lot of money.
Let's dive in.
They meet in the center of the cage and Werdum throws a leg kick that dos Santos partially avoids. Two combinations to the body from "Cigano" go nowhere as they begin to circle around.
Another leg kick from the former Pride fighter finds its mark. Dos Santos answers back with one of his own, the smack of which reverberates throughout the arena.
The younger Brazilian throws a hook but Werdum ducks under and clinches up with his opponent. Jockeying for position, dos Santos is able to shove off the Brazilian jiu-jitsu (BJJ) expert before resetting his striking stance.
Neither fighter is willing to commit yet as Werdum continues to keep "Cigano" at a distance with leg kicks.
But the ending comes suddenly and violently when dos Santos, teasing with his left hand, counters a right from Werdum with a brutal uppercut that immediately shuts the current Strikeforce fighter down.
He collapses to the mat where the young Brazilian puts the exclamation point on that banger of a sentence.
Like a kid on Christmas, he runs around the cage in sheer joy before making it to his corner to celebrate. The yin to that yang is Werdum on the other side flopping onto his back, his equilibrium still off, with blood pouring down his face.
Dos Santos became a sensation overnight. Werdum had never been finished before, forcing the likes of "Big Nog" and Andrei Arlovski to the judges' scorecards. But "Cigano" was able to do it quickly and in devastating fashion.
He had been fighting for over two years at that point and the victory was exactly the shot in the arm his career needed. Six fights later, he finds himself poised to challenge Velasquez for the right to call himself heavyweight king.
Only "The Engineer," who has a nasty habit of also putting his opponents to sleep early, stands in his way. When these two titans step into the cage on Saturday night, make sure you heed this advice: