Picture this: Somewhere out there in pay-per-view (PPV) land this past Saturday night (Oct. 19, 2013), an impressionable, over-sized 10-year-old was watching UFC 166 and getting his first taste of mixed martial arts (MMA) action.
"Dad," the husky young man nervously began, his starry eyes-locked on the television, "When I grow up that's what I want to do. I'm going to train my butt off and someday -- through hard work and dedication -- I'm gonna live the dream. Dad, I'm gonna grow up to become the second best heavyweight on Earth!"
Obviously it's an absurd scenario. Nobody gets into professional athletics because they want to be a runner up. Winning a silver medal in the Olympics may be a hell of an accomplishment, but any wrestler worth his cauliflower ears will be going for the gold when he decides to make a run at the Olympic team.
Elite athletes are driven by an overwhelming ambition -- some would say an obsessive compulsion -- to be No. 1 in their sport. Anything else is just unacceptable. The ego gratification that comes with knowing you're the best in the world is the carrot on a stick that makes top professional athletes endure the grueling sacrifices needed to compete at the highest level.
So where exactly does this leave Junior dos Santos, Ultimate Fighting Championship's (UFC) former heavyweight champion, now that it's been firmly established he's a step beneath the current champ Cain Velasquez?
If you ask "Cigano" about it, he'll do what athletes in these situations do and tell you the hurting Velasquez laid on him was just a setback.
"What can I say, he beat me up," the Brazilian dos Santos said after the fight. "I'm gonna go back home, train harder to come back and face him again."
The verbal brave face Junior dos Santos tried to put on the sad UFC 166 situation on fight night rang hollow when compared to his disfigured mug, one that bore more than a passing resemblance to the survivor of a grizzly bear attack.
The thing was, it was no mama bear hopped up on misguided maternal instinct that mauled dos Santos. It was his opponent, Velasquez, who shattered the blood vessels around dos Santos' left eye thanks to a piston-like series of right hands, causing it to swell shut with a nasty, plum-hued hematoma. Just like it was Velasquez who fattened his lip and opened up a nasty cut above his right eye with a relentless onslaught of punches and elbows.
And here's the real kicker: This was the second such gruesome, prolonged beatdown delivered by Velasquez to dos Santos in the past 12 months. Unlike the first time around, when the series of matches between the two was tied at one victory apiece, there aren't any unanswered questions or "what if's" coming out of last Saturday night's fight.
If a prime dos Santos faces a prime Velasquez 10 times, Velasquez is going to win at least eight of those fights. At least that was the overwhelming impression one was left with after watching Velasquez manhandle the Brazilian against the fence and treat him like a human heavy bag for the better part of 25 minutes. Velasquez's gas tank is just too deep and his grappling ability just too stifling for dos Santos to defeat him by any means other than the proverbial lucky punch.
Somewhere deep down inside, dos Santos has to feel this, too. Coming out of the second fight, the former champ could find a measure of solace in the knowledge he came in flat because of serious over-training. This time around he had top of the line sports science on his side -- including regular blood work to make sure he wasn't pushing himself to the point of being counterproductive -- and he still found himself on the receiving end of a disfiguring beating at the hands of Velasquez.
The question now is, where does this leave dos Santos in the Heavyweight division? Given his peerless MMA boxing and remarkable natural talent, it's likely dos Santos would be a generation-defining champion if it wasn't for Velasquez. Unless this second loss to Velasquez chips away at his motivation, dos Santos would be the favorite against any Heavyweight in the world at the moment. Heck, throw him in Doc Brown's Delorean and send him back to 2004 with a Pride FC contract in hand, and there's a good chance the cult of Fedor Emelianenko never reaches the minority religious status it currently enjoys today.
Dos Santos is simply that good. The problem is though, no matter how great he may be, Velasquez is unquestionably better.
Which means now comes the hard part for dos Santos: Picking up the pieces of his shattered ambitions and reconciling himself to the fact that, for all his talent, he's never going to be anything more than runner up in a division ruled by Velasquez.
There's no shame in being the second best Heavyweight fighter of your generation -- hell, it's a damn impressive accomplishment -- but its got to be a demoralizing postilion for a man who has structured his life around realizing his goal of being No. 1.
What's more, considering recent reports from the dos Santos camp that he doesn't remember any of the pounding he received from Velasquez after the second round, there are serious questions about how many more of these beatings he can take.
Dos Santos has already proven his toughness by withstanding two absolute muggings inside the cage within the past 11 months, and with some medical professionals calling for fighters who have sustained repeated concussions such as Stefan Struve to start exploring other career options, it may not be the best idea for JDS' career longevity to book him in another fight until his brain has had ample time to heal.
Whenever dos Santos happens to make his return, he's going to need to stay motivated now that another title shot appears to be so far away. Whether or not he can convince himself the story would somehow have a different ending if he got another crack at Velasquez may go a long way toward determining how long he holds onto his status as the No. 2 man in the Heavyweight division.
In the fight game confidence is everything. If a fighter has it, he can push his natural talent and skill to its limits -- which equals huge success for a fighter with dos Santos' gifts.
But, if a fighter lacks belief in himself? That's a bigger career killer than any prolonged beatdown ever was.