There is perhaps no more noticeable smile in all of mixed martial arts than the one that belongs to Junior dos Santos.
The Brazilian knockout artist seems to operate in a realm of perpetual happiness, and in a business as ruthless and brutal as the one he trades in, the rarity of that particular attribute puts the 29-year-old in a league of his own.
MMA is an environment lined with tough guys, and Dos Santos is one of the toughest of them all. Yet, his ability to embrace the positive remains. Despite everything he's been through—personally and professionally, good times and bad—his happiness can't be swayed. The dude is just happy, and a passionate fanbase has embraced him because of it.
That, of course, and his ability to settle his opposition with well-timed violence. Dos Santos' life has changed in overwhelming fashion because of his ability to separate grown men from their consciousness, a feat he's proved to be remarkably consistent at accomplishing.
To put it simply: Laying cats out is his business. And in that regard, he's one of the most efficient businessmen in UFC history.
When it comes to the highlight-reel knockout, there are few who can compete with what Dos Santos has accomplished. In his five years under the UFC banner, eight of his 10 victories inside the Octagon have come as the result of him crumpling the opposition. That caliber of success shot him up the ladder in the heavyweight division, and in fitting fashion, it was his big right hand that brought his dream of becoming the heavyweight champion to life.
It took him just north of one minute to unseat Cain Velasquez from the heavyweight throne when the two men first met at UFC on Fox 1 back in 2011, and in that one defining moment, Dos Santos' signature smile carried more weight than he could have possibly imagined.
After a lifetime spent fighting uphill, suddenly he had reached the mountain top. His life would be forever changed by his ability to capitalize on that one great opportunity, and while sustaining that level of success would be a different battle in its own right, in the aftermath of his first bout with Velasquez, a watershed moment had been realized.
"Winning the title was one of the biggest moments of my life," dos Santos told Bleacher Report. "That night, and getting my first win in the UFC were great, great moments. Both of them were very special because my debut was really important. I fought against a guy who was in line to challenge for the title and I won the fight. In the title fight, I became the champion of the world and it was amazing. I never felt something so strong in my chest."
With the coveted heavyweight strap in his possession, Dos Santos' signature smile was everywhere. He went from being the most feared striker in his division to an outright star in the UFC fold. Alongside friends and fellow Brazilian champions Anderson Silva and Jose Aldo, he stood at the forefront of what looked like a tenured reign in the UFC for Brazilian fighters, and it was the glory he had been fighting a lifetime to capture.
Nevertheless, a life free of adversity would be a foreign reality where Dos Santos is concerned, and it was about to return in large supply for the newly crowned champion. Issues in his personal life put his disposition to the test, and the re-emergence of his rival would prove to test his mettle at the deepest of levels.
A divorce from his wife of several years would unsettle him, but a five-round beating at the hands of Velasquez would turn his world upside down. Where Dos Santos had leveled the AKA staple in quick fashion in their first go around, their second meeting turned out to be a long and painful night inside the Octagon.
When the final bell sounded at UFC 155 in December, a battered Dos Santos watched the 12-pounds of gold that had defined him in so many ways be strapped around the waist of Velasquez. In the aftermath of his first loss under the UFC banner, and his first in over five years, the vibrant smile was gone, and in its place depression took a stronghold.
The chips were undoubtedly down, and with how the second bout with Velasquez played out, the chance to have an immediate rematch wasn't an option. He would have to put revenge on a shelf for the time being and focus all of his attention on getting back to square in every aspect of his life.
"My journey has been a great one...at least I think so," dos Santos said. "I'm very happy right now and very happy with everything that is happening in my career. Even when I lost my title to Cain Velasquez, everything has been special for me. I'm very thankful for everything I have and it's because of my career. I thank God for that. I'm thankful for the great people I have around me and all the people who support me. They make me feel very confident."
While the memory of his loss to Velasquez at UFC 155 wasn't one easily shook, he would have to find a way to make peace—albeit an uneasy one—if he was going to make his climb back to the top. Fortunately for the Brazilian, he was successful in every regard, and the results spoke for themselves as he knocked out Mark Hunt in his first outing as a former champion at UFC 160 in May.
Putting away "The Super Samoan" in spectacular fashion not only put him back into the win column, but earned Dos Santos the opportunity that had been burning in the back of his mind. He was going to fight Velasquez for the third time, and his smile returned to nearly full capacity.
The two men will square off in the trilogy bout of their storied rivalry next weekend at UFC 166 in Houston, and provide what could prove to be the final installment to one of MMA's greatest feuds.
The upcoming main event tilt between the two best heavyweights in MMA is undoubtedly a critical fight for both men. Dos Santos is out to prove Velasquez's victory was merely the result of a lack of focus coming into the bout, and the San Jose-based fighter is looking to put a definitive stamp on the belief the knockout suffered in the first fight was a fluke.
The two men are so familiar with one another, the manner of how things could unfold holds little secrecy. The former champion is going to bring his heavy hands into the Octagon, and the former wrestling standout from Arizona State University is going to use his grappling skills and endless cardio to neutralize that devastating power.
That being said, Dos Santos has been opening up the proverbial tool box as of late and expanding his arsenal to improve his attack. If the spinning wheel kick he used to knockout Hunt in Las Vegas is any indication, we could be seeing the next phase of his skill set in evolution.
While Dos Santos isn't ready to commit to a high-flying "Showtime kick" level of attack, he's confident he's holding more weapons than just a set of brick-heavy hands and believes there are no limits for him inside the Octagon.
"You never know," Dos Santos laughed. "Maybe I can try that kick, but that is tough for somebody my size. But I can do it and everything is possible. You never know what is going to happen inside the cage. If I see a good opening I can try anything including this kind of kick."
Where the fight will provide the opportunity for Dos Santos to potentially reclaim the title, it means so much more for him. Being the UFC champion was more than the spoils of war, it was a physical and emotional transformation he's eager to experience once again.
"Winning this fight means everything to me," dos Santos said. "Throughout my entire life and my career, I have to prove myself and how good I can be. I have to prove how good I am and how hard I can work everyday. I love everything that is happening in my life with the chances and opportunity to fight well; I want to keep all of that going.
"I want to be champion again. I want to have that sensation again in my chest. I'm feeling very motivated and excited to be fighting against someone like Cain Velasquez because he's very tough and those are the challenges I want."
Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.
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