BURBANK, Calif. -- As someone who nearly had to decline the biggest opportunity of his professional life, Junior dos Santos can sympathize with the array of mixed martial artists who had to pull out of big fights this year.
The Salvador, Brazil native injured his knee in training less than two weeks before fighting Cain Velasquez for the UFC heavyweight title last November, and for a brief-but-agonizing period of time, he worried he wouldn't be able to fight.
"When I hurt my knee 10 days before the fight, I was very worried," dos Santos said. "I'm not shy to say, but I cried. I was two days walking with crutches, and that was very tough for me. But then I started to do my physical therapy, and my knee came around again."
When push came to shove, dos Santos chose to gut it out. His decision paid off when he knocked out Velasquez in just 64 seconds in Anaheim to claim the gold.
But, as the champion spoke with Los Angeles-area reporters at a recent media luncheon, dos Santos said he understands why so many fighters have made the decision to pull out when they've been injured in training camp.
"I think they're training very hard because now, everybody knows everything," dos Santos said. "You can't surprise the guy by wrestling, boxing, jiu-jitsu, Muay Thai. Everybody is very well prepared for the fight."
So as dos Santos gets ready to face Velasquez in their rematch at UFC 155 on Dec. 29, he's glad he was able to avoid the fate that has befallen so many fellow competitors.
"Especially with the champion, they have to work a lot to keep the belt," dos Santos said. "In this sport, you have to give 100 percent of you to have a good career. Sometimes you get hurt. When you are the champion, it is better for you to pull out of the fight. But at that time for me, I was the one challenging the champion. I was waiting for that chance for too much time. I couldn't lose that chance."
Of course, even though dos Santos chose to stay with his opportunity to take Velasquez's title, that doesn't mean he's been unaffected by the relentless shuffle of opponents. Dos Santos was originally supposed to be next in line soon after Velasquez win the title from Brock Lesnar, but Velasquez's torn rotator cuff in his title victory sidelined him for most of 2011. In the interim, dos Santos was supposed to face Lesnar after coaching on "The Ultimate Fighter," but that turned into a bout with replacement Shane Carwin.
"When I beat Roy Nelson, I had my chance to fight for the title," dos Santos said. "Then something happened with Cain. I stayed waiting for him for one year. I asked for another fight and they put me on ‘TUF.' I fought Shane Carwin and that was very dangerous." Dos Santos holds up his fists. "Everyone knows he has bombs, right? After I took that Carwin fight and won, nothing was going to keep me out of my fight with Cain."
Which brings us back to the Velasquez rematch. Champions often bristle at giving second title shots to contenders they have already defeated. But dos Santos accepts the notion the former champion is at this point his clear-cut, number-one contender, considering Alistair Overeem is under suspension, Daniel Cormier has one fight left in Strikeforce, and he defeated Frank Mir in May.
"I think considering me as the first heavyweight in the world, I think Cain is the second one for sure, at this time," dos Santos said. "I want to fight with the best fighters in the world, Cain Velasquez for sure will give me his best. I love to knock out people, I would love to do it again. He is pretty good on his feet, but, if he accepts to fight standing with me again he's going to get knocked out again."
It doesn't take long to figure out that dos Santos is as intellectually curious outside the Octagon as he is dedicated to improving his game in it. Over the course of a nearly two-hour conversation, the champion frequently spoke of broadening his horizons, from continuing to master English to spending more time in the United States in order to work on his wrestling game.
While dos Santos didn't speak English when he debuted in the U.S. in 2008, just four years later, he conversed freely and openly with the gathered reporters, stopping to inquire about the meaning of the occasional word he didn't understand.
Even if it did lead to a few humorous moments. Discussing his philosophy on selling fights, Dos Santos said "I don't like to talk trash, don't like to talk ... how do you say? I don't like to talk bulls---." His public relations manager quickly corrected him: "Talk trash!" Dos Santos laughed. "Not bulls---. Talk trash. I don't like to talk trash."
Speaking of trash talk, while dos Santos rarely has an ill word to say about anyone, the champ makes it clear he's not particularly fond of Overeem. Dos Santos was scheduled to meet Overeem in May before the latter was busted for elevated levels of testosterone in a surprise Las Vegas drug test.
Dos Santos is of two minds on Overeem: One, he doesn't believe the former K-1, Strikeforce and Dream champion deserves a title shot given his circumstances, but the other being that he sincerely wishes to punch Overeem in the face.
"I don't think he deserves it," dos Santos said. "He just failed a drug test. That's bad, that's very bad for the title. But I want to fight him. That's different. I don't think he deserves to fight for the title, but I want to beat him, because he said a lot of ... he lied. He lied. I want that fight. I would enjoy to fight with him. But it doesn't mean he deserves to fight for the title. What's important now is Cain Velasquez."
Can't wait to see Junior fight again, Cain is a great fighter but the mental advantage JDS has in this fight... it's not even funny.
Word is out now of how Cain supposedly hurt his knee before the first fight, we know Junior did but I've seen no proof for Cain. Irrelevant really, they both stepped in the cage and I think despite being only 64 seconds, the fight said a lot for how they match up.