Junior dos Santos | Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
At home and still recovering from the knockout, the ex-heavyweight champion received a call from the UFC matchmakers offering another fight. Despite the fact that he was still dealing with the lingering effects of the damage from a fourth consecutive knockout loss, dos Santos was presented with an ultimatum.
“Right after I got home, [the UFC] called and said, ‘You’ve got to fight in 20-something days against [Marcin] Tybura,’ and I just had a concussion!” dos Santos told MMA Fighting. “I cannot fight! OK, so you cannot fight? A few days later, you’re out.
“It’s better to be out than to fight the way I [was then]. My last two fights, they were saying, ‘You take [the fight] or you’re out.’ It’s not the right way to treat people, especially athletes that build up their brand to the highest point where they are now. It needs to change.”
After he declined the Tybura fight due to his lingering concussion symptoms, dos Santos was released from his UFC contract, making him a free agent for the first time since he joined the promotion back in 2008.
Since parting ways, dos Santos has spoken frequently about his feelings toward the UFC and his unceremonious exit after being one of the top heavyweights for more than a decade.
More than a year has passed since his release, and the 38-year-old Brazilian has moved forward with his career, inking a deal with Triller to compete in Triad Combat as well as a deal with Eagle FC, where he will serve as one half of the main event for Friday’s card.
Dos Santos says the complaints he has about the UFC aren’t sour grapes, but rather wake-up calls he hopes will serve as warnings to other fighters going into the organization with blinders on.
“I wasn’t being appreciated in the UFC anymore,” dos Santos explained. “It seems like they were there just to take advantage of who I was and they were just pushing. ‘Go! Go! Junior do this!’ It didn’t make my happy. I wasn’t happy being there anymore. I wasn’t getting prepared right. I wasn’t showing up the way I would like to do it. I like to show up with intensity, and if you remember, I was pointing to the ground on the octagon all the time. I wasn’t even doing that anymore! Because I wasn’t feeling that.
“I wasn’t feeling part of the business anymore. I wasn’t feeling part of the UFC world anymore. I know pressure is part of the game, but the way things were happening there in the UFC, it was putting me down.”
There was actually a time toward the end of his run with the UFC that dos Santos thought it might be time to call it a career.
“I wasn’t worth anything to the UFC anymore, and that’s what makes me sad,” dos Santos said. “They treat the fighters and the guys who helped to build the sport and helped to build their brand very, very bad. Now we are here proving and showing the world. I feel like with the experience that I have right now, I don’t feel like I have to prove anything to anybody, but I love so much to be who I am. I love so much to fight. I love so much the competition world. It excites me a lot.
“I was thinking about this a lot. Should this be the moment for me to stop? I don’t know, things are not getting together, what’s happening?”
It wasn’t until after he was released that dos Santos looked at the bigger picture in terms of his career. He learned that while the UFC is the biggest promotion, it isn’t the only show in town.
When he fielded offers for a new fighting home, dos Santos felt truly appreciated again for the first time in quite a while, and the financial benefits certainly didn’t hurt either. According to dos Santos, the contract he signed for a Triad Combat bout originally scheduled for February was set to pay him more than he made in the UFC while he was the reigning heavyweight champion.
“There’s a lot of opportunities out there right now for fighters,” dos Santos said. “In the UFC, you have the contract and you cannot do anything. They do anything they want to do. Even Francis Ngannou, he wants to step out of the UFC and he’s saying, ‘I’m not going to fight any more for $500,000 or $600,000, I’m the champion,’ and he’s more than right.
“It doesn’t make you very happy. This type of things happens a lot in the UFC. There’s guys like Gane, they make $100,000, $200,000 to fight. Are you kidding me? You’re making big shows, you’re the main event of the show, you’ve got to make a lot of money. You’ve got to be part of the evolution of the sport. It’s far from being fair.”
As he prepares for his first fight outside the UFC in nearly 14 years, dos Santos admits he’s not only happier, but also that he knows he’s not done with fighting.
“As soon as I went back to the gym, I was feeling that energy and I was throwing my punches on my partners and getting punched by them, and I was like, I love this thing!” dos Santos said. “I need to do this thing as long as I can.
“Now, I’m receiving all this appreciation back to me. It’s rejuvenating the way I’m feeling. It reminds me of when I started back in the day. When everything was a big surprise to me and I was amazed by everything I was seeing. Right now, I’m feeling kind of like that, but with so much more experience.”
Based on his own experience, dos Santos believes the UFC needs to make wholesale changes as far the fighters are concerned, but he’s not sure when that might actually happen. Seeing fighters like Ngannou take a stand might signal a new era, but more than anything, dos Santos just hopes that the UFC learns to appreciates the athletes who make the promotion what it is today.
“I’m not saying [the UFC is] not amazing — they are,” dos Santos said. “They brought the sport to another level. They brought MMA to the whole world to know. They brought great opportunities for the fighters. They’re great. [UFC President] Dana White with the UFC, they did great for the MMA community, for the MMA world. Now, I think the only misunderstanding, they have to allow their fighters a little bit more freedom. Getting better paychecks. These guys they sell.
“Who’s making the show? Who is the show? The fighters! Respect them and be fair with them.”