In just five years, Junior dos Santos (13-1) has climbed from the slums of Brazil to the star of a nation, all the while embarking on an unparalleled run to the cusp of combat sports' greatest accomplishment. At just 27-years-old, few could have predicted the success "Cigano" would achieve in such a short stretch of time, yet the heavyweight contender remains humbled by the attention. Even now, ask him how this has all come to pass, and he'll attribute his triumphs to one man, a childhood hero turned coach -- Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.
"He teaches me all the time, a lot of things. He's one of the (people) I've got always by my side."
Since June, dos Santos has locked himself away at the Team Nogueira facilities in Salvador, Brazil, studying the methods of his upcoming opponent, Cain Velasquez (9-0), under the watchful tutelage of the former Pride champion. Nogueira understands better than most the inherent danger Velasquez brings into the cage, having fallen victim to his stunning ascent at UFC 110.
As with any fight team, Team Nogueira is a fundamentally close-knit group, and their leader's brutal failure sent waves of despondency throughout the ranks. But the story would not end there, as the Brazilian legend bided his time before making a spectacular return at UFC 134. Despite entering the cage as an overwhelming underdog, "Big Nog" crushed rising heavyweight prospect Brendan Schaub in front of 14,000 raucous countrymen filling Rio de Janeiro's HSBC Arena. The win was an astonishing homecoming, and provided dos Santos a backdrop of motivation to complete the task in front of him.
"That fight was amazing," dos Santos gushed. "He knocked (out) a guy that is used to knocking people out. It was beautiful."
Now on the heels of one stunning success, Team Nogueira hopes to uncover another. As the challenger to an undefeated champion's throne, dos Santos finds himself the inherent underdog. Yet, what other role would be more fitting for the protégé of the man who never quits?