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Junior Dos Santos: How Good Is His Ground Game?

With a perfect record of 4-0 in the UFC so far, Junior Dos Santos has quickly marked himself out as one of the top fighters in an increasingly competitive heavyweight division.

Dos Santos, aka ‘Cigano’, has made no secret of the fact that his primary goal is to out-strike his opponents, and he’s proven he is more than capable of doing just, with his heavy hands duly delivering one knockout and three TKO’s in the octagon so far.

Of course it has become apparent in recent times that to compete at the very highest level it pays to be a well-rounded fighter, and based on the caliber and skill-sets of the opponents that currently sit on his horizon it won’t be long before we see another side to the 25 year old’s game.

Which begs the question – how good is Junior Dos Santos on the ground?

Truth be told the answer is still somewhat shrouded in mystery at this time, especially as his UFC fights to date have played out entirely on their feet.  There are some facts that we do know however.

Firstly, it’s interesting to note that despite his love of striking, Dos Santos actually began training in 2005 with Brazilian Jiu Jitsu as his base, though kickboxing followed soon after.

In his native Brazil he earned two titles, “Bahia State Jiu Jitsu Champion”, and “Bahia State Submission Champion.”

Dos Santos With Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira

Nowadays he trains under a man whom Dos Santos considers an idol – fellow UFC heavyweight, and Pride Legend Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira.  Nogueira is considered by many to be the greatest Brazilian Jiu Jitsu fighter ever to compete at heavyweight in MMA, making him the perfect trainer for Dos Santos.

Two weeks before his last fight with Gilbert Yvel, Nogueira himself awarded Dos Santos his BJJ brown belt (one shy of the coveted black belt), highlighting the fact that the fighter does indeed have a legitimate ground game.

Furthermore, as part of the Black House stable, which houses many of Brazil’s elite fighters, Dos Santos also has a guaranteed supply of highly talented fighters to train with, including a recent addition to the camp – Demian Maia.

Maia, currently fighting in the UFC at middleweight, is of course one of the most revered BJJ stylists competing in the sport of mixed martial arts today.

Speaking to Brazilian site Tatame in November of last year Maia gave a rare insight into the ground game of Junior Dos Santos.

I had never trained with Cigano, but I got surprised. He still have a lot to develop, but he has a good ground and he’s very talented, learns very fast, I think that in a little while he’s gonna be excellent.”

Alongside his BJJ, Dos Santos is also improving upon his wrestling under the tutelage of  fellow UFC fighter Mark Munoz, also a member of the Black House team.

Beyond this anecdotal evidence, is there any actual proof of Dos Santos ground skills, or lack thereof?

Certainly not in the UFC, but if you dig deeper into the earlier bouts from his 10-1 career to date, there is some footage to be discovered of him fighting on the ground.

Junior Dos Santos Vs Jailson “Cabo Jai” Silva Santos

For instance, take his first ever professional fight against Jailson Silva Santos, aka “Cabo Jai” which you can watch in the first clip below. Before doing so, bear in mind that this fight is from some time ago – back in July, 2006 to be precise, and that Cabo Jai’s  record at the time stood at 1-4 (1nc).

Though these days he likes to keep the fight standing, it’s interesting that in his first ever fight Dos Santos was happy to spend a considerable portion of the round in top position, working a little ground n pound from the closed guard before the referee eventually stands them back up.

Beyond the novelty of seeing him actually working from the mat there’s not much to write home about here ground wise.  The main talking point is what happens afterwards, as Dos Santos hurls his opponent to the floor again and finishes him with a brutal soccer kick (illegal in the UFC of course).   Interestingly it’s officially recorded on various sites as a TKO, but as you can see for yourself it’s clearly a KO!

Junior Dos Santos Vs Eduardo Maiorino

Moving on, Juniors next fight was against another Brazilian, Eduardo Maiorino, and it marks the only time that he has ended a fight by submission so far.  Watch the fight below, and apologies in advance for the dodgy camera work which almost goes AWOL at the closing stages of the bout.

Again at this early stage of career Dos Santos is happy to go to ground, and indeed initiates this himself with a nice trip takedown that leaves him in side control.  A brief scramble puts him back to the half guard, but allows him to latch on a guillotine choke which ends the fight.

Considering this is back in December of 2006 it’s a solid display of his developing ground game, though it has to be balanced with the fact that the fight only lasted 50 seconds, and Maiorino was essentially a kickboxer with a poor MMA record of 2-6 at the time.

Junior Dos Santos Vs Joaquim Ferreira (Rematch)

If you took note of his record earlier (10-1) then you might be wondering at this stage what happened in his only defeat to date. Luckily we have footage of the bout – his sixth pro fight, which took place in November of 2007, so you can witness it for yourself.

By way of introduction, Ferreira and Dos Santos had fought some seven months previously in a four man tournament.  The two met in the final, but Ferreira, burnt out after his previous fight, eventually submitted due to exhaustion, handing Dos Santos the win.

Going into the rematch Ferreira was 4-2, though he has since extended that to 8-3.

It’s clear early on that Ferreira wants to take the fight to the floor, and it doesn’t take him long to do just that. Fighting from his back Dos Santos does well, powering out from underneath his opponent to achieve a successful reversal. Now in his open guard it looks like he’s again going to be happy working his ground n pound, but Ferreira spots an opening and swiftly locks in the armbar that ends the fight.

The fact that Dos Santos was taken down and submitted in just over a minute is a concern, but there isn’t enough evidence here to jump to any definitive conclusions on his ground skills, and there’s no doubt that he will have improved considerably in the two years since this fight took place, particularly thanks to working with the likes of Nogueira and Maia on a regular basis.

Dos Santos had one fight following this, which he won by TKO in the first round, before he entered the UFC. Whether it’s by coincidence, or by design, it’s interesting to note how his style has appeared to change since his loss. In the UFC he has shown no interest in going to the ground whatsoever, an indeed has stated as much in interviews, whereas in the earlier footage we’ve seen above he seems happy to mix it up.


Despite the evidence we’ve seen there’s still a lot we don’t know about the ground game of Junior Dos Santos.  After his latest TKO defeat of another dangerous striker in Gilbert Yvel I suspect we’re about to find out though, as his future opponents will now be even more keen to get him to the mat and test his skills their, rather than risk a similar fate.

Many of them are well equipped to do so.  His next opponent for example is fellow Brazilian Gabe Gonzaga, is a BJJ black belt who may believe his best chance against Dos Santos is on the ground.  Beyond him lie the divisions other top talents like Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira (who to be fair he probably will never fight due to Big Nog being his mentor) – both highly skilled Jiu Jitsu black belts, while Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, and current champion Brock Lesnar have a strong base in wrestling.

If Dos Santos can prove himself capable on the ground against this caliber of fighter, then, coupled with his already well proven striking skills, he may have what it takes to one day become a champion.

For the time being though, I can’t help but feel it would be wise to wait for further evidence before jumping to any definitive conclusions.

Article By RossC

Pictures courtesy of

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