Reigning UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos may be wrapped in UFC gold now, but there was a time where he was just another poor kid from Brazil, dreaming of one day becoming a fighter and making a better life for himself.
Nicknamed “Cigano” after a character in a Brazilian soap opera he resembled, dos Santos grew up in poverty in Caçador, southern Brazil. He gravitated to the judo and jiu-jitsu fighters who trained in a local gym, and fantasized about becoming a martial artist. Dos Santos chased this dream all the way to the neon lights of Las Vegas, where on Saturday night he headlines the huge UFC 146 Pay-Per-View as the most dangerous mixed martial artist on earth.
Now it is dos Santos who inspires other kids’ dreams. As he made his final preparations before flying to Vegas for his bout with two-time champ Frank Mir, dos Santos was taken aside by Breno Luis Ferreira, a nine-year-old boy who, for months on end, had shown up to the champion’s gym in Salvador to watch his hero train.
The champion said: “As soon as school ends, Breno always appears. We love having him in the gym. He’s been coming to the gym so often now he’s become a little friend. We call him the Little Guy. After my last sparring session before flying to the U.S., he asked me why I had to fight in Vegas, and when I explained he said he wanted to come to help me win.
“He didn’t have a passport, his mother didn’t have a passport, but I was a little guy once and people helped me. If we could make the little guy’s dream come true, if we were able somehow, why wouldn’t we?”
Two dozen officials worked on two continents to get everything in order for Breno, his mother Simone, and 16-year-old brother Pedro Gabriel to travel to the U.S. in time to be Octagonside for Saturday’s event. They touched down at Las Vegas’ McCarran International Airport on Wednesday and were checked in to a MGM hotel room bigger than their home in Salvador.
Speaking through a translator, Breno said: “It’s just so exciting being here in Las Vegas. Even to get to sit on an airplane was like a dream. I could see all things out of the window, big buildings and we were really high above them, flying like a dream. Our room here is so nice and everyone is being so nice to me, but I’m here to help Cigano defend his title.”
“Cigano is the strongest man in the world. He can defeat anybody even though he is nice. He will beat Frank Mir on Saturday. I’ve seen him in the gym and he will win with a left hook followed by a big right uppercut. This will be in the first round.”
Dos Santos is happy to have his friend in town. He said: “He really likes to watch and he’s fun to have around. He’s not shy at all. He’s a mischievous kid, he’s always laughing.”
“Before I left for Las Vegas, he jumped into the ring and shouted ‘Now I am a Junior dos Santos! The UFC champion! I am Cigano! I will knock you all out!’ and he challenged the other kids to a pretend fight. He is a little louder than the real ‘Cigano’ but he is so excited every time he is in the gym.
“At this point in my career, I can be a motivation and role model for these little guys from home. The kids see that all the fighters from the gym have good cars; they can see that hard work does lead to something good in life.”