He may be snugly wrapped in the gold of the UFC world heavyweight title, but there was nothing golden or, indeed, snug about Brazilian Junior dos Santos' upbringing. No silver spoon in sight, either. Rather, the puppy-eyed, perennially-smiling heavyweight -- unbeaten in his UFC career to date -- was raised amid poverty and hopelessness in Cacador, a small town in southern Brazil, the prospect of one day gracing billboards in Las Vegas a mere fantasy.
However, fast-forward to 2012 and that's exactly what dos Santos now does. As UFC world heavyweight champion, he is one of the icons of modern-day mixed martial arts, a man renowned for punch power, chilling knockouts and admirable grace. A paradox perhaps, he treats opponents with respect, both before and after their match, the mask only slipping when the time comes to trade blows and secure scalps.
Junior is as vicious and violent as it gets when the opening bell rings, yet grins blissfully with the youthful naivety of a young boy when ungloved and disarmed. Alas, despite the bright lights of the Vegas strip -- most of which will be tilted his way this coming Saturday at UFC 146 -- the champion's soul remains young, his heart still at home in Cacador.
Maybe that's the reason why dos Santos has offered an outstretched arm, a leg-up, to a fellow Brazilian kid, nine-year-old Breno Ferreira, who touched down at McCarran International Airport on Wednesday with his mother, Simone, and his older brother, Pedro Gabriel. Shortly after landing, the family checked into their room at the MGM Grand and thanked Dos Santos, the man who'd handed them the chance to leave Salvador and watch him defend his UFC world heavyweight title against Frank Mir this coming weekend.
It was then that the nine-year-old smiled the same smile UFC fans have grown accustomed to seeing stretch across the lips of Dos Santos since his rise to prominence.
"It's just so exciting being here," said Breno. "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 Cigano in the gym and he will win with a left hook followed by a big right uppercut. This will be in the first round."
If anybody should know, Breno should know. Every day after school, the young boy walks to Luiz Carlos Dorea's Champions Gym in Salvador and watches dos Santos and others punch, kick and grapple their way to a better life. He kneels by the ring in silence, happy just to watch. Sometimes he'll play with other kids allowed into the gym, and other times he'll even throw a punch or two himself. When it comes to the intricacies of mixed martial arts, he's as clued-up and vocal as any young child can expect to be.
"He's not shy at all," said Dos Santos. "He's a mischievous kid, always laughing. Two weeks ago he asked if he could go for a ride in my Land Rover, so he sat in the front seat and we went for a drive. He was telling me to go faster and giving me directions, which was funny.
"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 is so excited every time he is in the gym. He's like a ball of energy around the gym -- we love him being there."
Breno is made to feel like one of the gang when free to roam the gymnasium. He exists in his own little world, one filled with gloves, bags, pads and, most importantly, overwhelming positivity. Fighters train to better themselves, to experience improvements through hard graft, a dynamic that generates a feel-good environment, even for a nine-year-old. It's an even better environment for a 27-year-old man at the peak of his considerable powers, of course.
"Breno's background is the same as mine," said dos Santos, "but his future could be like mine as well. I used to watch people train judo and dream of being a judo fighter, and I can see in his eyes when he watches us that he is trying to remember what we are doing. I know he's going to be a fighter.
"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 see that hard work does lead to something good in life."
When Breno and his brother first set foot inside their room at the MGM Grand, they'd be forgiven for touring the surroundings at a frenzied pace, jumping up and down on beds and switching the television on and off until they blew a fuse. The family is, after all, strangers to such luxury. Indeed, their normal place of residence, the house they call home back in Cacador, is just five-by-seven metres around the perimeter, significantly smaller than the Vegas hangout provided by dos Santos this weekend. And it is sobering truths such as this that prompted the champion to offer Breno a shot at his dream.
"He is so excited and happy to come to Vegas," beamed Dos Santos. "Just going on an airplane was so exciting for him. I was excited the first time I came here -- and I wasn't a little guy. It was so different, so big and exciting. I'd never seen the lights on the strip or the green lights of the MGM Grand. Just seeing all the big cars and fast cars will make the little guy so happy."
Don't let his 6'3", 240 lb frame fool you. Junior dos Santos was once that same little guy.
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