To say the former UFC heavyweight champion is facing the most difficult stretch of his professional career is an understatement, as “Cigano” carries four consecutive stoppage defeats in just 18 months. This one in particular hurt bad as he sees it as an unfair result.
In a 25-minute conversation with MMA Fighting on Thursday, his first interview after UFC 256, dos Santos discussed the elbow that took him down, a strike deemed legal by referee Jerin Valel, the possibility of being cut by the promotion, whether or not the 36-year-old veteran has considered retirement, and much more.
The fight obviously didn’t go as you expected. What went wrong against Ciryl Gane?
Well, I guess maybe I’m staying more apathetic because of the weight of the responsibility for this negative moment in my career. I’m not attacking or being as aggressive as I should be, so maybe… I didn’t attack, I wasn’t aggressive early as I planned on being.
Did you follow the strategy you had set for this fight or did it take a detour? What was your plan for this fight?
It took a detour. I was supposed to fight more on the inside, but didn’t exactly follow the plan. I should have closed the distance and grappled, too, but fought in a longer distance mostly because of our movement, especially his.
Did he surprise you in anything he did, or was the loss due to you not following your strategy and being “apathetic?”
I think it was more of my mistake. [He] was quite the opposite, actually, because I was expecting… Not taking anything away from him, but I was expecting, based on his size and everything people talked about him, hyping him up, I was expecting heavy strikes, but didn’t feel none of that. I felt it was completely normal, like any other heavyweight. Unfortunately, I paid for my mistakes one more time. Not exactly a mistake, but not exactly following the plan.
The way things happened in the end of the fight gets me reflecting a lot, I can’t quite accept it. Not just the way it was, but mainly because of people in the business have said about that. Not that I couldn’t get knocked out, none of that. Quite the opposite, I’ve always accepted my defeats with humbleness. If someone is better than me, there’s nothing I can do, especially in this division, where the hand lands and the person goes down. But the situation there, the way it was, and everybody thinking that’s ok… By everybody I mean so-called MMA specialists considering it a legal strike. To me, that’s very frustrating.
People that consider it a legal strike argue he was already throwing the strike when you turned around, and also that it didn’t exactly land to the back of the head, it also hit on the side. Don’t you think so?
That’s not the only point, that was the athletic commission’s argument. They said it also connected to the ear so it’s valid, but it was his forearm, closer to the hand, that hit my ear, but the elbow connected exactly to the back to my head. I went out for a few seconds and when I came back it already was too late. I felt that pain in the head and looked to the big screen, where I saw the replay of the movement and it landing exactly to the back to the head.
People saying I turned my head, to me, is absurd. I already was sideways, he was kind of holding me in that position for about 10 seconds, so when he threw the elbow—I don’t think it was intentional, he didn’t mean to land the elbow to the back of my head, I don’t think that, but it doesn’t make it legal. “Oh, I turned my head and whatever.” That doesn’t make the strike not illegal.
I didn’t turn my head, I was in that position for a few seconds already, enough time for him to know that that type of attack would obviously hit the back of the head. I know an athlete probably is very excited in that moment and kind of doesn’t reflect too much about it, but illegal strikes are clear. In my opinion, and in the opinion of many people that maybe doesn’t have access to the media to speak, [it’s illegal], but those specialists are saying it wasn’t, that it was legal because I turned.
First of all, I turned because of that jab that he landed—and I wasn’t hurt. They said I was, but I turned and walked so I wouldn’t get hurt again. Maybe it’s the wrong way to defend, I don’t know, but what is wrong and what is right? Who’s in there to say it? I know this is the heavyweight division and it was an illegal strike that took the opportunity of continuing fighting away from me. Like I said, heavyweights are heavyweights. I’ve knocked people out with seconds left in the last round, like he probably has, too. To take that opportunity away from me is absurd.
It’s also absurd that they expect me to accept this result as a normal result, like a fair result. It wasn’t. It wasn’t a fair result. I’m a fair guy and I play in a fair way, and always have, and I think… You can’t expect people to be fair to you just because you’re fair to them. I don’t know.
And I think Ciryl’s words were very… He will obviously try to go with the flow, but we spoke inside the octagon and I said it was an illegal strike and he kind of argued with his coach. You’ll never admit doing something if you didn’t do something illegal. And then he did that interview with Joe Rogan after he left the octagon, Joe Rogan asked him again if the strike was legal and he said he didn’t know. How come you don’t know if you’ve landed an illegal strike? It’s kind of an odd situation. You’d say it wasn’t illegal. And then he said at the press conference what the athletic commission told me, too, that the strike was legal because the forearm hit the ear. He said, “oh, if the athletic commission say it’s legal, then it’s legal.”
He has to go with the flow because it benefits him, but, here’s what I’m thinking. That’s the image of our sport. Everybody’s fighting for this sport to become stronger and better and all of a sudden an illegal strike becomes legal because of the athlete’s situation? Or depending on the athlete’s situation in the promotion, or the moment the strike lands, like them saying I turned my back, which I didn’t.
In other words, you threw an illegal strike, but depending on the moment your opponent is going through or his situation it’s not illegal? Oh, it’s only illegal in some occasions, but not all? That’s absurd. Illegal strikes are illegal strikes. For example, I can’t knee you in the face if you’re on the ground, right? That’s a rule. You’ll be doing something illegal if you land it. He was holding me sideways, it doesn’t matter if I turned my head or not. He threw the elbow to the back of the head, it’s illegal.
The very least the referee could do was stop the fight and give me time to recover and then the fight would continue. That’s the least he could do. This is illegal for a reason. They stop worrying about your health and safety when you’re going through a complicated situation in the company? That’s very complicated. I haven’t opened up about it yet, I’m talking to you about it now because it’s been difficult to absorb, you know?[…] In other words, screw the rules, screw the health and safety of the athlete, screw the sport itself. Like I said, depending on who’s the fighter… I’ll ask you this, if it was the other way around, if it was me landing that elbow to the back of his head, do you really think they would have handled it the same way? Of course not. It would have been some kind of reprisal right away because of the moment… I don’t know.
The first thing people will say is “Junior doesn’t want to accept the loss, Junior doesn’t want to accept he has lost.” Brother, I have no problem accepting I’ve lost. The moment I got hit and the referee stopped it and I came back I was like, “damn, I’ve lost again,” but then I saw the replay and I thought “damn,” and the back of my head hurt, and that clearly shows he elbowed the back of my head, and you stop the fight in his favor? How come?
People might say I’m crying, that I don’t want to accept defeat, when actually the defeat didn’t happen in a legal way, it was an illegal strike that didn’t allow me to continue fighting. I don’t know what the result would be and it doesn’t matter now because they put us in an absurd situation.
Do you plan on appealing the result, or you don’t think that the athletic commission will overturn it based on your conversation in the locker room?
Man, the athletic commission isn’t used to overturning results or anything like that, but we’re studying the situation because the videos are very clear, they show the strike, and the argument is… The arguments are the worst, even from fighters. A fighter that wants to defend his own side, ok, but other fighters… Many fighters, people that know what it means for an athlete’s life and how difficult it is, are going against the rules of the sport, against the sport and their own health and safety.
Gane says if the athletic commission said it’s fine, then it’s fine, and smiles. My friend, you don’t realize you’re doing something that might affect you in the future. I’m the one going through this today but it could be another athlete or even you in the future, then I want to see your little smile.
It’s a difficult situation, very odd, that makes me feel wronged. I’ve always helped with everything I could, even with this fight. I’ve asked for it to be in January so I could have enough time to prepare because I was in Brazil, and they said they wanted it in December, and I’ve accepted it. I’ve always helped in every situation, and all of a sudden I’m…
Illegal or not, this loss puts you in a difficult situation with four defeats in a row. Does that go in account when you make decisions for the future, in terms of next steps in your career?
Oh, it does. A lot. I don’t know exactly what, you know? I’ve been living situations, really trying to understand my head. There’s a reason why people say we are our worst enemies [laughs]. Sometimes it’s hard to deal with your own feelings, with your own mind. I think that has affected my life heavily, but one thing I can’t deny is that this is what I love doing. I love to fight. Unfortunately, I’m not able to get the best feeling out of it, you know? I have been very anxious before my fights. It’s a tough moment, but it’s up to me to work this out the best way and make it go away as soon as possible.
Dana White said “possibly” when asked at the post-fight press conference if fans may have seen the last of you in the octagon. Is that a possibility?
Our contract with the UFC can end whenever they want. I think they have the intention to let many fighters go now. I don’t know how it will go. I think that’s on them. It was up to me to come prepared for this fight and win and overcome this negative moment I’m living, but, unfortunately, that did not happen, and all this mess happened. I don’t know exactly how it will go right now. Let’s see what the next step will be. Like I said, I love doing what I do, I’ve always done my best inside the organization and I’ll continue doing as long as I can.
How many fights do you have left in your deal today?
I think I have five left, but that doesn’t mean anything.
Do you plan on continue fighting in the UFC or elsewhere, if they choose to release you from this contract?
I love fighting, like I said, and it’s hard… I have no intentions to retire now, especially because I’m 36 and, like I said, I’m performing at the highest level in training but I can’t reflect that in the octagon, so it’s a complicated situation. I prefer to not even discuss [retirement] because I don’t want to rush myself. I’m not thinking about it.
The only thing I’m trying to absorb is everything that’s going on, this difficult situation in the fight, and how that sounds unfair, you know? Like I said, I’ve always done my best to make it better for everyone, not only the promotion but also myself, being a fair guy and competing in a fair way because this is something that deserves respect. I prefer not discussing anything yet because I haven’t stopped to think [about it] yet.