It's been 17 months since Junior Dos Santos stepped in a cage, but that streak will soon come to an end.
On Friday, May 20, the former UFC heavyweight champion will compete for the first time since his departure from the promotion he called home for more than 12 years, when he headlines Eagle FC 47, the latest event for the promotion headed by UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"That's true, and I'm happy," Dos Santos told MMA Underground. "I'm happy with this new move in my career and my life. It's been good, you know, to be part of the Eagle FC. There's amazing people behind the scenes at Eagle FC, and it's been very good. The experience I've been having with them is great."
Dos Santos had an incredible run in the UFC, arriving to the promotion as a relatively unknown prospect and then winning his first nine fights in the organization while both claiming and defending the company's heavyweight title. He and fellow former UFC champ Cain Velasquez would engage in an epic trilogy series, and Dos Santos faced a who's who of the division, including current champ Francis Ngannou, future Hall of Famer Stipe Miocic, and pretty much anyone else who resided at the top of the division.
But Dos Santos lost his final four fights for the company and openly expressed his frustration with his treatment behind the scenes before ultimately walking away from the organization.
Ahead of his debut for Eagle FC, Dos Santos views the fight as an opportunity for a fresh start.
"I'm very excited about it, about this comeback," Dos Santos said. "Like one year ago or something, I was going through a very special moment, let's say, and then I was evaluating – evaluating everything in my life and if I would really decide to keep going on my career, to keep fighting, you know? But as soon as I went back to the gym and I went back on training, on living that type of environment, which I love it, you know? I decided, 'Oh man, I've got to keep doing this.'"
Dos Santos (21-9), a striker by trade, briefly toyed with the idea of a hybrid boxing contest under the Triller Triad Combat banner against Bulgarian boxing champ Kubrat Pulev, though the bout never materialized. Instead, he now meets fellow UFC vet Yorgan De Castro (8-3) in the main event of Eagle FC 47, which streams live on the FLXcast app from FLXcast arena in Miami.
"I'm very happy to be here at this point, and I'm training good," Dos Santos said. "I'm feeling good, and I can't wait, actually, to be inside the cage again and fighting again."
Regardless of how long the 38-year-old Dos Santos continues to compete outside the UFC, he'll forever be linked to his legendary run inside the organization's famed octagon. While there was tension with the promotion during his final days on the roster, Dos Santos said he feels no resentment and will forever value his time there.
"That was some amazing times I lived in the UFC," Dos Santos said. "Of course I had an amazing journey over there. I'm very thankful for everything, what happened in there, but it's a new chapter, you know? I've got to move forward, and once I decided I want to keep fighting, I wanted to keep going on with my career, this is a perfect move for me, this fight on Eagle FC against someone as tough as Yorgan De Castro, so for my comeback, it looks just great."
With a victory, Dos Santos could potentially challenge reigning champion Rizvan Kuniev for the Eagle FC heavyweight title, or perhaps face a different name from an ever-increasing list of MMA notables Nurmagomedov is bringing to his promotion. But "Cigano" also hopes to compete in a professional boxing bout or two along the way, as well.
"That's my main goal, to have an opportunity in boxing because, man, I love that thing," Dos Santos said. "You know, not worrying about kicks and takedowns would be good, you know? That's what I think. ... Let's see, but I'm happy. I can tell you, as well, I'm not taking anything away from the opportunity I'm having right now."
Dos Santos' complete future is uncertain at the moment. Are his best days behind him? Or will a change of scenery and a renewed focus allow him to regain the form that made him one of the sport's most popular fighters during much of his UFC run?
The Brazilian's performance on May 20 will go a long way towards understanding what he can still accomplish, and Dos Santos is promising something memorable.
"I was always training a lot my boxing; I was doing the same thing right now," Dos Santos said. "I love my boxing, but I'm an MMA fighter. You know, I can fight anywhere, and one thing I have to say is, in a land of the smashers, we've got to smash."
This story first published at SI.com/MMA.