Former Ultimate Fighting Championship heavyweight champ Junior dos Santos once again looked like a contender on Sunday.
The Brazilian delivered a virtuoso performance in winning all five rounds of the main event over Ben Rothwell on a UFC card in Zagreb, Croatia. It was the organization’s first event in the nation.
Dos Santos had won just two of his last five fights, including two lopsided losses to Cain Velasquez. He was coming off a second-round knockout loss to Alistair Overeem in December.
On Sunday, dos Santos peppered Rothwell with body shots and frustrated him with his movement for nearly the entire 25 minutes.
“I think we did the right strategy,” dos Santos said after ending Rothwell’s 4-fight winning streak. “You can’t go (straight into) a guy that size. He’s too big. I used my footwork to move a lot and throw hard punches and used my boxing.
“Forget about jiu-jitsu and wrestling. I’m a boxing guy.”
Dos Santos has had his once iron chin called into question, but indicated part of the strategy put together at his new camp in Florida was to avoid Rothwell’s power. It worked as Rothwell was never able to set his feet and take aim at the former champ.
“I kept myself calm and just did my job,” dos Santos said. “For me it’s been great training at (American Top Team) and they have helped me a lot. I have learned a lot.”
He said he hopes the performance will serve as a springboard back to the top of the division.
“Of course, this is just the beginning though. It was only my second training camp here so I’m learning all the time,” he said. “Write it down. I’m going to be champion again. I don’t know what’s next, that’s up to the UFC, but I needed this to feel the passion inside my heart again.
“I gave my all to win the fight. I found that passion tonight and now anything is possible.”
The top four fights on the card were all heavyweight matchups.
Derrick Lewis recorded his third consecutive knockout victory with a first-round stoppage of Gabriel Gonzaga.
“I feel hungry after that victory,” Lewis said. “I feel really good. I appreciate my opponent and what he did in the fight. I’m hoping that I get to fight Roy Nelson in July at UFC 200. I want to fight again soon and keep this run of victories going.
“Eventually I want to fight for the title and this victory definitely puts me in the top 15.”
The matchup is now likely to be booked, though the date is unclear, after another impressive performance.
Nelson, a Las Vegan, congratulated Lewis for the win on social media and referred to him as his “next opponent.”
Francis Ngannou earned a victory over Curtis Blaydes when the ringside physician ruled Blaydes could not see out of right eye following the second round. Timothy Johnson took a unanimous decision over Marcin Tybura.
In a light heavyweight matchup, Jan Blachowicz earned a unanimous decision victory over hometown hero Igor Pokrajac.
Blachowicz rallied to win the final two rounds after a slow start. Pokrajac, who was released from the UFC in 2014 but re-signed for this event after three wins outside the organization to compete on this card, said he enjoyed the experience.
“It was a heck of a fight. I tried to put on the best show for my crowd here in Croatia,” he said. “I’m very proud that we managed to fill out this arena and it was an honor to be able to fight in front of them. It’s up to the UFC to decide what’s next but I will be back in the gym tomorrow training. I want to show everyone that next time I will be better.”
Maryna Moroz kicked off the main card with a unanimous decision victory over Cristina Stanciu in a women’s strawweight bout.
Alejandro Perez highlighted the preliminary card by forcing Ian Entwistle to verbally submit due to punches in the first round of a bantamweight bout.
Lightweight Mairbek Taisumov knocked out Damir Hadzovic in the first round and bantamweight Damian Stasiak needed just 2:16 to submit Filip Pejic by rear-naked choke.
Zak Cummings capped off the televised portion of the preliminary card by winning all three rounds over Nicolas Dalby on his way to a unanimous decision. The welterweight improved to 4-1 since signing with the UFC in 2013.
Lucas Martins, Jared Cannonier and Bojan Velickovic all picked up wins on the card.
Contact reporter Adam Hill at email@example.com or 702-224-5509. Follow him on Twitter: @adamhilllvrj