It seems that, in all combat sports, the heavyweights always attract a lot of attention. A big fight between two big boys is easy to market and consistently magnetizes fans. I never really got that. It's ironic that another widely accepted rule of thumb is that the level of action and excitement generally increases the lighter in weight the competitors are.
Rather than take in two stubbly-faced neanderthals lumbering around and flailing fists the size of Christmas hams, I was more satisfied watching the well-rounded little guys disappear into a confusing tornado of limbs and ricochet around the cage as if the production team had mistakenly broadcast show in fast-forward.
However, the Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos heavyweight championship bout headlining tonight's landmark UFC on Fox 1: Velasquez vs. Dos Santos event is a different animal. Don't get me wrong -- this is still a half-ton of human beef colliding with intentions of decapitating one another, but these athletes conduct themselves like respectful gentlemen and engage in their respective trades with a fluid agility and violent grace that defies the common conception of today's leviathan combatants.
In one corner, we have the sheepishly smiling and disarmingly humble dos Santos; a gentle giant who's endured the diversity of a rough upbringing in Brazil and ascended to the sport's apex with traditional boxing. Then there's Cain Velasquez, a Mexican-American wrestler who's adopted his mother and father's blue-collar work ethic to transform into planet Earth's alpha-heavyweight.
Since the mystique of Russian legend Fedor Emelianenko is no more, these two mixed martial artists are leading the charge as the sport's new era of heavyweight fighters, and there is no better place to stage their showdown for the masses than the UFC's groundbreaking premiere on Fox. It's on.
Gifs and analysis in the full entry.
I interviewed Velasquez's manager and trainer when the champ was still unconscious on the operating table after his shoulder surgery. The procedure was successful and the prognosis was to begin training in three to four months and reappear in the Octagon in six. That was almost ten months ago on the dot.
The shoulder might be the most finicky and complex injury to rehabilitate for any athlete. The required range of motion and breadth of application can make recovery a tedious task, even more so for the laborious occupation of a fighter, and the question of ring-rust always accompanies year-long layoffs. Just going through the myriad MMA training and sparring drills of his own volition could tax his shoulder to the fullest, and now he'll have 239-pounds of power-punching Brazilian to fend off with it.
While dos Santos has been spotless in the UFC and murderous on the feet, his only stain on the carpet is a 2007 submission loss. The Brazilian has persevered through just one wrestler, and one who prefers to handle business standing to boot. While all signs would indicate dos Santos is tough to get down and can handle himself accordingly, he's yet to be dragged through the mire by a tireless takedown artist like Velasquez.
Velasquez was trumpeted as a behind-the-scenes training phenom since day one. I finally bought into the hype the day he crumpled the venerable Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira with a whirlwind of devastating kickboxing.
He became much more than a frenetically paced wrestler with pestering ground-and-pound. This wasn't your standard lucky punch -- this was a burly, athletic heavyweight unreeling high kicks, low kicks, front kicks and blazing hand combinations with the ease of a lightweight.
Much like Jon Jones, Velasquez's star seemed to shine brighter as the voraciousness of his competition grew. After climbing out of the division's basement with stoppages of Brad Morris, Jake O'Brien and Dennis Stojnic, Cain's first spotlight performance came against Cheick Kongo.
The gifted French striker fought off takedowns tooth and nail and lanced mile-long, straight punches through his guard.
An air of desperation seemed to accent the way Velasquez reverted to his wrestling roots to exploit Kongo's weakness and win the decision. Sure, he beat Kongo, but so did Heath Herring and Carmello Marrero, and we weren't wetting our pants over them.
Next up was the stone-faced Ben Rothwell, a crusty veteran with a much more balanced skill-set.
The striking of "Big Ben" actualized as a man prodding a hornet's nest with a stick. Velasquez devoured the veteran and firmly adhered himself while swarming with an incessant volley of punches and hammerfists.
Once again it was the unnervingly frenzied pace and pressure of Velasquez that planted the seed for his exceptional potential. Still, it was easy to whine about the stoppage and, citing the Kongo fight, stamp him as a one-dimensional wrestler.
And that is precisely why the kickboxing repertoire he vanquished Big Nog with was particularly mind-blowing.
But alas, we fans are a coarse lot of pessimistic meat-heads.
"Poor Nog's chin is gone," and, "Gotta love Big Nog but he's known for getting his ass kicked," and, "Big deal, Frank Mir just did that too!" we bemoaned.
After the schoolyard beating Velasquez laid out on Brock Lesnar to assume the heavyweight mantle, we were out of excuses. There was no room to deny that Cain Velasquez was the real deal. His striking and power were cemented and conglomerated with his already proven wrestling prowess. A champ was born.
A highly advisable way for an unknown fighter to introduce himself is by taking on an esteemed and experienced opponent -- who has never been knocked out -- in your UFC debut and clobbering him into a peaceful slumber in about a minute.
Oh ... well, hello there Junior dos Santos.
The Brazilian's emergence was as subtle and delicate as the Kool-Aid man crashing through your living room wall. Werdum's status was unquestionably well deserved, leaving barely enough room for the provincial doubters to cry "Fluke!" considering the litany of dangerous strikers the Pride standout had already tangled with.
Even though this initial win probably stands as the most impressive, every subsequent performance further defined the heightening legacy of "Cigano", who left a wake of carnage in his trail with lifeless bodies falling left and right.
Stefan Struve, a second Pride icon in Mirko Filipovic and Gabriel Gonzaga all crumbled under the merciless wrath of his technical boxing. The Team Nogueira product remained level-headed about his meteoric rise until his coach and mentor was (literally) knocked out of the title race in 2010.
After handily dismantling the hard-headed Roy Nelson, it became crystal clear that Junior dos Santos was destined to vie for championship gold.
Accepting a coaching role opposite Brock Lesnar on TUF, the momentum fizzled due to the champ's recurring battle with diverticulitis, vaulting perennial contender Shane Carwin in his place.
Like the Nelson fight, the foray was decided on the score cards but the result wasn't really any less overwhelming than his previous knockouts. Now establishing his takedown defense against a credentialed wrestler, dos Santos was undeniably next in line.
The Match Up
For as monumental as this match up is, the variables are rather straight forward: it's the perilous boxing of dos Santos versus the kickboxing of Velasquez with the question mark of the champ's ability to implement his wrestling effectively.
Prior to Velasquez's kicking onslaught against Nogueira, a simple set of straight rights and lefts made up most of his offerings in the stand up. Perhaps due to the lacking threat of takedowns from Nog, the champ rolled out a wide array of different kicks with cool confidence.
It will be interesting to see whether he relies on kicks from beyond the perimeter of the Brazilian's wheelhouse or relents to retain balance and defense by dueling with his hands.
While dos Santos is easily the best heavyweight boxer, nothing will eliminate the hazards of being a predictable fighter with a transparent strategy.
Everyone knows the challenger wants to keep Velasquez in front of him and work his hands. dos Santos uses the jab well but it's his only distance weapon. In close quarters, his pummeling right hand and one of the scariest left hooks in the game come into play.
The concern is that any power-puncher must plant his feet to generate torque. The ideal tactic to instill hesitancy for such a fighter is the threat of shooting.
Defending high level takedowns requires a contradictory set of footwork. Instead of forward-oriented and planted for power, he has to be light on his toes and poised to spring back for a deep sprawl.
If I'm going to bring up Cain's fight with Kongo as ammunition for how JDS could tag him even worse, it's only fair to highlight Gonzaga's successful takedown and point out how Velasquez will cover more ground and do a much better job of keeping him there.
dos Santos should have the chops to escape and avoid major damage, but every such instance would result in a significant scoring shift toward Velasquez.
Conversely, if Velasquez isn't careful about dropping levels and shows any signs of a pattern, dos Santos thrives with two tools known to cripple aspiring wrestlers: a massive uppercut and a brutal lead knee to the body.
Both of these techniques were integral against Nelson. JDS keyed in on Nelson's habit of dipping his head down into the pocket and/or retreating back in a straight line; characteristics that Velasquez has exhibited in the past.
When the champ faced a tight striker with rigid takedown defense, we saw some weaknesses. The challenger made it through the wrestling of Carwin although it's a far cry from the caliber of Velasquez, who will also have better agility and striking.
I'm leaning toward dos Santos here for showing the better chin, having a solid chance of nullifying takedowns or scrambling loose when he cannot, and -- most importantly -- for having a sterling and rocket-fueled set of boxing combinations that have been thoroughly unstoppable thus far.
The long layoff and shoulder injury chip away at some of the Velasquez's advantages of being more diverse, though I realize that's a highly subjective factor. The champ also has a fierce ruggedness and determination that could deflate dos Santos in later rounds.
Analyze their tendencies and form your own conclusions, but mine is that we'll see a new champion tonight.
My Prediction: Junior dos Santos by decision.
Velasquez vs. Nogueira gif via GifSoup.com
All others via MMA-Core.com