UFC 131 Fight Card: Junior dos Santos and the Stand-Up Game

OAKLAND CA - AUGUST 07: Junior dos Santos punches Roy Nelson during the UFC Heavyweight bout at Oracle Arena on August 7 2010 in Oakland California. (Photo by Jon Kopaloff/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Mixed Martial Arts is a complex sport that includes many different aspects. Here, I'm taking a look at a key upcoming fight and breaking down just one of those aspects - the stand-up. The goal is not to provide a full picture of the fight, but to help us anticipate how things might go on the feet.

THE FIGHT

Junior dos Santos vs. Shane Carwin at UFC 131

Yesterday, we took a close look at the powerful hands of Shane Carwin and what he brings to the stand-up battle on Saturday (part 1 here). Today, we're back with part 2 as we break down the striking of Carwin's UFC 131 opponent.

JUNIOR DOS SANTOS

Dos Santos is widely regarded as one of the better strikers in the Heavyweight division today, and with good reason. His UFC debut was a shocking KO over Fabricio Werdum that immediately put him on the map, and he's continued that stand up dominance ever since. Will his stand-up by enough to get him through Carwin's power?

Strengths

Despite his fearsome reputation as a striker, I would actually argue that Cigano's stand-up is somewhat underrated. That sounds odd considering how well regarded he is, but there is just so much he excels at in the stand-up. A common perception is that dos Santos is strictly a power puncher who is only going to outbox his opponents. While he does put a heavy emphasis on his hands, dos Santos brings much more to the table. He has strong kicks, including good leg kicks, devastating knees, and some very nice body shots.

His best strike remains the one that first got him on the map - the big right uppercut. Very few fighters throw this punch as effectively. Against Werdum, you see a perfect demonstration of the uppercut's power. Dos Santos takes a step in, plants his lead leg, and throws his whole body into the punch, bringing it right up into Werdum's jaw. It's a devastating knock out, perfectly executed.

More analysis, with gifs, in the full entry.

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Dos Santos has continued to use this punch with success. When he throws the uppercut, he is looking for the clean KO. It's a different approach than the uppercuts used by Carwin that we discussed yesterday. For Shane, the uppercut is a rapid fire punch that does damage by the quick accumulation of heavy shots. For Cigano, it's a one punch KO. You can see the difference in how each man throws it - Carwin comes fast from his arms, while dos Santos sets it up and throws everything into connecting with that one power shot.

This punch found great success in dos Santos's UFC 117 fight with Roy Nelson. There, dos Santos repeatedly connected with the same combo - left jab, heavy right uppercut. Nelson was hit with this again and again, but could not defend. This brings up another of dos Santos's strengths - his ability to find his opponent's weakness. Against Nelson, he found a combo that was working and continued to work it throughout the bout.  Here are two of the most effective sequences against Nelson:

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Another great example of this comes in the Cro Cop fight. Mirko actually gave dos Santos a challenge, as he had trouble figuring out the former K-1 star for much of the fight. But in round 3, dos Santos connects with a knee to the body that visibly hurts Mirko. From there, he begins unloading with the knees, leading to the stoppage victory. In the 3rd, he is still looking to find exactly what will work best, and when he finds it, he uses it until the finish.

A few other quick bullet points on the striking strengths of dos Santos:

-Speed. He's very quick, both in his hand speed in attacks, and his movement to attack or defend.  Look at the hand speed in the 2nd Nelson gif above - note how quickly he gets throws that second punch.  When outside, he is able to avoid attacks well, and also able to get inside quickly to unleash fast combos of his own.

-Accuracy. I mentioned this when discussing the uppercut, but he is very good and finding his target and connecting.

-Counter punching. Dos Santos reads his opponent's strikes nicely, and is able to find the way through their defense to connect with the power shots.

-Body work. An underutilized tool in MMA, but a good body attack can change the course of the fight. Dos Santos has a nice right straight to the body, and will throw knees to the body as well.

-Clinch trip. If he wants the fight on the ground, Cigano possesses a very nice outside trip from the clinch. It's fast and very effective.

Weaknesses

One area dos Santos could work on is his predictability. He has a very specific habit of opening every single fight with a straight right to the body. It's a good punch, but that kind of predictability can give a skilled striker the needed opening to capitalize. As I stated earlier, he has a large arsenal of striking tools he can use, although he has become increasingly reliant on only his hands in recent fights. Using more kicks could be a help in keeping his opponent off balance. Of course, the flip side to this point is that he has found great success with his hands in recent fights. As in the Nelson fight, when he finds a tool that works, he keeps using that tool, which is a sound strategy in many ways.

That Nelson fight also showed one other weakness that could be particularly problematic against Carwin - positional control in the clinch.  Nelson was able to push dos Santos up against the cage and control him, which Cigano should work on avoiding.  He'll need to work on circling out, and separating from the clinch, as this is an area many top heavyweights, including Carwin, will try to exploit.

Defensively, dos Santos is usually very good, but like many fighters, he really lets his defense go in the exchanges.  Take a look at the Nelson clip again for an example:

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After Nelson falls, dos Santos is all over him, which is a good thing.  But as he throws, he lets the hands completely drop from their defensive position.  As we saw with Carwin, his opponent is in such trouble here that dos Santos gets away with leaving that hole in his defenses, but it's an area that needs some focus if he faces a more technical striker who will maintain his composure in these exchanges - someone like Cain Velasquez perhaps.

The other potential weakness is that he has not been tested much in the UFC. No one has solidly landed on him, so we do not know exactly how his chin is, or how he will respond to being hit.

Overall

When you look at his overall striking game, from his speed, to his accuracy, to his power, his movement, adjustments, counter-striking, and everything else, it becomes clear that Junior dos Santos is, quite simply, at the very top of the Heavyweight division in terms of striking. The weaknesses in his game are minor, the strengths, massive.

For the Carwin fight, I expect dos Santos to use those body shots to try and take the wind out of Carwin. With a questionable gas tank already, plus a year long layoff, Carwin may find himself in trouble as the fight progresses. Dos Santos will likely use speed and movement outside to avoid the attack of his slower opponent, and look to counter Carwin's big right with a well placed uppercut. The one thing dos Santos needs to avoid is being muscled around in the clinch. If he finds himself there, a barrage of knees to the body could help him escape.

For Carwin, I see two options in this fight. 1) Go back to wrestling and try to outmuscle Dos Santos - take him down or pressure him into the cage and pound on him. 2) Try to connect that big right hand KO and be the first man to really test the chin of Cigano. But he'll have to do so fast, because the longer dos Santos has to work, the more the fight will move in his favor.

In the end, I think dos Santos will just be too fast and too technical, while I don't think Carwin has the skill level in his strikes to take advantage of the small openings dos Santos may provide.

Advantage: JUNIOR DOS SANTOS

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