Junior dos Santos is known for his knock out power, but striking only works in MMA if a fighter is able to stay on his feet. The UFC Heavyweight Champion is an expert boxer, but also possesses some of the best take-down defense in the entire sport.
In the early 2000's it was thought that stopping take-downs was a simple matter of a fighter learning how to perform a sprawl. Internet message boards and forums would throw around situations in which an accomplished striker would simply take six months learning how to sprawl and then run rough-shot over the competition.
Now clearly there is far more to stopping take-downs than a simple sprawl, consisting of several different layers and techniques, some of them unique to MMA. UFC Heavyweight Champion Junior dos Santos makes excellent use of this modern, multifaceted take-down defense and it is composed of a few key aspects:
- Distance and movement
- Disengaging from the clinch
Distance is the first line of defense for most strikers against take-downs. Despite being primarily a boxer, dos Santos sets up well out of punching range. While almost all MMA matches take place at a slightly longer distance that a regular boxing match, dos Santos normally sets up from outside of range of any strikes.
At this distance it is nearly impossible for a fighter to successfully shoot in for a take-down, there is too much distance to cover and too much time for dos Santos to react. Dos Santos is able to operate from this distance because of his superior speed.
Above you can see two stills taken from Junior dos Santos' match with Gabriel Gonzaga. On the left you can see dos Santos setting up in his preferred range, outside of Gonzaga's punching range and also out of range of Gonzaga's powerful kicks. What makes dos Santos able to strike from this range is his strike with explosive, lunging steps, as pictured right.
This explosive speed makes dos Santos very dangerous even at long ranges and when fighters get trapped on the outside he is able to lunge in with hard strikes, as he did against Stefan Struve
) and former UFC Champion Cain Velasquez
). And Junior dos Santos jealously guards that distance. Normally he will use his footwork to dance away from advancing foes, but as he learns the timing of his opponent he will make them pay for attempting to close that distance between them. (G
Maintaining that distance is the first layer of the champion's take-down defense and the easiest way it can be taken away is by trapping him against the fence. In his UFC career dos Santos takes care to avoid ending up on the fence, rarely moving straight back and always having the awareness to circle away from the cage. His near constant movement and long distance makes it very difficult for an opponent to even begin to set up a take-down because first they have to puzzel out how to close with the champion.
The next layer of dos Santos' take-down defense is his awareness in the clinch and ability to disengage. When fighters are able to successfully close distance, dos Santos is very precise in gaining superior position in the clinch. Not all take-down attempts are directed at the legs and getting out of the clinch is often in a striker's best interests.
Here is a still from dos Santos' match with Gilbert Yvel
, a striker by trade but specializes in causing damage in the clinch. On several occasions he tried to strike his way into the clinch. Yvel was throwing a wide right hook as he steps in looking to clinch up with dos Santos. As Yvel steps in dos Santos is sure to secure the under-hook, giving him the superior postion in the clinch. And dos Santos uses that under-hook to shuck off Yvel's attempt to tie him up in the clinch.
He is able to achieve this disengagement from the clinch consistently because dos Santos's awareness of positioning in the clinch. He deftly swims for under-hooks and once he has one it is very difficult to stop him from escaping with out the cage to limit his movement.
The final aspect we will look at is how dos Santos reacts when he is actually taken down to the mat. When looking to control someone on the ground, there are two key factors. One is getting the bottom fighter's back on the mat, once that is achieved weight and pressure can be fully applied. Also, the top fighter must limit the amount the bottom man can move his hips to create space or get on to his side. When Junior dos Santos is forced to the ground he is excellent at scrambling, making sure to never let his opponent control his hips or put his back to the mat.
Here we see Gonzaga shooting in for a double leg on dos Santos. Some fighters will over commit to trying to stop take-downs and when a fighter is as deep in on a double leg as Gonzaga was in still #1 this is a mistake. This is very little chance of stopping the take-down at this point, so dos Santos turns it into a scramble.
In still #2 you can see dos Santos starting to turn to his left, looking to avoid landing flat on his back. Being put flat on his back would severely limit his mobility on the ground and allow Gonzaga to firmly establish position. Turning towards Gonzaga is impossible in that situation as it would actually make it easier for Gonzaga to pin dos Santos. So dos Santos turns away and gives up his back to Gonzaga in still #3 in an effort to get to his knees.
Once on his knees dos Santos begins to stand, planting his feet on the canvas. He gets back to his feet and breaks away from the clinch. At no point did Gonzaga get dos Santos' back to the mat or have control of dos Santos' hips, and as a result he never had control of dos Santos.
The ability to scramble and get back to the feet is just as important for dos Santos as stopping take-downs in the first place. Against Cain Velasquez, these skills will be vital as he will almost certainly be looking to push dos Santos into the cage and then take him down.