The big hurrah for tonight's UFC 155 blockbuster is the highly anticipated rematch between champion
In one corner: Junior dos Santos (15-1), the undisputed UFC heavyweight champion; the baby-faced Brazilian boxer, his gentle demeanor and kind-hearted smile betraying the unfathomable violence of his devastating handiwork that's left a mangled trail of cadavers in his wake. When the youngster (then 24-years-old) first emerged in the Octagon, he was merely a green and apprehensive acolyte in the Team Nogueira stable, looking up to his mentor and coach, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, with palpable reverence.
And the shocking display of striking prowess that transpired in his UFC premiere foreshadowed the maturity and momentum that was to follow. "Cigano" dispatched elite Pride crossover Fabricio Werdum, who'd just authenticated his status by slaughtering a pair of respected UFC standouts, with a jack-hammer uppercut in just over a minute, which remains Werdum's only TKO loss. The alluring spectacle of an established and experienced heavyweight being crumpled under a whirring hail of leather would be the first of many -- 9 to be exact -- and the body count continues to rise.
In the other corner: Mexican-American Cain Velasquez (10-1), the 2-time Division 1 championship wrestler who's been branded as a future phenom from the onset. Velasquez would justify the hype as well: 3 heavyweights were felled by his malicious assault of ground-and-pound, which stands among the most fearsome in all of MMA, and then the pair of wins over Cheick Kongo and Ben Rothwell that were oddly construed as less than convincing were were made up for when the wrestler flattened "Big Nog" and Brock Lesnar with blistering kickboxing, the latter consummating his position on the UFC's heavyweight throne.
Outside of the UFC's bubble, in the global spectrum of MMA, a tremor in the force coincided with the coronation of Velasquez. The oft-maligned Fedor Emelianenko, who'd sustained his lofty perch atop the world and pound-for-pound rankings as well as his quasi-unbeaten legacy as the former Pride FC heavyweight champion through his tenure in Strikeforce, lost. Definitively. Thrice. The seething debates over who was rightfully the planet's alpha-heavyweight ceased entirely, all of the associated clout and merit were shifted onto Lesnar's shoulders, and the bulk of the formerly widespread and fractured heavyweight talent were lured to the Octagon when the UFC purchased Strikeforce.
The end result was that there was no longer any questions or doubts surrounding who the world's best heavyweight was or what promotion he fought for. Lesnar became the #1 heavyweight, was then supplanted by Velasquez and he, in turn, by dos Santos, which means there are simply none better than the pair of leviathans battling tonight.
The references above are technical perspectives from Bloody Elbow's Golden Child, Jack Slack, focusing on the striking pros and cons for both competitors.
The variables of this match up are quite simple: people basically just fall over and die when they stand with dos Santos, and Velasquez will endeavor otherwise. The brief battering that ensued in their initial meeting has perhaps dulled a bit of this fight's luster, but such outcomes are unlikely to repeat in the same fashion -- at least, that's we're all hoping for. Despite the unappealing result, Velasquez is undoubtedly equipped to pierce through the shining armor of dos Santos, who wreaks havoc with a Chuck Liddell style of sprawl and brawl.
Beyond the obvious consensus that the champ would be considerably more vulnerable on his back than hurling haymakers on his feet, Velasquez has to walk a fine line in order to impose his proven wrestling acumen. Motion, angles and range should dictate this encounter, as Velasquez will not be fortunate enough to simply launch a double leg and coast to a win from there.
And dos Santos' preferred range leaves some interesting variables: as a pugilist who relies strictly on boxing for his dirty work, dos Santos is not only not a threat from range, but doesn't even wield any distance weapons. All the destruction he exacts takes place in his wheelhouse -- his bread and butter is his short-range left hook and the straight right, which streaks upstairs and to the body, with an occasional right hook mixed in.
I'd describe dos Santos boxing style as "Pulling the String." His M.O. is fairly straightforward: he's a master of flinging out an array of prodding or set-up punches, usually straight jabs or right hands, and then keying off his opponent's reaction with higher velocity combinations that are delivered with explosive in-and-out lunging.
Along with his absence of a distance weapon, dos Santos' boxing-based stance make leg kicks from the fringe a sensible option. I know what you're thinking: "But, that would leave Velasquez open to being countered!" It might -- but the reality is that everyone hoping to mount any semblance of offense on dos Santos has to enter his wheelhouse and, within that frightening perimeter, there is no tactic unaccompanied by the risk of digesting a fight-ending counter punch. That concisely describes the unsettling conundrum of facing Junior dos Santos.
Tangent aside, any long-range tools should be experimented with to capitalize on dos Santos' limited range capabilities, as jousting with him outside of his sweet spot is much more advisable than doing so within it. Additionally, all of the champion's countering options to long-range attacks would require him, because of his close-range requirements, to lunge forward -- as he always does -- in order to land them.
While the sentiment of one of the greatest knockout artists in MMA history vaulting into your grill while igniting a crushing combination does not sound appealing, it will accomplish several things: dos Santos excels at playing a little game of in-and-out prodding with set-up punches in order to suck his opponent into range and unload his power, i.e. "pulling the string," which also puts dos Santos firmly in control of the fight's tempo, pace and momentum. This scenario, however, would put Velasquez in that position, as he'd be initiating a chain of events that would inevitably lure dos Santos toward him, forcing the champion to devise a countering strategy that Cain can key off.
More importantly, we have to go back to the clear-cut advantage Velasquez would have if he could put dos Santos on his back, or even get his hands on him to tie up in the clinch, to realize the value of this tactic. A fighter who's prepared, on balance and in the position to react (i.e. sprawl or dart out of grasp) is the hardest opponent to take down. Conversely, the easiest opponent to take down is one who's committed to his own offensive attack, with his feet either planted to throw strikes or ushering him straight forward into your waiting embrace. Penetration deep on the hips and subsequently clasping your hands together while undermining their balance with a low center of gravity all drastically increase the chances of being successful with a takedown, and no scenario is more conducive to securing those elements than when your opponent is broad-sided while committing to strikes.
The term "get off first" is a common, almost cliche directive, but one of high importance in this clash. Dos Santos is at his best when he's "pulling the string" because he's leading the action and drawing his foe into his well-laid traps. We've yet to see anyone steal that imperative control from dos Santos, and I don't think it's a coincidence that it's because none have attempted to strike from a distance. All of the exceptional strikers he's toppled -- Mirko "Crocop" Filipovic, Gilbert Yvel, Roy Nelson and Shane Carwin -- handle their business at the same range he does.
While many, including myself, expect Velasquez to be a trifle tentative when striking with dos Santos, I'd suggest -- with heavy emphasis on doing so cautiously and methodically -- that he pressure the champ with strikes right out of the gate. This will force dos Santos into reaction mode and prevent him from working his push-pull magic with his movement and striking selection. This would also be the ideal plan to bring dos Santos into him before attempting takedowns rather than chasing him down. Chasing a fighter with phone-booth range striking, especially one as adept at takedown defense as dos Santos is, offers the luxury of the defender having more time to anticipate the shot and sight in counter strikes, whereas luring him in shrinks the distance, reduces his ability to counter on the fly and simply does most of the work for you.
Whatever method he may choose, Cain's choices are to win the fight from a distance (unlikely), boldly venture into dos Santos' wheelhouse (where people die), or to blend those different range attacks so that the danger is mitigated once he does enter contact range. Distance should be a safe zone for Velasquez, but one that affords a limited amount of effective offense. His ideal range is clinching, preferably against the fence, where the Brazilian's movement and punching velocity is seriously diminished, or, obviously, on top with dos Santos underneath him.
If there was ever a heavyweight with enough agility and diversity in striking and wrestling to achieve this feat, Velasquez, along with Daniel Cormier, seems like the best candidate.
Overall, it's too hard to pick against a guy who's been in no position other than one of sheer dominance. For dos Santos, there's never been a precarious moment of trouble -- he's either unleashing pure domination or about to. Velasquez should never be discounted or overlooked but, for prediction purposes, my choice is all dos Santos.
My Prediction: Junior dos Santos by TKO.