Esther Lin for MMA Fighting
We take a look at the incredible UFC 155 main event with an eye for how Cain Velasquez took control of the fight early and out boxed Dos Santos.
Variety is truly the spice of life and Cain Velasquez served up a vindaloo of strategic punishment to Junior dos Santos in all areas of the fight at UFC 155. In his successful attempt to recapture the UFC heavyweight strap, Cain Velasquez overwhelmed Junior dos Santos on the feet, in the clinch and on the ground. Time and again in mixed martial arts we have seen the threat of grappling from the fighter with the more primitive striking game act as equalizer and allow the lesser striker to land blows that he wouldn't otherwise have had success with. From Kevin Randleman's faked shot to left hook on Mirko Cro Cop, to Chael Sonnen's surprise left straight on Anderson Silva, to Georges St. Pierre's consistent dismantling of supposedly better strikers - the threat of the takedown changes the game completely.
Fedor Emelianenko and Chuck Liddell are remembered for their excellent takedown defense in their prime but much of this stemmed from sacrifices made in their stand up game at times. Chuck Liddell in particular is remembered for carrying his hands low to protect his hips from his opponent's control rather than to protect his face from their strikes. As MMA has evolved so to has the striker's takedown defense. Mirko Cro Cop was perhaps the only elite striker to be able to fight with his hands high and consistently sprawl on good wrestlers - where others tend to make sacrifices in their offense and tactical decisions to better defend themselves from the shot.
Fedor Emelianenko and Chuck Liddell in their hands low stances against guard pulling great Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and takedown master Kevin Randleman respectively.
Junior dos Santos is something of a hybrid between the old hands low school of takedown defense and the newer school of evasive footwork and feeding the lead leg to the opponent before hopping to the fence when they pick up a single leg. The problem with any striker who is trying to sprawl and brawl is that it is near impossible to focus on striking with the opponent and defending the takedown simultaneously and a great deal of the game is anticipation. Cain's constant use of his right hand (where in the first fight he attempted to stand out at range and box) took away Dos Santos' low hands or punished Dos Santos when they did drop, and the threat of the shot forced Cigano to move at all times - which both tired him out and took the power off of the punches that he landed as Cain bulldozed in.
Cain Velasquez was able to land hard shots on Junior dos Santos and eliminate the better boxer's power by having dos Santos constantly worried about keeping his legs out of the way of Velasquez. In the opening seconds Velasquez did exactly what he should have been doing throughout the first fight, diving on the lead leg that Dos Santos so freely presents to his opponents in his wide stance. Where I criticized Cain's head movement before, and it still hasn't improved all that much in a standing position, the act of changing levels for the single actually made him far harder to hit.
Notice below how Cain is chasing Dos Santos to the fence - where Cain does his best work - and in his level change to pick up Dos Santos' lead leg he avoids the counter left hook which we talked about in Killing the King: Junior dos Santos.
As soon as the two were back in the centre of the octagon, Junior dos Santos assumed his wide stance and Cain immediately dived on the presented lead leg again. While Junior was able to shake Cain off, his feet were rarely in the position to throw with any power after this second takedown attempt.
With only one match since his previous bout with Dos Santos, and none of that taking place on the feet it was reasonable to expect Velasquez to still have flaws in his striking, and he certainly did. Whenever he jabbed , Cain Velasquez did so with his head bolt upright but because Cain had committed to attacking Dos Santos' base whenever and wherever possible, Cigano was constantly moving in the opposite direction to his own punches.
To throw straights with any power while moving backward the straight must act as a rod which the opponent can walk on to. It is necessary to slow down the retreat and let the opponent run onto your fist in order to do any damage, but Cigano was so concerned with defending his hips and legs that he was constantly moving in the opposite direction to the punches he was throwing.
The only time Cigano set his feet was to throw a right uppercut from low by his thigh in an attempt to counter Cain's constant level changes. For all the talk of Dos Santos' right uppercut, he lands it on covering opponents, not on opponents who are changing level for a takedown from an appropriate distance. As a result of Cain's constant switching between striking and diving on singles, Dos Santos missed his wild uppercut and got nailed with a right hand for his troubles.
Cain was equally successful any time he got near the fence as Dos Santos simply dropped his hands to defend the threat of a takedown with nowhere left to move his feet. This was where Cain landed several good shots such as the hard jab to diving right hand below.
The knockdown which turned a lopsided fight into pretty much one way traffic came as the result of Dos Santos trying to land a counter jab while backing up and failing to protect himself from the right hand which followed from Cain. The knockdown is displayed from 2 angles below and you will notice that Junior's feet are in no position to punch with the stiffness that a good counter jab requires, and that he clearly doesn't anticipate Velasquez following him. Check out this brilliant gif.
It is interesting that in their first bout it was Cain Velasquez's ill advised desire to counter at any opportunity that got him knocked out - as he threw back powerless jabs across himself while JDS worked his body before coming across the top with a Cross Counter.
Yet in this bout Dos Santos' inability to counter with power while staying away from Cain's level changes caused him to throw this weak jab and eat a hard right hand which changed the fight from bad to worse for him.
The truth is that Cigano cannot hit hard while on the retreat because it is a rarely practiced technique and it is a skill which isn't taught much in traditional boxing. A great many unorthodox strikers have used it to great effect against wrestlers though - Chuck Liddell, Fedor, Igor Vovchanchyn, even Anderson Silva's second bout against Chael Sonnen was heavily influenced by backstep punching.
The advantage of being able to step out of stance and take steps back to counter is that it creates such a distance between the two combatants that the wrestler is almost guaranteed to attempt to strike his way in because unless he is a young Kevin Randleman, a wrestler's shots from outside of striking range just don't work.
Of course with Cain Velasquez and Junior dos Santos being 1 - 1 against each other, talk of a rematch will follow as soon as Cigano picks up another win, and to be honest it will be exciting to see a truly great heavyweight rivalry after the decline of the heavyweight trinity of Nogueira, Filipovic and Emelienenko. It is important to remember however that even without a finish a sustained 25 minute beating will take far more of a toll on a fighter's career and health than an embarassing 60 second knockout. Junior dos Santos has a great deal to fight back from and his work cut out if he wants to be the heavyweight champion again.