A reckoning is afoot.
The electricity and tension that precedes an almost guaranteed orchestra of sportsmanlike violence hangs ominously in the air. The epic trilogy commences tonight; its crescendo will foster planet Earth's alpha-heavyweight. Skittish and concerned mothers will herd their children into some protective hideout as if preparing to endure an F-5 tornado winding its way to their front porch. Innocent forest animals are now frantically foraging for last-minute snacks before disappearing back into the dank holes from whence they came.
The occasion, dearest fight fans, is the scintillating collision between the heavyweight division's top dogs, who'll engage in mortal combat to battle for outright supremacy: UFC 166.
Trilogies are not altogether uncommon in MMA. Trilogies wherein the first chapter was utterly dominated by one competitor and the sequel was equally dominated by the other are, however, unique. A quick review: Dos Santos flattened Velasquez with a leather-coated missile to the ear ("Why the ear?") at the inaugural UFC on FOX show and Velasquez crammed a right-handed hammer down dos Santos' throat early at UFC 155 and never let him recover en route to a one-sided decision.
The contrast of their initial forays lends salivating appeal to the rubber match, but also makes it a bitch to predict.
Let's start with basics: if any conclusion can be drawn, it's that it's safe to assume whoever gets off first has a good chance to dictate the remainder. Regardless of how amazingly skilled and complex these gentlemen are as fighters, the nitty-gritty might be as simple as striking efficiency, i.e. landing punches without getting punched.
Isn't that really what this fight comes down to?
Velasquez is probably the most proven wrestler in the weight class and "Cigano" probably has the best takedown defense. While that adds another arrow to the champion's quiver, I feel one of the few things that the first bout did demonstrate was that dos Santos is not a fish out of water on the ground and has the scrappy resilience to neutralize Cain's suffocating wrestling.
While that assessment doesn't mean the wrestling and takedown battle won't play a role, it does elicit the striking match up as the prominent fulcrum.
Top priority for both competitors should be avoiding their opponent's heavy strikes at all costs. The cornerstones of that philosophy are vigilant defense, keeping the head off centerline and staying unpredictable. Let's examine that further -- it's painfully obvious, but still necessary, to establish that leaving your head dead-center in the cross-hairs is a big no-no. However, that only applies when our beloved gladiators are within striking distance, so the dictation of and management of striking range is key.
When inside the striking perimeter, all the cliche terms like "a game of inches" and "the difference of a fraction of a second" apply in full. If either is a millisecond too late to react or a millimeter off-course with their head movement ... the consequence could be the proverbial pulling of the curtains.
In that specific realm of range, defense and head movement in the pocket, their divergent tendencies bear divergent factors. Dos Santos is entirely inclined to stay in the pocket, swivel left or pivot right and tee up the home-run counter. Velasquez, dually inclined to trade hands or change levels for a takedown, is burdened with more ground to cover (standing and striking or penetrating low and deep for a takedown), and therefore also burdened with more room for error. The tradeoff is that he'll ultimately have more options to pursue as well, and as he does pursue them, Dos Santos will be similarly taxed with reacting to that broader range of motion himself -- and forcing your opponent to focus on more attacks, more angles and more defense will inevitably draw more of their attention away from their own offense.
Even though we've witnessed the chess match of maneuvering at toe-to-toe range with strikes and takedowns in the mix, these two hit harder, they move faster, they're more technically adept and -- most importantly -- there's more on the line than compared to your standard fist-fight.
Knowing Velasquez will not be keen to play punching bag, Dos Santos will expect his melon to be off-centerline and begin to track and record where his head goes instead. Though it's likely to start and eventually return to 12 o'clock (or the centered position), there are only so many angles, set-ups and feints to employ when coming forward to mount offense. That's where and why the element of unpredictability is emphasized for both men.
The mere threat of Velasquez's wrestling means dos Santos must be privy to both the typical striking movements as well as the rather drastic change of direction, distance and level when Velasquez goes low for takedowns. As with everything else in this match up or any other, the act of lowering your level and penetrating into the hips can be both a curse and blessing. On one hand, Velasquez's penetration could unfold as ramming his face into an incoming punch, or it could be timed perfectly and actualize as a fight-changing takedown as dos Santos' punch whizzes harmlessly past his head. Again, that's why this fight is so hard to predict with any conviction -- split-second reactions or pure instinct could make all the difference.
For Velasquez, drawing a bead on dos Santos' head is almost as important. I say "almost" because Cain doesn't have the same one-shot power but relies more on volume, and also has his wrestling acumen to rely on. Still, since dos Santos is likely to stay engaged and form up counter-strikes in the pocket, Cain will also be anticipating his reactive motion, which consists of more shuffling and pivoting than Velasquez's forward-geared "coming high with punches" or "coming low with takedowns" strategy.
I've scrutinized this aspect of their different tendencies, how those tendencies relate to their motion in the pocket and how those sub-factors influence the prime directive of mounting effective offense because it has an impact on every other pertinent characteristic of this match up, such as their footwork, defense, timing and Fight I.Q. I could write pages detailing the advantages of successful management and the ramifications of mistakes, but it would be the same as above in different terms.
This fight boils down to whoever best mitigates risk and capitalizes on their strengths, and it all starts with staying out of their opponent's sweet spot while keeping them in their own. And the evidence we have to scrutinize does not justify a bulletproof case for one or the other.
To summarize, I'm OK with Cain being the favorite based on the notion that dos Santos "just caught him," or that the second fight was perceived as more telling to their true skill. Personally, I'd argue that conclusion as flimsy, because the real difference was that one punched the other one really hard in the face first, and that held the largest sway over the outcome.
For dos Santos to win, the way he reacts to Cain's more penetrating and assertive pressure is first and foremost, as his offense will be diluted the more Cain is able to find the mark. The Brazilian's selection of angles and pivots must be economical and unpredictable, and he must stay poised in order to switch gears if Velasquez changes levels and attacks his hips.
For Velasquez to win, he has to exploit his superior diversity without suffering the consequences of the greater defensive risk that accompanies it. Even if he can take dos Santos down or lock horns with him in the clinch, that's a better place than standing in the slugger's wheelhouse when his arms are free to inflict damage, and the judges will favor it too.
At the end of the day, this is simply an attempt to define and describe the finite elements that may or may not dictate the cardinal measurement, which is who can punch who harder and more often. Honestly, a coin flip might be just as reliable.
My Prediction: Junior Dos Santos by TKO.