This Saturday, the UFC heavyweight title is on the line. The two men fighting for the belt have each beaten the other once already, so suffice to say that this rubber match is a big deal for them. This write-up marks something of a big deal for me too, as Junior Dos Santos is now the first fighter about whom I have had the privilege of writing two full-length articles. So before we get into the tactics and the techniques, I'd like to express my sincere appreciation to the kind people of Bloody Elbow for giving me this opportunity to write about my passion. Thank you to the folks behind the curtain, and to you, the ever-supportive audience before the stage.
Alright, wipe away those sentimental tears. It's time for some face punching.
Typically when I write about the tools a fighter will need to succeed in a matchup, and the pitfalls he will need to avoid, I am going on conjecture. I can educate myself on the chances of the fighter based on similar matchups and stylistic advantages, but the fight itself is always at least a little bit different from how I predicted it.
Rubber matches are different. We've already seen how JDS can beat Cain, and we've seen how he can lose. On that note, today we'll be taking an in-depth look at Junior's past two fights with Cain, with a few looks at his other fights for clues as to how he might have evolved his game for this matchup. This afternoon we'll look at the current champ, Cain Velasquez, in the same way.
Landing the Lucky Punch
In their first fight, Junior Dos Santos did what heavyweights have always done: bummed out all the people who bought tickets by ending the fight almost immediately. In 64 seconds, Junior Dos Santos flattened Cain Velasquez with an awkward right hand behind the ear, and a series of brutal punches on the ground to the same target.
This was almost immediately called a "lucky punch." As a fan, it's hard not to view sudden KOs this way. And with the five round beating Cain administered in the rematch, the shouts of "lucky punch" have only grown louder. What else are we supposed to think when a bout ends in such a quick and unexpected fashion?
Perhaps we should come to the conclusion that Junior Dos Santos, owner of 12 knockouts and an incredible 10-fight winning streak, has some idea of how to sleep fools with his fists. Here's how he did it to Cain the first time around.
1. Dos Santos fakes a jab as he steps off line.
2. He connects with a right hand to the body, but eats a counter jab/hook from Cain.
This was Junior's last attack before the one that felled Velasquez. This is important, because the knockout only happened as a result of this set up.
1. Junior and Cain circle one another.
2. Dos Santos steps off line, hiding his footwork with another jab fake. He visibly winds up his right hand.
3. Cain attempts to counter exactly as before, with a left hook as Junior changes levels. He is focused on his quickly moving target, Junior's head.
4. The right hand connects, thumb to temple, and folds Cain up like a lawn chair.
(GIF) Note how similar frames 2 and 3 are to the first exchange. Junior sells the right hand to the body two ways. First, the chambering of his overhand right, in which he drops his hand to his hip in what many would call poor technique, looks like a hand being lowered to the body. Second, as his weight moves forward with the punch, Junior bends his knees and lowers his elevation. The moment Velasquez sees Junior's lowered right hand (check out his line of sight in frame 2), he prepares to counter to Junior's exposed jawline. As Cigano changes levels, Cain feels safe in committing, his eyes fixed on Junior's cro-magnon skull (now look at his line of sight in frame 3).
By the time he notices Junior's right hand sailing over his shoulder, Cain can only wince and turn away. No, it wasn't pretty. In fact, that may just have been the ugliest punch ever landed. But the point is that it landed, and it landed as a result of deliberate strategy.
In combat sports, there is no such thing as a lucky punch. Junior threw a hard punch which was intended to hit Cain in the head. It did. None of us should be surprised. Luck may be a factor in everything, but the only lucky man in that fight was Cain Velasquez-lucky that Junior was happy to relent when the ref pulled him off.
Getting Knocked Down
Now we flip the coin, and move on to fight number two. While the first fight was undoubtedly a typical Cigano affair (only two of his twelve KO wins have come outside the first round), the second was much more in Cain's wheelhouse (though Cain is no slouch when it comes to quick finishes). Junior succumbed to Cain's pressure in the latter half of round 1, and never quite recovered his momentum. The end, prolonged as it was, began for Junior when he was knocked down in the first.
1. Junior has the fence at his back, and Cain is in pursuit. He circles along the perimeter, only able to move one way.
2. Cain tries a jab, but misses, and Junior connects with one of his own.
3. Unperturbed, Cain lunges into a right hand. Junior is still trying to circle away along the fence, and has nothing to follow his jab.
4. The right hand connects and, much to the shock of everyone watching, JDS goes down.
(GIF) There are several factors at play here that led to Junior being knocked down (for the first time in his career?). First, we have Junior's footwork. Having committed his usual sin of allowing himself to be backed against the cage, he begins shuffling desperately away from the encroaching Velasquez. Cain's pressure is relentless and, as he throws what must be his fiftieth jab so far, Junior is forced to react. His choice of counter isn't bad. A jab is a reliable way to beat a jab, and the punch connects, momentarily blinding Velasquez.
But Junior has absolutely nothing in mind to follow the jab, other than to get away. He continues moving his feet, awkwardly and artlessly, leaning and pulling away from the follow-up punch that he can sense coming. This is the second of Junior's mistakes. He is practically standing up as tall as can be, as if he can urge his body to grow a few extra inches and take his head out of range of Cain's right hand. No mid-life growth spurt arrives to save him, however, and he is put right in the path of the punch, with no bend in his knees or stable base to help his jaw absorb the impact of Cain's full body weight crashing into it.
You might have read my recent article on the myth of fighting tall. In that article I spoke of the risks of retreating tall, and here Junior demonstrates the consequences. Not only would Junior have enhanced his ability to absorb Cain's blow, or even avoid it, but he would have also put himself in a position to counter. We will expand on this in a moment.
Changes to Make
I am willing to believe that a good portion of Junior's mistakes in his last fight with Cain were a result of his rhabdomyolysis, a pretty frightening condition brought on by extreme over-training. Hopefully Cigano learned his lesson, and trained a little more carefully this time around. That being said, there were some technical problems, ones that have cropped up throughout his career, that gave Cain far too many opportunities to put his hands on Junior.
First, Countering and Moving in the Pocket. No matter what people may tell you, Junior Dos Santos has never been a counter fighter. Of the basic boxing styles, Junior fits best into the pure boxer category. That is to say, he prefers to fight from range, throwing long jabs and stepping in with straight punches before exiting range again. He is a pot-shotter with quick feet and powerful hands, so against most opponents simple set ups have been enough.
Thus, his difficulties in the Velasquez rematch. Junior found himself immediately faced with a type of opponent he had never faced before, namely, one who was constantly pressuring him and, worse, was unafraid of being hit. Junior's preferred distance was taken away from him time and time again as Cain relentlessly rushed into the pocket behind combinations of punches and pressed Junior up against the cage. Without space, he was unable to utilize his spearing jab, and his pot-shots became useless against an opponent who would take advantage of his leaps into range by simply sticking to him as he tried to exit.
1. Both men step into jabs. Cain slips Junior's punch and lands his own.
2. His head down, Cain throws a wild right hand, hoping to catch Junior as he hops back. He is a moment too soon.
3. Dodging the right hand, Dos Santos moves backward, but winds up with his back pressed against the fence, and Cain continuing to close the distance in front of him. He prepares to fight his aggressor off.
4. Again, both men throw jabs. Junior's misses again, probably because he is being squeezed between an enraged Mexican-American and an uncaring chain-link fence, and his feet are in poor position as a result.
5. Both Dos Santos and Velasquez miss with their right hands.
6. Junior starts to circle away, but Cain hasn't finished his combination yet. A long left hook knocks the Brazilian back into the cage.
Look at how far both men move from the first frame of that frenetic exchange to the last. Cain travels from nearly the center of the Octagon (before stepping into his first jab) all the way to the fence, and he is threatening with punches the entire time.
Junior, on the other hand, is only trying to get away from Cain, and back into his comfort zone. In the process, he fails to stifle Cain's attack with any meaningful offense, and backs himself, quite literally, into a corner. This is one of the greatest flaws of Cigano's game, and Cain exploited it perfectly. Junior has almost no head movement, relying instead on his feet to keep him out of range. Worse, because he is most comfortable moving around on the outside, he is constantly thinking move back, get away! resulting in his standing up tall and desperately backing out of range, when he would be better served by getting low, staying in the pocket, and punishing Cain's less-than-technical boxing.
In the past, Junior has relied on his quick feet to put the fight back where he wants it, but against an opponent who isn't scared to press him, moving away simply isn't enough. Packing the more accurate, more powerful punches (and the superior chin), Junior is more than capable of standing in the pocket with Cain and countering him. By moving away, he might be able to avoid damage. But my moving forward, he can not only make Cain miss, but make him pay as well.
The following GIF of Juan Manuel Marquez is the perfect example of this concept. Marquez is facing an opponent whose only goal is to swarm him with punches and smother his power. But instead of retreating outright, the savvy Mexican uses small pushes and little steps to reposition himself over and over until the opponent is finished.
On a related note, Dos Santos would be well served throwing more Combinations. He has shown the ability to throw potent combos in the past, but the set-ups were sorely lacking in his last fight with Cain. In round 1, Junior's most active round, he threw only five combinations. He went nearly two minutes before throwing the first one, and only one of those combinations consisted of more than two punches. Cain, on the other hand, threw almost nothing but strings of punches, the only single strikes being jabs.
In order for Junior to succeed in the pocket against Cain, he needs to not rely on single shots. Even the punch that leveled Velasquez in their first fight was preceded by a jab. Cain can be dangerous in the pocket, as evidenced by his brief slugfest with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, which ended with Cain securing an ugly knockout win via combination punches. The key to Junior's success against that kind of fearless brawling is his excellent left hook.
I've said it before, but the left hook is Junior's most textbook strike, and it has become an underused part of his arsenal, despite the success he found with it earlier in his UFC career.
1. Junior shuffles into range with Gilbert Yvel.
2. He throws a straight right to the body, and Yvel attempts to counter with a hook, turning his body and causing Junior's punch to slide off course.
3. Both men now line up left hooks. Though neither of them is facing each other, Junior has the more direct line to Yvel's jaw.
4. Junior pulls back nicely on his hook. Notice how far Yvel is forced to turn to reach for Junior, whose movement has played tricks with his sense of distance.
(GIF) It is almost always wise to follow the right hand with a left hook, "closing the door" on the opponent to prevent counters. Moreover, it is always a good idea to follow up body shots with head punches. Junior has improved his punching technique (watching the Yvel fight, you might be surprised at his wild brawling approach), but in doing so has lost some of the application of technique that made him such a potent first-round finisher.
This is quite reminiscent of the most recent victory of one of boxing's most potent punchers, Lucas Matthysse.
Notice how Matthysse, like Junior, adjusts his position as he throws the hook. Both men were able to fool their opponents into thinking that they could afford to go left hook for left hook, while they were in fact out of range of the opponent's strike, while being in range to land their own.
Junior would be well advised to bring back this approach in his third tilt with Velasquez. Rather than trying to fence with a swarming opponent, he needs to accept the fact that Cain is going to rush him and use that forward momentum as an opportunity to land punishing blows.
It is difficult to judge this fight. Junior has the more definitive win, and yet it is hard to escape the feeling that Cain's was more dominant. Tomorrow we'll discover once and for all who is the better man.
That is, unless they fight again.
I'll leave you with this video of Junior having an open workout in preparation for the bout. See any evidence of the necessary changes, or does his training make you fear for his vaunted chin?
For more analysis, check out Connor's new podcast Heavy Hands, featuring interviews, fight breakdowns, and more. New episode Tuesday, wherein we'll discuss the conclusion to Cain and Junior's thrilling trilogy.
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