Junior dos Santos is one of the greatest heavyweights of all time. The Brazilian is 15-4 in the UFC (21-5 overall), a former defending UFC champion, and has competed against three generations of divisional opposition. Against the generation that preceded him, he lost to Alistair Overeem, and soundly defeated the rest. Against his contemporaries, he was again dominant, but lost two slices of a trilogy against Cain Velasquez. And against the generation that has followed? At 35 years old, he is riding a three-fight win streak following a defeat to the most standout heavyweight of recent years, Stipe Miocic.
Heavyweight is, of course, a remarkably shallow division. And of the three eras mentioned above, it could be an admitted struggle to name a dozen exceptional fighters among them. Even separating the generations can prove troublesome. However, for ‘Cigano,’ his near-decade span as a top heavyweight has culminated in what could easily be called the deepest heavyweight resume in MMA history — certainly in UFC history.
Since his UFC debut in 2008, dos Santos has defeated the likes of Fabricio Werdum, Mirko Cro Cop, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson, Shane Carwin, Cain Velasquez, Frank Mir, Mark Hunt, Stipe Miocic, Ben Rothwell, Blagoy Ivanov, Tai Tuivasa, and Derrick Lewis. Obviously, simply listing his conquests removes them from the context necessary to understand their relevance. As is the case with that win over Werdum, who dos Santos defeated before his prime run, and Rothwell, whose form at the time was incredible. Regardless, it’s a list full of names ubiquitously present in discussions of the all-time greatest at 265.
What holds dos Santos back is not his list of victories – which few, if any, heavyweights can challenge – but his losses. Specifically, his losses to the man who most regard as the greatest heavyweight of dos Santos’ generation: Cain Velasquez.
Velasquez and dos Santos fought three times, and not one of them was remotely close. Dos Santos ushered in the UFC’s FOX era by rendering Velasquez unconscious in just over a minute, with both men carrying knee injuries into the bout. He then proceeded to lose all 48 minutes of their subsequent bouts, receiving two of the worst beatings in UFC history for his efforts. There was no doubt that Velasquez had decisively won their trilogy, with both men in the primes of their careers.
In comparing the historical successes of two fighters, head-to-head record is very important, but is it all there is? I’ve rated dos Santos’ career more highly than Velasquez’s for quite some time, and that the Brazilian continues to knock off current top 5 heavyweights like Derrick Lewis only helps to strengthen his case, in my mind.
My problem with Cain Velasquez’s resume is the opposite of my problem with dos Santos’s; not his losses, but his wins. Specifically, that he doesn’t have many of them. Velasquez has defeated Cheick Kongo, Ben Rothwell, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Brock Lesnar, Antonio Silva, Junior dos Santos, and Travis Browne. He has lost to Junior dos Santos, Fabricio Werdum, and Francis Ngannou. Again, context is important in understanding the relevance of many of these fights — but that’s a topic too deep to dive into here.
The prime of Velasquez’s career, the fights that best exemplify his case as an all-time great heavyweight, consists of five victories against three men: Brock Lesnar, Antonio Silva, and Junior dos Santos.
None of these are bad names to have on a resume, but for a man whose capabilities have been discussed with a mythical sort of reverence, he really hasn’t done much else. He has beaten three men since claiming the UFC heavyweight championship in 2010, and was decisively defeated by both Fabricio Werdum and Francis Ngannou in that time.
What has always been so strange to me about Velasquez, is just how highly regarded he continues to be. In spite of how little he has actually accomplished, relative to other great heavyweights. Many still consider him to be the greatest heavyweight of all time, despite being soundly picked apart and dissected in every facet of the fight game by Fabricio Werdum four years ago. That should have been an incredibly damaging loss for Cain, whose mystique has always hinged on what he was theoretically capable of, rather than his concrete results.
To those who do hold Cain in lofty standing, all of his losses can surely be explained away: he had a knee injury against dos Santos (as did dos Santos). He gassed out against Werdum because he wasn’t ready for the elevation (this is among the more baffling excuses I’ve heard for a fighter, especially one dubbed “Cardio Cain”, and completely ignores Werdum’s tiring body work). His knee gave out against Ngannou (even if we pretend that Ngannou didn’t land an uppercut that floored Velasquez, the fact of the matter is that the former heavyweight king has spent much more time injured than healthy in the last decade). Eventually, it’s a miracle he made it to that Ngannou fight at all. Velasquez’s career is defined as much by his physical frailty as his mental ferocity.
Conversely, Velasquez himself took the belt from an ailing Brock Lesnar, whose bout with diverticulitis irreparably impacted his abilities and would have ended the careers of many other fighters. Even assuming that none of Velasquez’s losses are truly indicative of his abilities, what is indicative of his abilities? At that point, his kingdom would be built on victories over Junior dos Santos, ‘Bigfoot’ Silva, and... Travis Browne?
The reality is that what a fighter can do is limited by their opponent’s ability to stop them. Which is why Michael ‘Venom’ Page looked like a video game character against the weakest of regional competition, but has scraped by experienced journeymen like Fernando Gonzalez. For dos Santos’ part, he has always struggled with circular motion, and his worst performances have come against fighters who have pressured him backwards into the fence — where he can often be trapped. In that regard, Cain Velasquez is the most nightmarish stylistic matchup imaginable for the Brazilian. That this serves as perhaps Cain’s only display of those mythologized abilities against a then-elite opponent is not necessarily damning, but it’s incredibly confusing.
My opinion on this topic is sorely unpopular, and I am fully aware of that. Dos Santos lost two of three bouts to Velasquez and, to many, that is enough to settle the discussion for them. That is fine. However, for me, Cain’s inability to convert his distinguished skill into distinguished victories is a knock on his legacy so large that I can’t help but put dos Santos firmly above him. And a fighter losing decisively to another, less historically credentialed fighter from his own generation is unlikely, but not unheard of.
Then-WEC champion Urijah Faber was decisively beaten in both of his bouts with Mike Brown, in the prime of both men’s careers. Where Faber went on to pick up many of his most important victories in the years following those defeats, for Brown those wins represented the apex of his career. Outside of Faber, Brown’s best win is... Leonard Garcia? Or a 2006 version of Yves Edwards? Regardless, despite their head-to-head record and how decisive Brown’s wins were, it’s difficult to imagine anyone ranking Brown as a more historically accomplished, or ‘better’ fighter than Faber.
If there is one attribute that heavyweights generally hold over their lighter counterparts, it is longevity — often to the point of stagnation. Cain Velasquez may be the only all-time great heavyweight who lacks that, or any, sort of longevity. He may have had exceptional abilities, but to me, those abilities make him more of a great “what if” story than a great heavyweight. And for my money, implementing your skillset against a wide range of credentialed opponents across multiple generations of fighters is much more valuable than a handful of dominant wins topped with a mound of potential. When it comes to all-time greatness, I’ll comfortably take Junior dos Santos, and not think twice about it.