This Saturday, former heavyweight champion Junior Dos Santos is scheduled to take on the one and only Derrick Lewis. The Black Beast is is likely the most singularly powerful fighter on the entire UFC roster. Though he was succinctly beaten by heavyweight champ Daniel Cormier in November, Lewis is nonetheless nine and two in his last 11 fights.
Meanwhile, Junior’s recent record is a far cry from his early UFC days. To be fair to Cigano, his run through the ranks was one of the most impressive streaks in heavyweight history, and his level of competition has been consistently high throughout his UFC career. The same cannot be said for Lewis. And yet, with Junior’s great rival Cain Velasquez suffering a humiliating and near instantaneous defeat to Francis Ngannou — over whom Lewis has a win, albeit an exceedingly ugly one — there are some who fear that Dos Santos’ chin may be a few years too many past its best.
Here’s the thing, though. Junior Dos Santos may be a little slower and a little more fragile than he was in his prime, but he’s still Junior Dos Santos. At the risk of being (just slightly) too reductive, Dos Santos has never changed, for better or worse. The Velasquezes and Miocices of the world will still back him up into the fence and test his chin, but slow power punchers? Cigano has the recipe to beat them.
Junior’s most reliable weapon, by far, is his jab. He possesses a quick left hand, and he knows how to put some powerful legs behind it. To this day, Dos Santos remains the heavyweight professor when it comes to snapping back heads and busting up noses.
Against the really big ones, however, Junior’s jab to the body is just as, if not more effective than the one upstairs. The last man he fought whose primary attributes were being really big and hitting really hard was Ben Rothwell. And Junior managed to take the momentum in that fight from the second round onward. Over and over again, he drove this lancing jab into Rothwell’s stomach.
1. Junior and Big Ben square off in the middle of the cage.
2. Rothwell changes from southpaw to orthodox, and gives Junior an open path for the jab.
3. He steps forward, changing levels on his way in.
4. Rothwell paws futilely at Dos Santos’ head as a hard jab sinks into his gut.
5. Rothwell is forced to take a step back.
Technically speaking, this is not a perfect punch. For one, Dos Santos jabs like he’s drawing a bow, flinging his guarding hand away from his face as the punch extends. Yet Rothwell is ill-prepared to deal with it, thanks in large part to Dos Santos’ still considerable speed. Even as the big man reaches out to push him away, Cigano’s fist is already sinking into his gut. Bending his knees and driving off his back leg, Dos Santos gets plenty of power on the shot, but what matters is the placement. JDS shoots for center-mass, and Big Ben is physically moved backward by the impact.
What makes the body jab a fantastic punch is precisely this, its stopping power. Even the most physically imposing opponent cannot walk through a committed, straight punch to the pit of his stomach. To do so would defy the laws of physics. The only way past Junior’s body jab is to go around it, and that takes subtler feet than either Ben Rothwell or Derrick Lewis possess. This poses a particular problem, as men like Rothwell and Lewis also offer a substantial target for this very punch.
It does not bode particularly well for Lewis that, by the end of his fight with Dos Santos, Ben Rothwell had absorbed 157 significant strikes, 91 of them to the body. It was such a tremendous accumulation of damage, it’s hard to imagine many heavyweights other than Ben Rothwell withstanding it.
The body jab generally isn’t much of a knockout punch in its own right, but it is undeniably effective. And the thing about effective blows is that they demand a response. If the nicest heavyweight on the planet is repeatedly tickling your spine through your bellybutton, you will be compelled to react. Some fighters will immediately start searching for a counter. Others will do their best to time and defend the punch. Others still will cringe awkwardly away.
Whatever the reaction, Junior Dos Santos is looking for it. When he jabs, he keeps his eyes on his opponent, and sizes up the openings. Usually, this being Junior Dos Santos, the question isn’t “should I throw the big right hand next,” but rather “what kind of big right hand should I throw next?” Classically, the overhand right plays beautifully off the body jab, but in practice the nature of the follow-up really just depends on the opponent’s reaction to the jab.
Against Blagoy Ivanov, Dos Santos landed the body jab repeatedly before using the threat of it to set up his cross.
1. Dos Santos stalks toward Ivanov.
2. A hard body jab.
3. In response, Ivanov throws a lazy jab while tightening his left guard and backing up.
4. Ivanov comes forward.
5. Dos Santos defends an awkward combination from the Bulgarian.
6. Before finding his range again.
7. Now he steps in with what looks very much like a body jab.
8. But when Ivanov reacts as before, Junior nails him with a straight right hand to the cheek.
In this case, Blagoy Ivanov does… well, he does the same sort of thing that Ben Rothwell did. Namely, he reaches out instinctively with a powerless counter jab, pulls his other hand to his cheek, and steps straight back. It’s certainly not beneath the standards of the heavyweight division, but it doesn’t exactly constitute clever defense, either.
To Junior, however, it doesn’t look like an opening for the overhand. Ivanov’s left guard would be in the way of a looping shot, and he’s neither turning his head nor leaning back. The straight right hand, however, fits the circumstances perfectly, and that’s the punch Junior decides to throw. He feints the body jab, gets the expected reaction, and smashes Ivanov across the mouth with a ramrod right cross.
Lewis, who is perhaps not as durable as Ivanov, and certainly not as durable as Ben Rothwell, is also notably susceptible to body shots. He will have to land the big one to have a hope of winning this fight, and that is a distinctly possible outcome. Dos Santos gets nailed with a clean power shot at least once or twice in every fight. But to touch him consistently, Derrick Lewis will have to walk straight through the heavyweight division’s best left hand.