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Opinion: Dos Santos, Ngannou, Velasquez, and the Heavyweight Dream

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When Junior dos Santos goes out to fight Francis Ngannou, he’ll represent the last tattered remnants of that time when the heavyweights could be the face of the UFC.

Back in 2011, good times were on the horizon for the heavyweights. The big man division had always been the place for sloppy bruisers and terrible fights, and the organization had always dreamed hopelessly of a real heavyweight star. It hadn’t had one until Brock Lesnar thundered in from World Wrestling Entertainment.

Lesnar was huge and terrifying, too sour and asocial to ever be comfortable in the WWE, but he had found a taste for theatrics in the UFC, and for bashing people into pulp. With some early hiccups out of the way, he pretty much did this at will, until he faced Cain Velasquez in a title defense. Stone-faced and inexhaustible, the Arizona Sun Devil sent Lesnar cartwheeling across the cage and punched him until he was fetal and bloody.

Despite being an underdog on the books, this outcome had not been much of a surprise to anyone who had been paying attention. Velasquez had been touted as the future of the division for a while, and his gym, American Kickboxing Academy, would tell wondering (and in retrospect, slightly ominous) stories of how quick, and fast, and strong he was, how he could keep up with and even outpace their smaller fighters.

Velasquez wasn’t the only heavyweight on the rise. His counterpart, and first scheduled title defense, was Junior dos Santos, who had sprung into the UFC by upsetting the perennially elite Fabricio Werdum. To this day the image of Werdum’s ears wiggling from the aftershock of Dos Santos’ step-in uppercut is indelible.

Dos Santos had a tough rise through the division, fighting a wide array of opponents, and had revealed himself to be a crafty puncher, with an atypically cunning jab. Perhaps his best and most underrated trait was his lightning fast hips, allowing to scramble up to his feet with a 200+ pound man on top of him, with the cardio to get back to work afterwards. To this day he retains an irrepressible sunny disposition and a honking, infectious laugh. He’s the kind of man who unironically picks the Rocky theme as his walkout.

These two were qualitatively different from most heavyweights. They looked and moved more like the up-and-comers from other weight classes. They were nimble and athletic, agreed on as the best and brightest prospects to ever come into the division.

At this time people still believed that MMA stardom was transitive. In this new world, Velasquez would be taking some (perhaps not all) of Lesnar’s notoriety along with him, and might be able to ignite the UFC’s longed-for expansion into the Latin American marketplace. From an organizational and marketing perspective, he was doubtless the preferred winner for the UFC, but the big-punching and amiable Dos Santos could clearly be a face for the Brazilian market in his own right.

An image of how heavyweight could look hung in the air. There could be veterans like Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Frank Mir; there could be knockout artists like Shane Carwin, there could be stars like Lesnar, and there could be youth and talent struggling to replace them.

This new heavyweight was going to be the face of the UFC as a whole. At the time, boxing snoozed under uneventful Klitschko rule, leaving a clear gap in the market for thrilling heavyweight action. UFC on Fox 1 would show how it would be filled.

Dos Santos vs Velasquez 1, UFC on Fox 1, 2011

The UFC’s Fox deal was a coup for the organization, as it transitioned away from the relatively obscure Spike network, and virtually tripled the money it would be making from its TV licensing. It represented the UFC’s step into the satellite and cable mainstream, into the consistent revenue streams necessary to clamber into the next tier of profitability.

The first show would be where you’d tune in to see the baddest men on the planet, where Dos Santos and Velasquez were going to show MMA and the UFC product in their best light. Clashes of styles! Youthful aggression! The fight was going to have standup, and wrestling, and rock-solid chins and incredible gas tanks, and as it turned out, two men that were probably too tough for their own good. Dos Santos tore his meniscus just before the fight, while Velasquez battled rotator cuff issues, and ripped the tendons in his knee a few days out.

The UFC had already doubled down, deciding that the fight would be the only one shown throughout the entire hour-long airing slot. Despite the fact that the organization had long trumpeted the depth of its cards as a major selling point, it set that strength aside in favour of a long-standing weakness for self-congratulation.

The inaugural broadcast crept by with endless minutes devoted to UFC pundits patting themselves on the back. The actual fight, when it finally happened, was brief. Dos Santos poked Velasquez in the gut a few times with a jab, and shucked off a couple of takedowns. Then he threw a loopy overhand which bounced off the side of Velasquez’s head, who collapsed sideways. Dos Santos hit him a few times. 64 seconds into the first, it was over.

This had not been the plan.

Quick knockouts have not been terrible things from a promotional perspective, but it helps if they at least look cool, and this finish had not. More than this, they work well for marketing individuals, and the fight had not (or not entirely) been about a person. It had really been a product showcase, and one which had backfired badly.

UFC President Dana White was furious. He complained about Velasquez’ approach while his dreams of breaking into the Latino marketplace and MMA overtaking soccer swirled the bowl. He had that special brand of fury that comes with knowing that you fucked up, but that there are other people you can try to blame it on. It had been an obvious error to make an entire 60-minute slot of time devoted to a single heavyweight fight, on a hope that it would last for a meaningful stretch of time, and that it would be good. The miscalculation was rooted in dumb optimism so infectious that it had been caught by fans and analysts, in that idealistic belief that these two fighters were different. They were so skilled, and athletic and comparatively well-rounded that at least one prototypically heavyweight outcome had been discounted out of hand. What if one guy just plunks the other guy in the face and the fight is over?

Instead of the great things it had hoped for, UFC on Fox 1 unwittingly showed two less lovely attributes of the modern UFC. Namely, swathes of dead air punctuated by moments of shattering variance. At its peak it exposed a record 8.8 million viewers to this version of the UFC experience and the organization would never get a chance to make a second impression. No other Fox cards would even come close to its ratings.

JDS-Cain II, UFC 155, 2012, and JDS-Cain III, UFC 166 2013

Afterwards, the two men orbited one another above the rest of the division. For some there was nothing to resolve. “64 seconds” became the mantra of one obnoxious brand of fan much as “13 seconds” would become the catchphrase of those like them a half-decade later, but it became relatively apparent that there was no-one else for these two to fight. Velasquez bashed open the cumbersome Bigfoot Silva until he was laid out prone in a small lake of his own blood, while JDS defended his title by clinically wiping out Frank Mir, the frail and clever glass cannon of the division.

Eventually, as most thought they would, Velasquez and dos Santos fought again at UFC 155, and if the first fight had showed that MMA can be quick and unpredictable, its sequels showed that it can be other things.

Mainly, they showed that MMA can be hideous. They were butcher-shop horrors, there to disabuse anyone of the notion that the thing stopping the first fight from being fun had been that it had been over too fast.

They went something like this: Velasquez charged directly at dos Santos, and pinned him to the side of the cage with his head, and then worked to free one hand and punch him. The punches weren’t especially hard, but they came in a stream, and they didn’t stop. If dos Santos shifted his grips to try and stop the punches from coming, Velasquez would reach under dos Santos’ leg and try to wrench him to the floor with a single leg. If it worked, dos Santos would have to struggle back to his feet under a stream of short blows. It it didn’t, well, he was still in the clinch and it might as well be time for Velasquez to hit him again.

If dos Santos broke the grips, then he would flee along the cage with his head bolt upright, and Velasquez would chase him down, hit him as hard as he could, and then mash him back into the fence again.

There are not many sports which can bring across ugly physical realities about the human body in quite the way that this one can. Endurance sports call up similar misery. They can bring raw breath and rasping horror at the body’s engine gradually running itself down, but even they don’t force you to watch the vehicle itself being dismantled at the same time. In this way, happy, laughing, big-hearted Junior dos Santos was slowly and viscerally taken to pieces. A pulped up nose here, a split in his eyebrow there, carried down with no end.

The pace took less of a toll on Velasquez, but perhaps not that much less. If at his best Velasquez had the most endurance of any heavyweight, then dos Santos might have taken second place, and Velasquez said that afterwards he had come close to passing out when he came back to his stool between rounds.

Torn to shreds in their second fight, dos Santos tried desperately to catch up for the third. He trained so hard that his muscle cells swelled and ruptured, drifting off to thicken his blood into a light organic chowder. It didn’t work, and the rubber match was almost exactly as bad, with the dubiously merciful caveat that he collapsed and knocked himself out in the fifth.

The two beatings were hard to watch, but they had set the table. With Velasquez firmly established as the superior fighter, it would be the time to consolidate a new era. Goals stretched out ahead - the UFC title defense record, the potential to eclipse Fedor Emilianenko’s incredible run of dominance.

As it turned out, the JDS-Cain fights hadn’t been the beginning of a new era, but had been the beginnings of the end of it.

The mess

Velasquez continued to struggle with injuries, pulling out ahead of a 2014 title defense against the resurgent Fabricio Werdum in Mexico City. The fight was re-booked, and he made it to the cage, and stormed out as he normally did, but started to uncharacteristically falter before the five minute mark. Whether it was the altitude, or lack of preparation, or a steadily racking up list of injuries, or simply that Werdum was too well-prepared, the planned coronation in front of the Mexico City crowd died with an exhausted Velasquez diving into a fight ending choke.

Werdum himself would be knocked out by Stipe Miocic in his first title defense, an unassuming part-time firefighter who would go on to set the heavyweight defense record, before being finished in turn by Daniel Cormier.

In the time since, Velasquez simply could not make it back to the cage. He was matched with Travis Browne in 2016, a tall Hawaiian who had failed to reach his modest athletic potential, and who spent the last few years of his career contributing to the highlight reels of progressively worse fighters. Velasquez thumped him effortlessly, giving some hope to the idea that injuries might not have ruined the former champion.

The win was perhaps less notable than one of his pull-outs: when he was denied the rematch with Werdum in 2017. The Nevada State Athletic Commission refused him due to bone spurs in his back. This was likely caused by osteoarthritis, an old man’s ailment where cartilage is broken down and the body repairs it by filling the gaps which used to contain the body’s rubbery shock absorbers with bone. When the joint moves the new bone mashes blindly away at the surrounding cartilage, which is replaced in turn. Eventually the whole thing becomes clogged and rigid.

Athletic commissions take a cut of fight revenue, and they are not well-known for attention to detail in ensuring that compromised individuals don’t make it to the cage. The old, the infected, the pregnant and the half-blind have been happily waved through by the commission doctors, hobbling to the cage in order to get their faces bashed in. You have to be a mess for them to deny you. Velasquez must have been a mess.

Velasquez vs Ngannou, UFC on ESPN 1, 2019

8 years on, the UFC-Fox deal had been a qualified success, enough for the UFC to get a bigger and better deal with ESPN at the very least. More money, more favourable terms. On the surface the new deal didn’t make much sense: the Fox relationship was characterized by ratings declines. You can run some relatively straightforward maths here: Company A paid $100m or so per year for something which started with viewership of almost 5 million and declined to less than 2. Why then, would Company B pay twice as much?

Corporate logic is not always easy to figure out in this way. Sometimes a surge of inexplicable money is the product of wider trends pulling a company or an industry along with it like a riptide. At other times it’s worth thinking of whale fall- the way big beasts in the ocean die and sink to the floor, and how they disintegrate and create their own richly populated colonies of consumption. In this case, the gradually sinking leviathan seems to be cable television, and the UFC is one of the scavengers (world fucking domination) fattening itself off a complex ecosystem of blubbery rot.

So time looped around, as it does, and again the UFC held a card on a new cable platform, hoping to snag a new generation of fans, hoping to showcase itself as a sport ready to compete with the big dogs. Once again Velasquez was the headliner, finally back in the cage, once again fighting a knockout puncher. 36 isn’t a bad age for a heavyweight... but Valasquez is no ordinary heavyweight. This was a statement that used to be an unalloyed positive, and it is not any more. This was 36 years old with joints crackling with bone, with frayed cables tying his shoulders and knees together.

Francis Ngannou was not a good fighter to be old early against. The hulking Cameroonian is technically shallow but gifted. Most notably, he is an earthshaking hitter who comes out of the blocks operating at 100% efficiency, with a mean knack for finding his opponents as they duck in on him with hooks and uppercuts.

As such, the headlining fight at UFC on ESPN 1 seemed almost certain to go in one of two ways: it would look like JDS-Cain I, or it would look like JDS-Cain II and III. The balance of probabilities favoured the first outcome, and as it turned out, was correct. The saddest thing was perhaps the way the fight managed to combine the impression that Ngannou always would have been a tough matchup for Velasquez (as Ngannou picked off his predictable head movement on the way in) with the certainty that Velasquez was shot, as his knee gave out almost immediately. The dreams of Mexican heavyweight glory passed away from him for the last time, to be improbably picked up by Andy Ruiz Jr. a few months later.

JDS and the road back

At the end of that second mauling at the hands of Velasquez, it was hard to think that dos Santos might outlast him, yet here we are, waiting for him to fight Francis Ngannou in the main event of UFC Minneapolis

In the time since the Velasquez loss, JDS settled into a gatekeeper role. He had one last great courageous win over Miocic, but then Alistair Overeem clocked him with a leaping left hook, and he settled into a holding pattern of beating decent fighters and losing to great ones. It culminated in his title fight rematch with Miocic, and where his longstanding flaws of backing into the fence and having no defense once he arrived there were brutally exploited by a far-improved Miocic, who clubbed him unconscious in under a round.

It was another moment which seemed like it might represent an ending, but heavyweight is a sticky, strange division, with a near-bottomless capacity for reinvention. To genuinely remove yourself from relevance requires serious work. That early belief of how the big men could be the face of the organization dies hard, echoing down through social media and fight bookings and audience analytics. “Heavyweights are booked in big slots, so people know who they are, so they’re booked in big slots, so people know who they are...” is a cycle which eventually generates main events like Derrick Lewis vs Shamil Abdurakhimov.

In this slow and oddly forgiving environment, JDS has steadily worked his way back up the ladder again. The uncharitable could point out that none of the people he has beaten since the Miocic loss are particularly good, but the more realistic will just shrug. That’s heavyweight.

Ngannou vs Dos Santos, UFC Minneapolis, 2019

Ngannou himself has had a chaotic story: up, down and then back up again, from unstoppable destroyer, to hype job, to busted flush, and back to destroyer again in a dizzyingly short amount of time. Through all this he still hasn’t shown a tremendous amount of diversity, and there is a good chance that he attempts to have a boxing match with Dos Santos, and despite glaring disadvantages in power, speed and durability, that dos Santos is simply more experienced and has more to offer in this area for someone who might simply never have had the competitive fights necessary to actually compete in his strongest area.

On the other hand, JDS has never been unhittable, and Ngannou erases people when he hits them. He is undeniably a prospect as impressive as either Dos Santos or Velasquez were when they exploded onto the scene, but he can’t provide the same sense of anticipation, of oncoming history that they did. Instead he’s a thrilling anomaly. He is a one-off who exists in a heavyweight landscape which is otherwise broadly (and in some ways literally) the same as it was back in 2008, and one which cannot be seen to change looking any distance into the future.

It’s hard, in retrospect, to see exactly when that future died. Was it in the declining ratings and unequal PPV buys, in the deflatingly brutal trilogy, in Werdum’s guillotine? Did it die walking into the fence with its hands down, or going too hard in the AKA gym?

Dos Santos will win or lose on Saturday carrying the remnants of genuine optimism about the heavyweight division, little fading embers of belief in a sport which was always rocketing upwards; where great athletes would see the prestige and money generated by heavyweight champions and might decide that this sport was for them. An imaginary future world where big champions could ignite entire countries behind their wins. The UFC is richer, bigger than ever, but that particular dream is definitively gone.