In one of the most important fights in Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) history, the heavyweight title is on the line as champion Cain Velasquez looks to defend his title for the first time against Brazilian striker Junior dos Santos in the headlining bout of the promotion's television network debut tomorrow night (Nov. 12, 2011) with UFC on FOX: "Velasquez vs. Dos Santos."
Velasquez, the first champion out of the American Kickboxing Academy, has been sidelined for more than a year with a shoulder injury ever since dethroning Brock Lesnar last October. He's finally rehabbed, healthy and ready for the big time.
Meanwhile, dos Santos is finally getting his big moment to shine. He's more than paid his dues with two victories in number one contender fights, as well as a season coaching The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) against Lesnar, but if he can knockout Velasquez and become the UFC heavyweight champion, it will be totally worth it.
Will Velasquez be able to put the "Cigano" on his back with his All-American wrestling? Can dos Santos find the opening and bring the title back to Brazil with a devastating knockout? What does each vaunted heavyweight need to do to secure a victory tomorrow night on FOX?
Let's find out after the jump:
How he got here: Velasquez, despite being undersized throughout his wrestling career, was able to become a two-time NCAA Division I All-American while competing at Arizona State University. When he was done with college, he immediately transitioned into mixed martial arts (MMA).
Trainers and other MMA fighters immediately began raving about his potential and he was signed by the UFC after just his second professional fight. He was built up slowly, earning victories over the likes of Brad Morris, Jake O'Brien and Denis Stojnić in his first year with the promotion
But, after a spirited effort against Ben Rothwell, it was time for the big dogs.
Velasquez battled Pride FC legend "Minotauro" Nogueira in the main event of UFC 110 for the UFC's debut in Australia, knocking out the former interim UFC champion before the midway point of the first round. This earned him a fight against Lesnar for the title. When they finally met, Lesnar blitzed Velasquez, who held his ground, weathering the early storm and then destroyed Lesnar with punches and knees standing, following it up with precise ground and pound to become the new UFC heavyweight champion.
After taking more than one year off to recover from shoulder surgery, he's ready to defend his title for the first time.
How he gets it done: Velasquez is incredibly athletic and has cardio for days. Unlike some of dos Santos' previous opponents like Carwin and Nelson, he has the speed and agility to go along with his elite wrestling skills to get the fight to the ground.
The key for Velasquez is to be dangerous enough in the stand up department to have his Brazilian foe respect him there. If he can even earn an ounce of respect standing, he'll create the opening he needs to set up a takedown with his punches. Even the slightest hesitation could be enough to put dos Santos on his back.
Another key for the champion is to push a relentless pace. "Cigano" is very powerful early in a fight, but he's faded in the third round in his last two bouts. If Velasquez can wear on him either in the clinch or on the ground, he'll be setting himself up for a highlight reel finish. Even if he can't get a takedown, he needs to make dos Santos work extra hard to fend them off, which will take up much-needed energy.
If Velasquez can drag this fight into the third round it will almost be impossible for dos Santos to win.
Junior dos Santos
How he got here: Junior dos Santos made one hell of a first impression in his UFC debut with a tremendous first round uppercut knockout over Fabricio Werdum at UFC 90 back in Oct. 2008. The Brazilian proceeded to run the gauntlet of heavyweights from Stefan Struve, Mirko "Cro Cop", Gilbert Yvel and Gabriel Gonzaga, scoring stoppage victories in each fight.
"Cigano" was finally awarded a number one contender's match against Roy Nelson at UFC 117. Dos Santos laid into "Big Country" with everything he had for three consecutive rounds and he would go on to win a lopsided unanimous decision.
Dos Santos was all set to face Velasquez for the title, but the champ went down with a shoulder injury. Instead of waiting on the sidelines while the AKA standout recovered from surgery, he signed on to coach The Ultimate Fighter (TUF) 13 against former champion Brock Lesnar with the intent on facing Lesnar in another number one contender's match.
However, when Lesnar pulled out of his fight with a relapse of diverticulitis, former title challenger Shane Carwin stepped up to face dos Santos in the main event. Dos Santos nearly finished "The Engineer" with strikes in the first round, but instead went on to win another lopsided decision. With Velasquez now healthy and ready to defend his title, dos Santos was the obvious choice for the promotion's network debut on FOX.
How he gets it done: Dos Santos needs to repeat after me: Keep it standing, keep it standing, keep it standing!
We've all heard that he's got an underrated ground game, but this is not, I repeat not the platform to be debuting it. "Cigano" has some of the heaviest hands in the heavyweight division and his technical boxing is elite. Unlike many other heavyweights, he doesn't throw his entire body into his punches so he should be safe standing and trading with Velasquez without fear of overcommitting to a big strike and getting taken down.
Dos Santos needs to keep his hands high and be prepared to sprawl early and sprawl often. He's been quick and athletic enough to defend everyone who's tried to take him down in the past and he'll need every ounce of strength he's got to keep Velasquez at bay.
Time is not on his side as I don't think Velasquez could get tired even if he were battling the devil, himself, for five rounds. Dos Santos needs to strike while the iron is hot. The champion has been hurt in fights before, getting rocked at the beginning of each round by Cheick Kongo before taking him down. If the Brazilian can stun Velasquez, he should have the takedown defense and the finishing instincts to follow up and finish Velasquez before he can be put on his back.
Fight "X-Factor:" There are two major x-factors for this fight. The first is Cain Velasquez's shoulder. He's been out more than one year because of intensive surgery, which is something that can be life altering. Even if he rehabs it to the best of his ability, there might be issues with range of motion and strength for the rest of his career. He'll need that shoulder to be 100 percent or he's not going to be as dangerous with his punches or especially with his takedowns.
The other factor, of course, is the five rounds. This is a HUGE benefit for Velasquez as dos Santos has tired himself out in three round fights even when they stayed standing. If the champ can pressure dos Santos and really make him work in the first two rounds of this fight, he's going to be very difficult to stop as the fight enters its later stages.
Bottom line: UFC couldn't have picked a better fight for its debut on network television. Both Velasquez and dos Santos have been absolutely dominant in every single one of their UFC fights. Both men sport spotless 7-0 records in the UFC and both have finished nearly every single one of their opponents. This is one of the toughest main events to predict in UFC history. And you will never forgive yourself if you miss it live. Get your friends together, even the ones who don't know much about MMA and then just make a night of it. You, and they, won't regret it.
Who will come out on top at UFC on FOX? Tell us your predictions in the comments below!