With a game plan that was as brazen as it was brilliant, Cain Velasquez steamrolled Junior Dos Santos to win back the UFC heavyweight title last night (Sat., Dec. 29, 2012) in the main event of UFC 155: "Dos Santos vs. Velasquez 2" at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, Nevada. Taking a decision over five one-sided rounds, Velasquez risked dangerous exchanges early to push a relentless pace that paid huge dividends, tiring Dos Santos early en route to the most impressive win of his career.
Avenging the sole loss on his ledger, Velasquez erased the stain of his 64-second defeat to Dos Santos last November, dismissing any doubts as to who the better man was last night. And with his hard-nosed win, he returns to the UFC throne in time for some big-money bouts, with the likes of Alistair Overeem, a third bout with Dos Santos, and talented teammate Daniel Cormier in the mix.
Here's a closer look at the events from last night's fights with the UFC 155 "Report Card."
Cain Velasquez: A
Gutty, persistent and confident, Velasquez put on rousing performance in beating down Dos Santos over five impressive rounds. It took a certain amount of cajones to come out winging and pushing the pace, pressing forward into the dangerous guns of "Cigano," and in the opening moments you got the feeling that Velasquez was playing with fire. But he landed enough shots of his own to completely take Dos Santos out of his element, then kept up the pressure as the Brazilian's cardio was clearly fading, as early as the first round. Junior simply couldn't land the big shot he needed to reverse the momentum, and Velasquez' relentless work in the clinch, on the fence and with takedowns sealed the deal.
This was redemption of the highest order. It's a mark of Velasquez' confidence in himself that he came back in such impressive fashion after the disastrous 64-second KO loss last November to Dos Santos. And given Junior's blitz of Frank Mir, last night's unseating reminded me a little of how Andrei Arlovski went from seeming unbeatable in his otherwordly run prior to Tim Sylvia taking him out in their second match (Like Velasquez, Sylvia had been blitzed out in one round in his previous fight against his victim).
It wasn't a perfect performance by any means - Velasquez still got hit a lot early, and looked fairly tired himself midway through the bout, unable to mount the kind of threatening ground-and-pound you'd expect when he dumped the gassed Dos Santos several times. But he operated from the standpoint that the other guy was far more tired, and worked within that envelope to dictate the exchanges and pace of the bout.
The best part is that fans would definitely pay to see a third match between these two, or Velasquez against just about anyone else in the division worthy of a title shot. And that's what the heavyweight championship should be about - a worthwhile guy at the top that is fun to watch.
Jim Miller: A-
With an opening-rounds assault punctuated by sharp punching and ruthless elbows, Miller put Lauzon on the defensive early, only to have to fight off a third-round surge by the gutty "Jo-Lau" that seemed something out of a zombie movie, as Lauzon's bloodied face had this one looking like a cut-stoppage TKO midway through the bout.
Miller's conditioning and underrated striking are his best weapons, and he used both to good affect, picking spots and eating some hard shots in the final round to take a decision. Nabbing "Fight of the Night" honors and a $65,000 bonus was a nice reward for the talented lightweight, who hasn't had a bad fight and always gives the fan their money's worth.
Next up for Miller, I'd like to see him against Rafael dos Anjos. Or, with Strikeforce's final show next month, why not bring over longtime fan favorite Josh Thomson? That would be an all-out barnburner, and if it were a five-round main event on one of the UFC's FX or Fuel cards, a "Fight of the Year" candidate.
Joe Lauzon: B+
Bloodied but unbowed, Lauzon's last-round surge against Jim Miller made him losing the decision a moot point: the guy comes to fight and will always have a place in the UFC. That's why he gets a B+ here, because after the massive gash over his right eye was shown on-camera between rounds, it was hard to imagine him finishing the bout. And yet he did, battering Miller with some walloping body blows en route. Lauzon is kind of a tweener, stylistically - he doesn't have the wrestling chops to dictate where bouts go, and his standup, while enthusiastic and technically sound, doesn't have the kind of one-shot power of a big banger - but that's what makes him exciting. He's always in tough bouts and looking for a way to win, especially with his relentless submission attempts.
He'd be a big underdog, but after last night's gritty stand, who wouldn't want to see him against Nate Diaz? You know Diaz would be more than happy to stand with him, and it's a stylistically good matchup for fans.
Yushin Okami: B+
So much for being a steppingstone. Okami is in no-man's-land in terms of a plausible title shot, but he remains one of the toughest outs at middleweight, especially if he can force clinches and tie-ups. Still largely limited on the feet, the tough veteran showed his grappling chops are as good as ever in steamrolling Alan Belcher, and putting a serious dent on his ledger.
The downside of Okami winning is that he won, well, like Okami usually does: three takedown attempts and a cloud of dust. The guy is largely content to ride out dominant positions with very little striking, and the more boring the fight is, the better his chances get. And when you've already been blitzed by champ Anderson Silva and go around knocking off promising upstarts like Belcher, you have to wonder who the UFC will put you in against next. Okami is the middleweight version of Jon Fitch - too talented to take chances with and yet in dire need of an exciting win to create some buzz. Fitch turned the trick in an epic decision win over Erick Silva. Okami doesn't seem likely to change his style. Stay tuned to see how it plays out.
Costa Philippou: B-
Costa took a third-round KO against a blinded and injured Boetsch, but it was hardly the kind of definitive statement that made anyone in the middleweight division take notice. He's strong, athletic, and can strike, but he still seemed somewhat tentative, especially against Boetsch's primitive standup attacks, which consisted of looping, winged shots and Tim basically charging straight ahead. Philippou looked a little flat against wounded prey, and this wasn't as measured and accurate a performance as the excellent work he did in decisioning Court McGee. A win's a win, however, and this moves him up a couple notches in the division, where there are two kinds of fighters: Anderson Silva and everyone else.
Derek Brunson: C-
A good opening five minutes were the high point for Brunson, whose first-time Octagon jitters probably caused a considerable adrenaline dump by the second, as astutely noted by commentator Joe Rogan. After the strong first round, his takedowns lost all authority and he seemed to be pushing his shots when he realized Leben wasn't gonna be taken down easily.
Brunson hung tough despite eating a few meaningful strikes, but he'll definitely need to tighten up his game, particularly standing, as a better class of opposition won't let him get away with loafing on the feet, especially so early in the bout. A good win here, but his work is clearly cut out for him. The guess is that with experience in the UFC he will probably not gas out so quickly, because Leben barely did anything to sap his stamina.
Tim Boetsch: C-
"The Barbarian" caught a tough break last night, seemingly fingered in the eye and pretty much rendered blind early on. As a result, he was reduced to pulling guard, where he was battered enough to prompt ref Kim Winslow to stop the bout in the third. Boetsch showed a good front kick early on, and plowed forward with some sloppy standup; he was unable to dictate with his usually-potent wrestling, however, and things gradually became unhinged as the results of the eye poke became apparent in the second.
This was a definite setback for Boetsch. Originally slated to face streaking contender Chris Weidman, who pulled out, the loss to Kostya Philippou scuttles the momentum he'd built with four wins since dropping to middleweight, including big-time victories over Yushin Okami and Hector Lombard.
Junior Dos Santos: C-
Finally sucked into a fight where his numbing punching power didn't dictate the affair, Dos Santos looked adrift Saturday night, lost in a storm of Cain Velasquez' relentless pace. That's the bad news, and might confirm suspicion that Dos Santos is the kind of fast-twitch, explosive athlete, which is often code speak - and correctly so, in most cases - for guys that don't have a good gas tank. Simply put, he looked lost as early as the first round.
But even in defeat, Dos Santos showed some considerable attributes. First, he has a cast-iron chin. Despite getting an endless series of shots bounced off his head in virtually every phase of the bout, he soldiered through, on tired legs, to boot. And second, his takedown defense is insanely good. The guy simply has cement hips, as Velasquez struggled time and again, despite a badly gassed Dos Santos, often unable to take him down. And on the ground, Junior showed spry movement and a great ability to deny Velasquez solid positions, at least when he had the stamina to move. It's scary to think of how good Dos Santos might be if he had the kind of conditioning Velasquez did, because even in the fifth round, he was still a handful to take and keep down, and was landing occasional thumping shots, especially to the body.
It will be interesting to see who the UFC sends against him next. With a super bout against Alistair Overeem no longer on the docket, Dos Santos remains an incredibly fun heavyweight to watch. The UFC will definitely want to line up someone who'll stay standing and swing freely against him - the best prospect for that, given the available guys, is Cheick Kongo. Batter up.
Alan Belcher: D
Last night was a big setback for Belcher, who had a former title challenger, one who'd beaten him in his UFC debut six year ago, to boot. This was the perfect fight for him to demonstrate how much he's improved, adding a world-class scalp to his collection, as well. Instead, Okami turned it into a smash-mouth, grappling heavy bout, scoring takedowns and controlling from the top in an increasingly one-sided clinic. Belcher didn't do himself any favors by going for several guillotines/choke attempts and flopping to the floor in the process, where the submission-proof Okami simply worked his way free and continued to grind away.
Belcher's best chance to win this was on the feet, and game-plan-wise, he completely fumbled away what on paper was a winnable fight.
Chris Leben: D
Leben is Leben, meaning if he's still standing, the guy is gonna be winging, and dangerous. After a rough opening round where Brunson largely controlled him on the mat and landed some big-time strikes from top position, it appeared the UFC first-timer was fading. But despite an obviously slowing foe, Leben couldn't really string together enough offense to exploit the opening. By the third round, it looked like both guys were fighting underwater in an eminently forgettable affair.
After a long career in the UFC defined by epic wars, it's pretty clear that Leben's physical prime is behind him. After stuffing an endless series of takedown attempts by Brunson in the second and third, any long-time Leben watcher expected something substantiative as the moment was all his to seize. But he simply couldn't put it together. A loss like this definitely puts you in trialhorse-steppingstone mode, especially when you lost such a winnable bout.
Jason Probst can be reached at twitter.com/jasonprobst