Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight champion, Junior dos Santos, looks to reclaim his strap from the man who last bested him, Cain Velasquez, this Saturday (Oct. 19, 2013) at Toyota Center in Houston, Texas.
Everything is indeed bigger in "The Lone Star State."
Even mixed martial arts (MMA) action, as the sport's two premier Heavyweight stars meet up for the third time.The two are clearly head and shoulders above the rest of the division, which makes their rivalry even more historic.
Dos Santos ruined Velasquez's first title reign, quickly separating him from his consciousness in little more than one minute at UFC on Fox 1. The Brazilian then ran through submission specialist Frank Mir, controlling the action before finishing him in the second round.
"Cigano" was ready to defend his belt a second time, but Velasquez had other ideas, beating him to the punch early and then dominating the rest of the fight at UFC 155 in Dec. 2012. After the fans demanded a fight with Mark Hunt, dos Santos obliged them by kicking his skull through the canvas in one of the best heavyweight fights in UFC history to earn a second title shot.
Velasquez's and dos Santos' legacies are intertwined. Both men have the ability to rule the rest of the division and have only lost to each other inside the Octagon. The winner of this rubber match likely decides who will be remembered as the best Heavyweight of this generation.
Does dos Santos have what it takes to overcome the most conditioned fighter in Heavyweight history?
Let's take a closer look:
Trained by Luis Carlos Dorea, the same man who instructed Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, "Cigano" is one of the most feared strikers in MMA today. A skilled pugilist, dos Santos packs both the technique and power necessary to pillage the Heavyweight division.
Dos Santos uses his rang quite well. He routinely opens up with long jabs, mixing in straight right hands, merely testing the waters and finding his range. "JDS" almost always begins fights by throwing punches to the body.
The body jab, a signature "Cigano" technique, is one of the must underutilized punches in MMA. Due to the danger of kicks, throwing body jabs isn't quite as safe as it is in boxing, but their value persists. With his authoritative body jab, dos Santos stops his opponents in their tracks, fatigues them, and often lowers their hands.
The body jab works wonders in setting up his overhand right. As his opponent's hands lower, dos Santos will switch directly to the overhand while ducking down in a similar motion to his body jab. This setup leaves his opponent wide open to the overhand, and it has toppled many of his opponents, including Velasquez.
Dos Santos is very active with his lead hand. He frequently is working the jab, to both the head and body, and will mix in powerful left hooks if his opponent begins catch the jab with their right hand. In fact, dos Santos' left hook may be his most versatile punch. He'll use it as a lead, in combinations, and to counter his opponent's strikes.
One of the most devastating punches in dos Santos' arsenals is his uppercut. Leading with the uppercut is dangerous, but dos Santos managed to crumple Fabricio Werdum by doing just that.The biggest benefit to leading with an uppercut is that it discourages level drops, something many grapplers will feint with to set up takedowns.
One of dos Santos' favorite ways to land uppercuts is to set it up with the left hook or jab. "Cigano" will take a small step to the left as he throws his left hand, which lines up the right uppercut.
Since dos Santos is primarily a boxer, he doesn't want to let his opponent establish his kicking range. To prevent this, dos Santos will step forward with hard punches every time his opponent kicks, especially if they fail to set it up or are keeping their hands low. Poor defense while kicking ended both Frank Mir's and Gabriel Gonzaga's night when they fought dos Santos.
Dos Santos is not strictly a boxer. He can throw quick, powerful high kicks, knees from the clinch, and even landed a few interesting elbows in his second fight against Velasquez. As Velasquez pushed forward, "JDS" would turn sideways and throw a backwards elbow. It never fully connected, but more than one skimmed the champions jaw.
In his last fight, dos Santos was tasked with cracking "The Super Samoan's" iron jaw. After his punches failed to finish the fight, he turned to his kicks. First, he recognized that Hunt was trying to catch his jab with his right hand and counter with a left hook. He tried to counter this by using his left hook, but he wasn't able to finish Hunt with it, so he turned to the spinning wheel kick. Feinting with a jab, dos Santos managed to sneak his heel around Hunt's guard, landing around his temple.
For all of his offensive prowess, dos Santos has some pretty serious defensive faults. The first one is his hand positioning. To bolster his takedown defense and help land body shots, dos Santos keeps his hands rather low. This alone is not necessarily a weakness, for example excellent counter strikers such as Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva keep their hands rather low, but it is not dos Santos only problem.
The biggest problem in dos Santos striking game is that he moves straight backwards. Standing tall, with lowered hands, while moving backwards is not good defense. Dos Santos has recognized this flaw and circled more frequently in his bout against Hunt, but Hunt was still able to pin him against the cage and land big left hooks due to his movement.
Dos Santos has established himself as a very solid wrestler. He's very tough to takedown, nearly impossible to hold down, and mostly succeeds when he decides to bring the fight to the mat.
Thanks to his powerful boxing, dos Santos rarely bothers taking the fight to the ground. One fight he decided to take down his opponent in was against Carwin. Dos Santos feinted with strikes before springing forward with a powerful double leg. Dos Santos did this twice and his shot was pretty quick. However, it should be noted that at this point in the fight Carwin was pretty beat up and far too tired to defend takedowns.
More recently, dos Santos did shoot for a takedown against Mark Hunt. "Cigano" was controlling the stand up and decided to shoot for a single leg. It was a little sloppy, but he did manage to drag Hunt to the canvas.
For dos Santos, his takedown defense is much more important. Thanks to his boxing, his range control is generally good enough to thwart takedown attempts on its own. If his opponent does get in on his hips, dos Santos has a quick sprawl and good balance, enabling him to get his back to the cage, where he will work for underhooks and an eventual escape.
It's not uncommon for "JDS" to be taken down for a split second, only to spring back to his feet almost immediately. This is largely natural explosiveness, and it's especially uncommon for a heavyweight to possess. When dos Santos wants to get back to his feet, he'll turn his back, jump to his feet, and run.
This does leave him open to back takes, but he's so hard to hold onto that none of his opponents have really capitalized on it.
Despite Velasquez's dominance in their last fight, it still stands as a testament to just how good dos Santos' takedown defense is. Up until he got dropped by a hard punch, dos Santos had stopped every single one of Velasquez's attempts. Even after he was badly rocked and nearly finished, "Cigano" still managed to resist most of Velasquez's shots. Velasquez attempted to take down dos Santos a ridiculous thirty-three times, only succeeding eleven.
Dos Santos earned his black belt in jiu-jitsu from his mentor Antonio Rodrigo "Minotauro" Nogueira a little less than a year ago, just before his first fight with Velasquez.
Before his last two fights, we hadn't seen a lot of dos Santos on the mat. Against Velasquez, he did a good job preventing dominant positions and escaping when Velasquez did achieve one. Additionally, he shook off Velasquez's arm bar attempt without much trouble.
In his next fight, versus Hunt, he spent about a minute landing hard elbows from top position. He spent most of that minute in Hunt's half guard, content to cut up Hunt. However, as soon as he sensed an opening, he sliced through Hunt's guard and worked for the mounted crucifix.
One of the few examples of dos Santos' guard game is in his first professional loss, a 2007 battle with Joaquim Ferreira. In the fight, Ferreira takes down dos Santos with a double leg and then passes to half guard. "JDS" quickly hits a bump sweep from half guard, more a muscle move than a technical sweep, but gets caught in an armbar just a few seconds later.
Dos Santos' offensive half guard is not really a surprise -- every fighter at Nogueira's gym specializes in half guard sweeps.
Best Chance For Success
I think dos Santos has to make one simple correction in order to beat Velasquez. In his last fight, he allowed Velasquez to shoot repeatedly, often winding up in bad positions, without any consequences whatsoever. He absolutely has to make Velasquez pay for his takedown attempts early, which will force Velasquez to set up his shots.
To do that, he'd have to box with "Cigano."
If Velasquez dives on a low single, dos Santos should try to run around to his back. If he gives up easy underhooks, dos Santos needs to reverse him and land in Velasquez's guard. Jake Shields recently did a phenomenal job capitalizing on the aggressive grappling of Demian Maia and his attempts to get top control, and dos Santos should do the same. If he can't capitalize with positions, he should at least try to land punches when Velasquez shoots from an awkward position.
Another important change for dos Santos is to circle rather than move straight backwards. It'll be harder for Velasquez to land his big right hand and shoot effective takedowns if dos Santos is moving side to side. Should dos Santos effectively incorporate these two changes into his game, I have no doubt in his ability to win the fight. He just has to be patient and let the knockout come.
Does dos Santos have what it takes to reclaim his belt or will Velasquez end his dreams of a second title reign?