Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight kingpin, Junior dos Santos, is set to battle with rising contender, Ben Rothwell, this Sunday (April 10, 2016) at UFC Fight Night 86 inside Arena Zagreb in Zagreb, Croatia.
Dos Santos has had a rough go of things lately. The former champion has lost three of his last five fights, but that's not the worst of it. He took some serious damage in each of those losses -- most notably the Cain Velasquez rematches -- but "JDS" hasn't looked fresh in his wins, either.
At this point, it's likely do-or-die for the Brazilian. If he comes out looking slow and hesitant again, he may be permanently removed from the title picture. That said, a rejuvenated "Cigano" would still be a terrifying foe.
Let's take a closer look at the former champion's skill set:
Not long ago, dos Santos was considered one of UFC's most feared boxers. The Brazilian fired off blistering combinations and knew how to set up his heavy punches, which was more than enough to let him run through the majority of Heavyweights.
To connect with his power punches, dos Santos does a nice job figuring out his range before engaging. On the outside, dos Santos tests his opponent with low-commitment jabs and feints. Before long, he'll begin looking for his opponent's body.
The body jab is a staple of dos Santos' attack. As he fires off a stiff jab to his opponent's mid-section, dos Santos drops his head off the center line and is difficult to counter. While it's not the most punishing shot, it does serve several purposes. For example, the strike helps sap his opponent's energy, stop his forward pressure, and can get his opponent's hands to drop.
The body jab works wonders in setting up his overhand right (GIF). 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.
It's important to mention that dos Santos has power in both hands. Though it seems to be less important to him now -- which may be a cause of his current slump -- dos Santos does know how to use his lead hand effectively, halting his opponent with jabs or sliding the hook around his foe's guard (GIF).
"Cigano's" hook is rather versatile. He likes to throw it quickly in combination with his jab and can also lunge in hard with the strike. However, dos Santos is at his best when he slips down left and comes back with a hard counter hook (GIF).
Another tool that dos Santos has been declining to use more is his kicking game. While dos Santos has never been a dedicated kickboxer, he did have some quick kicks that made for a nice addition to his game and kept things unexpected (GIF). Notably, dos Santos knocked out Mark Hunt with a spinning wheel kick in the third round of their scrap.
Defensively, dos Santos' flaws still exist, and he has done little to remedy them. That's a major problem for any fighter, as once a blue print is established to overcome their game, any and everyone will look to take advantage.
Dos Santos simply does not do a very good job at controlling his position inside the Octagon. He routinely backs himself into the fence and then does little to adjust from there, making it easy for his opponent to land shots and compromise his stance. Dos Santos' solution to this problem is not a good one, as he switches into the Southpaw stance and tries to jab his way out with his hands low.
In his last bout, dos Santos was extremely hesitant to commit to attacking his opponent. That's a truly bad sign, as dos Santos has never been a defensive wizard. If his offense is no longer enough to deter his opponent, then "Cigano' is likely in for a world of hurt in the near future.
If there is a bright side to dos Santos' skid, it's that his wrestling skill still appears to be quite strong. The Brazilian is still a tremendously difficult fighter to take down, springing back up quickly on the rare occasion he's forced to the mat.
It's pretty rare for dos Santos to look for the takedown on his own, but that part of his game is effective. It relies in large part on his athleticism, which is well above average compared to most Heavyweights. Dos Santos does a nice job quickly changing levels and driving through his opponent for a strong blast double leg.
Defensively, "JDS" is among the division's best. His sprawl is very powerful, and his balance is more than enough to avoid most single legs. Plus, dos Santos' boxing is usually rangy enough to give him time to react to his opponent's shots. Even in Velasquez's pair of victories over the Brazilian, dos Santos was able to stuff a majority of Velasquez's shots.
In particular, dos Santos is excellent at springing back to his feet. After his opponent completes a takedown, dos Santos immediately turns away and stands. As he does this, he moves his hips out and fights the hands, which usually breaks his foe's grip. It's a risky tactic, but dos Santos is quick enough to get away without giving up his back.
While dos Santos does a very nice job of defending takedowns against the fence, he's too content to work with his back to the cage. This flaw ties in with the issues in his striking defense, as dos Santos doesn't show the urgency or technique needed to get out of such a terrible position.
Despite owning a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, dos Santos rarely is grappling inside the Octagon. Generally, he's either knocking out his opponents in violent fashion or trading along the fence, neither of which create many submission opportunities.
That said, dos Santos has showed some skill from his back, and he's not bad defensively. Even after getting dropped badly by Velasquez, dos Santos managed to prevent or quickly escape many dominant positions and work back to his feet, as well as escaping an arm bar from his opponent.
Velasquez has one of the most violent top games in the sport, so that's no small feat.
Dos Santos also showed a bit of his top game off against Mark Hunt. After opening Hunt up with elbows, he quickly capitalized on the "Super Samoan's" loose half guard by cutting through it with his knee. He then moved into the crucifix immediately, allowing him to land some nice elbow strikes.
Dos Santos has spent most of his Heavyweight career crushing fighters who were slower, less skilled strikers. For all his improvement, Ben Rothwell still fits that description. And on paper, he's a man who dos Santos should defeat. Between dos Santos' decline and "Big Ben's" ruthless opportunism, the waters are certainly muddied, but it's abundantly clear the "Cigano" must win this fight to remain in the title mix.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu purple belt, is an undefeated amateur fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport's most elite fighters.