Skilled boxer, Junior dos Santos, will duel with bruising knockout artist, Derrick Lewis, this Saturday (March 9, 2019) at UFC Fight Night 146 from inside Intrust Bank Arena in Wichita, Kansas.
It is difficult not to be impressed with dos Santos’ resilience, both inside and outside the cage. At 35 years of age and many wars deep into his professional career, “JDS” is no longer in peak form. He has suffered brutal losses to some of the division’s current top fighters. Yet dos Santos still managed to pick up a pair of victories over Top 10-ranked opponents in 2018, meaning the veteran is closing in on title contention despite how unlikely that may seem.
Perhaps the Brazilian can perfect his craft to the point where his lost athleticism is less important. For now, let’s take a closer look at his skill set.
Dos Santos is best described as a boxer, finding success and knockouts primarily with his fists. And while there is an established strategy that causes dos Santos to struggle primarily because of his habit of backing straight into the fence, it’s also important to note that “JDS” is still one of the division’s better strikers.
Like most good boxers, dos Santos’ success begins with the jab, often to the body in his case. Aside from being very useful to draw his opponent’s hands lower and set up his power shots — covered in the video above — it’s dos Santos’ range finder. The body jab lets him know just how far away his opponent is, as well as providing a nice barrier to negate forward movement.
In dos Santos’ somewhat recent win opposite Ben Rothwell, dos Santos’ jab was incredibly important regardless of whether it was going to the head or body. Rothwell’s bizarrely square stance left him somewhat powerless to avoid the strike, which halted many of his trademark blitzes. As his foe pushed forward, dos Santos would either take small steps back and stab at him or plant his feet and stop Rothwell in his tracks (GIF).
Before long, Rothwell’s face was cut and bloodied from the jab. Once that happened, dos Santos’ set ups and feints worked wonderfully. Each time he showed a hint of a jab, Rothwell was forced to react, either freezing in place or reaching for the punch. Either way, dos Santos could time his favorite overhand (GIF) or slip a left hook around the guard. Alternatively, dos Santos could feint, freeze his foe, and circle away from the cage.
Dos Santos is very dangerous on the counter. He’s usually adept at holding his foe at range with those long jabs and straights to the body, but he’ll often go on the aggressive if his opponent works past that distance. The left hook is key here, as he’ll slip down and fire back the hard counter punch (GIF).
In his last bout with Tai Tuivasa, the Aussie’s insane pressure often saw dos Santos pushed into his vulnerable position along the fence. However, “JDS” did a better, if imperfect, job of keeping his defense high when hitting the fence and — perhaps more important — swinging back. As Tuivasa slowed, dos Santos’ back stepping punches landed with more consistency and eventually dropped him (GIF).
Kicking has never been a main part of dos Santos’ arsenal, but his kicks do complement his attacks. Opposite Rothwell, dos Santos did a decent job of returning kicks when Rothwell hung around at that range without advancing. Most notably, he jammed a side kick into Rothwell that sent him flying. Aside from that, dos Santos’ kicks are aided by the element of surprise. He may not be a kickboxer, but dos Santos is a natural athlete, meaning that a sudden high kick will get to its target quicker than expected (GIF). Last time out, “JDS” accomplished little opposite Stipe Miocic, but he did quickly manage to damage the boxer’s leg with a couple of heavy calf kicks.
Dos Santos’ issue — the reason for nearly all of his losses — has always been an inability to circle. Cain Velasquez forced this issue by diving into takedowns and getting dos Santos to the fence, but Miocic was able to find the same result with simple offensive pressure. “JDS” has long been a fighter who moves forward and back on a straight line, simply moving away until his opponent stops punching.
If they don’t stop, he hits the fence and his hands tend to drop.
Despite the losses to Velasquez, getting taken down and held down has never really been dos Santos’ weakness. He was and is a very hard man to control on 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” remains 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. Even when dos Santos does pummel for an underhook and circle away, he often does so with his hands carried low, leaving him in a very vulnerable position.
Despite owning a black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, dos Santos is rarely 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 demonstrated 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.
At this point, dos Santos’ small improvements to his cage awareness seem to be making up for what he’s lost in pure speed. Building on that, the Heavyweight division is still a disaster. Even if he gets whacked a few times in the process, dos Santos can set and maintain a rather high pace for five rounds — many of his foes tend to struggle past the first no matter their official ranking. “JDS” recapturing the title will always be unlikely, but the Brazilian does seem to be inching in the correct direction even if it may be too late.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional 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.