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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC Fight Night 166’s Junior dos Santos

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Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Heavyweight kingpin, Junior dos Santos, is set to battle with tough wrestler, Curtis Blaydes, this Saturday (Jan. 25, 2020) at UFC Fight Night 166 inside PNC Arena in Raleigh, North Carolina.

The Heavyweight division is an odd place. I don’t know when exactly Junior dos Santos’ prime ended — probably back in 2013 when Cain Velasquez abused his body and mind a second time. Despite his abilities slowly fading since that point, dos Santos has still managed to remain in the upper echelon of the division, even having some rises and falls in the previous six years. All the while, nothing has really changed about dos Santos’ style or methodology. The 35-year-old hasn’t really kept growing, which has caused him to come up short against the divisional elite.

Let’s take a closer look at the skills that have gotten him this far:

Striking

Despite actually being a quicker and more powerful kicker than a good deal of his peers, dos Santos operates largely as a boxer. The Brazilian is crafty and dangerous on offense, but historically struggles when forced onto his back foot. His most recent loss to Francis Ngannou is an exception — dos Santos’ simply looked uncomfortable from the first bell, threw himself way off balance with a punch, and then was brutally countered.

It was not his finest hour.

Normally, dos Santos does well to lead with his punches without leaning forward and exposing his jawline so dramatically. 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, the weapon serves as 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 another recent win opposite Tai Tuivasa, the Aussie’s insane pressure often saw dos Santos pushed into his most 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 importantly — 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). In his most recent title shot, “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.

Wrestling

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. In this week’s technique highlight, we discuss the basic wrestling-style stand up, which could prove a solution for his foe’s takedowns or play into Blaydes’ hands.

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 open to follow up punches.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

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.

Conclusion

Were it not for the Heavyweight division’s odd affinity for aged contenders, I would say that it’s clear dos Santos is no longer in the title hunt. As it stands, the situation does not look great for the Brazilian, but one big victory puts him right back in the proverbial mix. That statement is just as likely to be true in a year as well, as “JDS” has been in this position or one similar for some time now.

Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC Fight Night 166 fight card this weekend, starting with the ESPN+“Prelims” that are scheduled to begin at 5 p.m. ET, then the main card portion that will also stream on ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET.

To check out the latest and greatest UFC Fight Night 166: “Blaydes vs. dos Santos” news and notes be sure to hit up our comprehensive event archive right here.


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.