Its status as MMA’s weakest and at times, most embarrassing division is well-earned. Its oxygen consumption equals that of every other weight class combined, and cardio is often thrown out the window before Bruce Buffer is done with his fighter introductions. However, every now and then, the heavyweight division offers a bout that captures the imagination of fight fans like no other. Whether it is Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo setting the gold standard for five-round wars, or Fedor Emelianenko‘s titanic battles with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, little can rival the electricity of a legitimately thrilling heavyweight prizefight. This Saturday night, headlining the UFC‘s historic debut on FOX, Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos have the chance to eclipse any of the previously mentioned encounters.
Heavyweight Title Fight: Cain Velasquez (c) vs. Junior Dos Santos
The real wild card will be Cain Velasquez’s injury. Extended layoffs have historically affected even the most talented athletes, and coming off a surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff is serious business. There is no telling how much the injury has hindered Velasquez’s wrestling for example, which remains his primary — and so far unstoppable — weapon. And while the champion could very well be totally healed up, rust is likely going to be a factor early on regardless.
This could prove to be a deciding factor in the fight, as even under normal circumstances, Velasquez would have had to be extremely careful in the early going, where Dos Santos will ostensibly be at his most dangerous. When you add potential rust to the equation, it could take Velasquez a while to figure out the range, get his timing going, loosen up, and most importantly, settle his nerves; as being away from action for so long will undoubtedly make it that much more difficult to relax inside the cage. Against a striker as lethal as Dos Santos, Velasquez’s world could come crashing down before he ever gets the chance to re-discover his footing and comfort zone in the Octagon.
Dos Santos’ boxing is arguably the best in the division. Very few heavyweights, if any, can put combinations together the way “Cigano” does. His last fight against Shane Carwin showed a more measured — but nonetheless aggressive — approach from the Brazilian, as he displayed a tremendous jab which he used to set the tone of the fight, control the distance, and set up combinations. In particular, Dos Santos’ left hook-right cross combo continuously found its mark. His uppercut is without a doubt his best punch. It remains a game-changer in any fight, and he uses it just as efficiently moving forward as he does when countering. In fact, due to his aggressive nature, Dos Santos’ counter-punching ability is often overlooked. He possesses incredible timing on the aforementioned counter right uppercut, and his counter left hook is almost as deadly.
Additionally, Dos Santos often mixes things up by going to the body during his combinations, and does so with remarkable efficiency. However, he has a nasty habit of throwing a single jab to the body with very little set-up, which in turn leaves him exposed to counters. Moreover, he generally tends to drop his left hand whenever he throws, making him quite the hittable target. And while the sheer volume with which he throws can often mask those defensive deficiencies, a gifted striker with good counter-punching skills could make him pay dearly. In his fight with “Minotauro” Nogueira, Velasquez displayed some terrific boxing skills, and was in fact able to slip a Nogueira jab and counter with a beautiful combination that put the Brazilian legend away. Dos Santos’ striking is obviously a whole different proposition than that of his mentor, but his tendency to leave himself exposed could get him in trouble if Velasquez’s striking is sharp and on point.
Velasquez will have the more diverse striking, as he mixes up kicks with his boxing very fluidly, and his leg kicks in particular are some of the best in the division. However, unlike his fight with Nogueira, we might see the champion stick to lead inside leg kicks this time around, as throwing right leg kicks could make him vulnerable to Dos Santos’ right cross, if the latter times it correctly. Velasquez often chooses to use his lead high kick as a way to gauge distance and keep his opponent guessing, and we can expect much of the same here.
As always with Velasquez, many three-punch combinations are in order, particularly the 1-4-3 (jab, right hook, left hook), which was the combination he used to drop Minotauro, or 1-2-3 (jab, straight right, left hook); the combination he used to floor Brock Lesnar. However, stiff head movement is something Velasquez has gotten in trouble over before, as Cheick Kongo continuously tagged him with straight rights, some of which even putting the AKA standout on wobbly legs. And while Velasquez did show a tremendous chin and amazing recovery to absorb those shots and plant the Frenchman on his back as though nothing happened, the champion can ill-afford to go through something similar against Dos Santos.
For Dos Santos, using the jab to control the distance and prevent Velasquez from closing in and getting the clinch will be crucial for his chances in this fight. Perhaps the most overlooked aspect of Velasquez’s game is his proficiency in the clinch, as his dirty boxing, highlighted by some excellent short uppercuts on the inside, coupled with his ability to use that position to drop for single legs in an instant will be a handful for the Brazilian to deal with. Dos Santos is no slouch in the clinch, as he too possesses some fine uppercuts from close-quarters and a brutal knee to the body. However, clinch battles are likely going to be a losing proposition for the challenger. While he did show good footwork and awareness to shake Carwin off of him whenever the American had him pressed against the fence, doing that against Cain Velasquez is a completely different task. After all, the clinch is where Velasquez is most likely going to wear his opponent down.
In a five-round fight, Velasquez’s cardio will prevail over any heavyweight alive. Considering that Dos Santos showed signs of fatigue in three-round fights during which he was in complete control against Roy Nelson and Carwin, engaging in long clinch struggles against someone like Velasquez should not be an enticing prospect for “Cigano.” And therein lies the problem for the Dos Santos: the deeper the fight goes, the more it favors Velasquez.
This means that however good Dos Santos’ defensive grappling is, getting the upper hand in clinch wars and fending off takedowns for twenty-five minutes is somewhat of an unrealistic expectation. To Dos Santos’ credit, his takedown defense has proven to be extremely solid, and he possesses some excellent hips. His ability to get back to his feet after getting taken down is especially noteworthy. However, in Cain Velasquez, he’ll be dealing with one of the most versatile and technical wrestlers in the sport. Unlike someone like Lesnar, Velasquez doesn’t exclusively rely on power double legs. In fact, he almost never does. Velasquez’s single legs are his bread and butter, and he possesses some fantastic chain wrestling to boot, as he will often effortlessly transition into trip takedowns when necessary.
The most notable aspect of Velasquez’s wrestling, and the biggest testament to his understanding of the MMA game is his ability to immediately land in dominant positions off of takedowns. Rarely will you see him finish a takedown and get stuck in his opponent’s guard. Instead, he will often land in side control straight away, and from there, look to unload some of the most relentless ground-and-pound in the business.
The drawback however, is that Cain’s top control lends itself into creating scrambling opportunities for the man on the bottom. Velasquez will often opt to stand up above his opponent and drop down some punches, or land punches from the side with his foe turtling up in an attempt to regain his vertical base instead of getting overhooks and dragging him back down, or go for the knee-on-belly position and drop further hammers. While this maximizes the damage and limits any submission threat (however insignificant it may have been to begin with), this will provide someone as good as Dos Santos with some openings to push off and escape. Therefore, it would be wise for Velasquez to be slightly more composed from the top in the first couple of rounds and look to secure position, before eventually turning up the heat as the fight progresses.
To suggest that the fight could go either way would be an understatement. Dos Santos’ striking could give the champion all sorts of fits, and he is more likely to end the fight early than Cain is. However, I expect Velasquez to avoid any big shots early on, overcome a potential slow start, close the distance, get the clinch, and eventually take the fight to the ground. Dos Santos will have his moments in the stand-up, and he will get back to his feet after being taken down, but this will become increasingly hard to pull off with each passing minute, as Velasquez tightens up the screws, turns up the pace, and finishes a tired Dos Santos with some ground-and-pound in the fourth round.
Official Prediction: Cain Velasquez to defeat Junior Dos Santos by TKO in Round 4