Four days after Christmas, reigning UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos puts his title on the line against the man he took it from 13 months ago, Cain Velasquez.
It is the perfect end to what has been an interesting year for the UFC.
Looking back for a moment, 2012 saw the successful return of the sport’s favorite son, Georges St-Pierre. Pound-for-pound kingpin Anderson Silva fought and won two bouts—one against heated rival Chael Sonnen and another on short notice 20 pounds north of his typical home to save a fight card from cancellation.
Four new champions were crowned. Well, three full champions and one, Renan Barao, who is of the interim type. Benson Henderson won and successfully defended the lightweight belt. Demetrious Johnson became the inaugural flyweight champ. And Ronda Rousey made history earlier this month by being crowned the first female champion (and first female to sign a fight contract with the UFC) when UFC President Dana White decided to convert her Strikeforce title into a shiny, new UFC belt.
That is one heck of a year. Saturday’s rematch between arguably the two best heavyweights of the last decade takes it over the top.
If that doesn’t get your pay-per-view purchasing finger a bit trigger happy, then someone needs to check your pulse.
Yesterday, we examined the keys to victory for the challenger. He needs to mix it up on the feet just enough to create the opportunity for a takedown and then sell out like there is no tomorrow. For the champion, his two biggest keys to victory are to remain active and fire his big right uppercut.
Velasquez is a high-octane fighter who uses lots of good footwork and lateral movement to create openings for his excellent strikes. When he gets comfortable on the feet, he is as dangerous as anyone with his punches and kicks, particularly when leading the action.
He might not be a truly devastating one-strike knockout artist like dos Santos, but he can stop anyone when he throws punches in bunches. Remember, we are talking about a 240-pound world-class athlete. When he hits, it hurts. Period.
Because Velasquez isn’t a great counterstriker, one of the best ways to keep him off balance is to take the fight to him. Dos Santos should walk him down with punches from bell to bell, always moving forward to the extent practical.
He largely did that in their first bout, and the results speak for themselves. The Brazilian won by knockout in just 64 seconds. It was a jaw-dropping performance by dos Santos, one that I quite honestly never saw coming.
In retrospect, however, it should have been somewhat obvious that a standup-only fight would favor dos Santos. After all, he is the best boxer in the heavyweight division—bar none. And his most effective weapon is the right uppercut.
Make no mistake about it. Dos Santos can turn out the lights with a variety of strikes. He dropped Velasquez in their first bout with an overhand right that landed behind the ear. But he shouldn’t count on landing that strike again. Velasquez will be focused on taking it away by keeping his left hand very high and circling to his own right.
The high guard should neutralize the overhand right, but it leaves the challenger vulnerable to the right uppercut. The question is how to go about landing it.
The first, and most obvious, way is to fire it off the heels of a left hand. The Brazilian bomber has one of the best jabs in the division. He snaps it like a professional boxer, though unlike most boxers, it is not a range finder. Dos Santos’ jab causes very real damage, so it is a weapon in and of itself.
Dos Santos can jab and quickly fire a right uppercut up the middle. Velasquez will be so focused on keeping his left hand high that it is unlikely he will drop it to defend the jab.
The champion can also double up on the jab or throw one of his slick jab-left hook combinations before immediately cleaning up with his money punch. Those combinations should be particularly effective because the champion does not retreat straight back in the face of incoming fire, like most mixed martial artists. He instead stays in the pocket and moves his head and upper body like a pendulum to slip shots.
Like a pendulum, Velasquez returns to center after slipping a shot. Thus, if the double jab or jab-left hook miss, he could very well be front and center by the time the uppercut arrives.
But that isn’t the end of the challenger’s options with his favorite strike. He can also lead with the punch. As crazy as it sounds, dos Santos is extremely effective leading with his right uppercut. Most fighters don’t try that technique because it requires elite hand speed. Otherwise, it is fairly easy to counter by slipping left and firing a left hook.
Of course, dos Santos possesses elite hand speed, so he can effectively lead with a right uppercut without too much concern. He routinely lands that punch in just about every bout. I don’t see why Saturday night will be any different.
The one time that he may want to forget the right uppercut is when he is timing a Velasquez kick. In that instance, he is better served firing his right straight down the middle.
Velasquez is an extremely slick kickboxer, with very few tell signs associated with his deep arsenal of strikes. The one notable exception is when he throws a left kick, whether to the inside of his opponent’s lead leg, body or head. The American Kickboxing Academy superstar always steps forward with his right foot before firing a kick with his left leg in order to set his hips to generate speed and power with the strike.
It is a quick shuffle step. But he does it every time. He doesn’t fire any other strike, other than a left kick, when he shuffle steps forward with his right foot.
Dos Santos can try to time Velasquez by stepping in and firing the right hand down the middle the second he sees the champion shuffle stepping forward. He must do it instantly in order to arrive at the target first. And he had better hope that Velasquez isn’t uncorking a high kick, because things could get ugly in that instance.
Nevertheless, the risk is worth the reward. Velasquez is a very durable, high-energy fighter that can go for days. It is unlikely that dos Santos will outlast Velasquez in a grueling five-round war, so he should be thinking stoppage within the first three rounds—or the first 64 seconds—just like in their last bout.
Defensively, dos Santos needs to always be mindful of defending the takedown. Velasquez is a former two-time Division I All-American collegiate wrestler. His wrestling chops are so strong that he was able to take down Brock Lesnar in his title winning affair, something very few people in the world can do.
He can remain in good position to defend the takedown by not over committing on his power punches. Selling out with haymakers is the best way to open the door for a takedown. Dos Santos should keep a solid base with his feet and focus on throwing fast, not necessarily hard, punches. If he does that, then he can rely on his biggest strength, his boxing skills.
I’m honestly not sure who should be the rightful favorite going into the rematch. Conventional wisdom suggests that the man who won the first fight by knockout tends to win the rematch as well. Velasquez might be hesitant because he will remember what happened the last time, and hesitation is the arch enemy of a fighter.
Then again, dos Santos might come out overconfident. Or maybe the first fight was a fluke.
We will all find out soon enough.
Junior dos Santos
• 6’4, 240 lbs
• 77-inch reach
• 28 years old
• 10-fight winning streak (last loss on November 10, 2007)
• 73.3% of wins ended by strikes
• 13.3% of wins by submission, other than from strikes
• 13.3% of wins by decision
• Knockout of the Night 3x
• Current layoff is 217 days
• Career long layoff is 308 days
The UFC 155 Blueprint - Junior dos Santos
By Michael DiSanto December 25, 2012