What did we learn from the first 64 seconds Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez spent together? That dos Santos hits really hard? We already knew that. That dudes with torn knee ligaments probably shouldn’t be trying to defend world championships? Seems pretty obvious. How about that after looking like a cyborg sent to upgrade the quality of the Saturday night beatdown, Velasquez is human, after all? OK, we’ll go with that.
Only 13 months after that first meeting, the two heavyweights are back at it in the main event of UFC 155. During the interim, there has been little of substance to glean about either. In May, dos Santos turned Frank Mir into a crash test dummy, while on the same night, Velasquez auditioned for a slasher role in a bloodletting of Antonio Silva. So we’ll mostly have to draw upon their previous work in forecasting their second meeting.
But while that 64 seconds isn’t a huge reflector of the actual talent gap between the two, what it does is set the tone for the second clash. Velasquez felt dos Santos’ power, and that’s a very real takeaway that he carried into training camp and all the way into the cage on Saturday night. And that means that more than anything, this fight will be one of location. While the first bout for Velasquez was a jazz improv capable of going anywhere, the rematch should have more of a pop-music feel to it, with a little bit of variation around many repeating tactics. dos Santos wants to stay anchored on his feet, while Velasquez will be focused on taking away his center of gravity.
You can generally equate dos Santos’ fighting philosophy to that of a prime Chuck Liddell: he uses wrestling defensively to stop takedowns while trusting his hands and chin to best the man in front of him.
To date, he’s done it nearly to perfection, with a 15-1 record, and nine straight wins in the UFC. Just as impressive as his record is the fact that during his octagon time, he hasn’t lost a single round of the 16 he’s contested. In fact, his three-round decision victories over Shane Carwin and Roy Nelson were two of the worst beatings he’s administered.
Though dos Santos has only been taken down twice in nine fights (and only held down for a split-second each time), the drama in the rematch comes with the possibilities that a healthy Velasquez brings. Through his career, he has successfully melded striking and wrestling together in a way that few do, and his 71 percent takedown success rate makes him a threat to take dos Santos down, where he has always boasted a devastating ground attack.
So, for many, the big question will be whether or not dos Santos can withstand Velasquez’s wrestling. According to FightMetric, he’s stopped 88 percent of takedowns against him, so he’s been well schooled in the art of defense.
Moreover, dos Santos tends to dissuade opponents from shooting on him because of his history of punishing advancing foes. It’s something he did repeatedly against both Shane Carwin and Mir. Capitalizing on his fast hands and foot work, dos Santos has even landed powerful strikes while moving backwards.
His strong wrestling combined with his hands makes him a tough man to ground. Add in the fact that he has that scorching uppercut in his arsenal that can stop an advancing wrestler in a blink, and you see the type of challenge Velasquez (10-1) is facing in getting inside.
As a result, what is Velasquez left with? One thing the former champion may employ is more clinch work. While he’s mostly known for his savage ground and pound, Velasquez has roughed up many of his opponents against the fence, a position he seems to own. It’s also a place which would minimize the danger against him if he can’t get it to the mat.
It’s a position that puts a premium on conditioning, and we know that’s a Velasquez specialty. If he can grind dos Santos early, his explosive power will diminish minute by minute.
Dos Santos though has mostly proven himself to be a man who is difficult to corral, so if Velasquez gets these opportunities, he needs to capitalize each time.
If it is a standup contest, dos Santos should have a decided edge. His left hook is his best strike, which he uses as much for its versatility as he does for power. Occasionally it’s a counter-shot, and sometimes it’s the exclamation point on a combination. It’s been a finisher for him, too.
Velasquez’s best strategy would be getting inside and staying there. Use dirty boxing, push dos Santos against the fence, work knees to the body and legs. In this fight, space will be his enemy. While they both have an identical 77-inch reach, it’s space that dos Santos is much more expert in navigating, and certainly in defending. How Velasquez approaches closing that range is crucial.
But dos Santos is truly in the driver’s seat. He knows Velasquez must come to him. That will allow him to queue up his uppercut and left hook, fully trusting in his ability to stuff the takedown, or get up quickly if taken to the mat. As long as his conditioning holds up, his striking acumen will again prove too much for Velasquez’s aggressive forward march. And because of it, I like dos Santos by second-round knockout.
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