There is a blueprint for the Dec. 29 rematch between UFC heavyweight champion Junior dos Santos and Cain Velasquez at UFC 155, though how much stock should be put in it is debatable.
On November 12, 2011, Velasquez (10-1) defended his title against the Brazilian challenger at UFC on Fox 1, the promotion’s first live event on broadcast television, to the tune of a record 8.8 million viewers. The fight was swift — only 64 seconds — with Dos Santos (15-1) knocking the wrestler down with an overhand right Velasquez was unable to recover from before referee “Big” John McCarthy intervened. It was a clear finish, but not a satisfying one for fans, especially when news of injuries on both fighters’ ends began to circulate after the fight.
Dos Santos successfully defended his title with a second-round TKO stoppage at UFC 146 in May, while Velasquez rebounded phenomenally with the merciless first-round ground-and-pound destruction of Antonio “Big Foot” Silva on the same night. With Alistair Overeem sidelined from a nine-month drug suspension, it’s cleared the way for the welcome rematch that could look nothing like its predecessor come late December.
The Story Behind The First Encounter
Approximately thirty days before the bout, the 30-year-old Velasquez injured his left knee during training at the American Kickboxing Academy in San Jose. Calif. Because of the immense gravity of the fight, bowing out wasn’t an option, so Velasquez continued to prepare in what limited capacity he could.
“We weren’t able to do much of anything,” said Javier Mendez, Velasquez’s head coach. “No wrestling, no kicking. All we could do was box, and his movement on boxing wasn’t so good. He could, more or less, only go backwards and forwards. We were basically going into a situation where all we could do was box with someone who was a little better [in that area.]“
Even in the days and hours leading up to fight night, Mendez continued to monitor Velasquez’s status. With his wrestling virtually nullified, the plan was to utilize Velasquez’s kickboxing, if possible.
“I had him kick with the right leg and he was fine with that, but after kicking two times with his left leg, he asked me to stop,” said Mendez, who started working with Velasquez in 2006. “For someone like Cain to ask to stop — for me, that was a big warning sign.”
Dos Santos wasn’t much better on his end. After the fight, he told the press that he’d been on crutches only 11 days before, having torn his left meniscus during a jiu-jitsu session. But under his doctor’s care, the 28-year-old champion nursed the knee well enough to step into the cage come fight night.
“[In the final days of training] I was in the pool working my hands, just with my arms,” said Dos Santos. “I couldn’t train [on] my feet.”
Dos Santos admitted that he’d worried about his stamina, while Mendez said he saw a dip in Velasquez’s confidence, as well as his energy levels, without his usual arsenal at his disposal.
As both fighters were fighting through injuries which hindered or impaired their performances, it’s seems more practical to approach the rematch with fresh eyes. If both fighters are healed (Dos Santos had surgery in January; Velasquez rehabbed without it) and at their optimal performance level (both sides have indicated that this is the case), the rematch can be broken down the following way:
Striking: Dos Santos and Velasquez are both highly competent strikers in the current heavyweight division. They both possess good head movement, hand and foot work, as well as matching 77-inch reaches.
Dos Santos mixes up efficient single jabs, body shots, and straights frequently, which sometimes come off of counter-punches. He can find his opponents’ weak spots quickly, processes that information on the spot and can adapt to repeat the same punch when he’s sees it working. Dos Santos’ great physical strength is an added boon, and if he doesn’t get the job done with a single KO punch, he can finish opponents with rapid-fire combinations. Though trained in kickboxing, Dos Santos has favored his boxing in recent fights.
“He doesn’t sacrifice anything,” said opposing coach Mendez of Dos Santos’ striking. “He doesn’t get into slug-outs and he doesn’t leave himself open. He’s a very intelligent striker.”
Velasquez’s striking is stapled with forward-moving jabs and hooks, which are sometimes thrown to set up takedowns and don’t have as much power as his KO shots. Velasquez throws knees, as well as high and low kicks within his combinations smoothly, no doubt an area of interest for his camp, as Dos Santos has left his lead leg susceptible to low attacks in the past.
Advantage: Dos Santos — power and hand speed lean slightly in his favor.
Wrestling: This is Velasquez’s domain for obvious reasons; he was an All-American wrestler and Pac-10 champion during his two seasons with Arizona State University. In the cage setting, Velasquez’s wrestling is particularly functional: he can flow between the disciplines almost seamlessly, striking then dropping levels for a takedown with the agility of a middleweight. Velasquez has good, though not impenetrable takedown defense, however, his ability to rebound to his feet after being grounded is exceptional. Velasquez’s wrestling instincts also give him an advantage in scrambles. Velasquez’s wrestling coach is teammate Daniel Cormier, a two-time Olympian and Oklahoma State University All-American alumnus.
Dos Santos hasn’t used his wrestling offensively in the Octagon, preferring to stand when given the opportunity, which is almost always. His wrestling defense has been challenged on occasion, mostly with single-leg shots, and it’s solid. For this camp, Dos Santos began working with Jesse Ruiz, who represented Mexico in the 2012 London Olympics, presumably to hone his defensive skills further.
“For sure, this fight between us will be different,” said Dos Santos through translation. “He accepted the first fight with me standing. He stood in front of me the first time and got knocked out. I don’t see him doing that again. I see him trying to bring me into his game.”
Advantage: Velasquez — his wrestling seems tailor-made for MMA and could be the deciding factor against Dos Santos
The Clinch: Another area where Velasquez should have the upper hand, he can use his wrestling skills here offensively to tie opponents up, score points with close-quarter punches and knees, or set up takedowns. Velasquez is often able to reverse positional control when forced into the clinch by his opponent.
Dos Santos loses his biggest weapons in the clinch, so it’s an area he tries to avoid. However, he’s equipped to defend along the fence, as he knows it’s somewhere his opponents will actively try to take him.
Advantage: Velasquez — it’s another area where he can shift the fight’s direction
Groundwork (Jiu-Jitsu/Ground-and-Pound): Dos Santos has spent a total 13 seconds on his back in his nine consecutive Octagon victories, according to UFC stats, so there’s limited tape to draw upon here. Dos Santos actually began his initial training in jiu-jitsu, but was quickly moved to boxing and kickboxing when his coaches recognized great potential there. He does continues to practice jiu-jitsu and earned his black belt from recognized instructor Yuri Carlton on Dec. 8 in Brazil. Dos Santos’ ground-and-pound capabilities are also another question mark — he’s never had to use them.
Velasquez currently trains jiu-jitsu with black belt Leandro Vieira, youngest brother of famed Abu Dhabi champion Leo Vieira. Together, the brothers run their own submission grappling team, CheckMat, recognized as one of the best in the world today. Velasquez’s ground-and-pound has finishing capabilities and complements his takedown ability and positional prowess on the ground soundly.
In a potential ground situation, it is highly likely Velasquez would get top position over Dos Santos.
Advantage: Without precedent to study, we have estimate even footing in jiu-jitsu; Velasquez is the obvious call for ground-and-pound, which should be viewed as a dangerous asset
Conditioning: Both fighters have lasted and won three-round bouts sparingly (Dos Santos twice in 16 bouts, Velasquez once in 11 fights). Neither have gone into championship rounds.
“Junior has excellent physical conditioning,” said famed striking instructor Luis Dorea via email, when asked where Dos Santos stands out among the fighters he’s coached. Jiu-jitsu coach Carlton added that Dos Santos has above-average recuperative skills and pain tolerance, both factors that could weigh in should the bout go later rounds.
However, Mendez believes Velasquez will have the clear advantage with conditioning and pacing.
“I always hope that the only way that Cain could lose to him is KO,” he said. “I just don’t think that Dos Santos can keep up with Cain’s output and win the decision. The further the fight goes, the worse it will get for him.”
Advantage: Velasquez — by a hair
Mentality/Motivation: Both have regained their confidence for Dec. 29 with the return of their health.
Mendez credits Velasquez’s competitive mentality, developed during his wrestling days, as his unique strength.
“Cain doesn’t stop in practice and if someone gets the best of him, he doesn’t leave the gym until he gets him back,” said Mendez. “I’ve only seen that in just one other fighter I’ve worked with.”
Mendez also noted that since the Dos Santos loss, the first of Velasquez’s career, the usually introverted fighter has shown a new side.
“With the Silva fight, it’s as if he wanted to go out there and send a message, to silence any doubts people might have had about him. He has that same urgency and attitude for this next fight. He gets all riled up thinking about it.”
Dos Santos’ own motivation comes from his humble beginnings. He takes his training seriously, determined to not lose what he’s earned and never to go back to the impoverished days he experienced growing up in Brazil.
“Junior has a very good head on his shoulders,” said Dorea via email. “He is a very mature athlete, with the personality of a great champion. He’s self-confident and improves with every challenge or obstacle. He was born to be a champion.”