This week I square up against former UFC lightweight champion Jens Pulver to take sides and break down the three biggest fights on Saturday’s UFC 166 card in Cagewriter’s new Head to Head feature. Read on to see who you agree with and decide if Jens blows my arguments out of the water as easily as he’d knock me out in a real fight.
Cagewriter: Time and again I’ve underestimated Junior Dos Santos and been proven wrong. True, Junior is not only by far the best puncher in the UFC’s heavyweight division, but I’ve often made the erroneous assumption that his punching is pretty much the only thing he’s got going for him.
Dos Santos has proven myself and so many other critics wrong but I can’t help but pick against him once more as he takes on champion Cain Velasquez this Saturday. In their first fight, in 2011, Dos Santos showed precisely why he’s so scary by knocking Velasquez clean out in the first round.
In their second fight, Dos Santos was taken out of his game from the get-go and was dominated for five rounds before losing his belt back to Velasquez by decision. Junior showed incredible conditioning, resilience and fighting spirit even in losing badly to Velasquez, but he still basically has just one way to beat Cain – by knocking him out.
[Related: Cain Velasquez vs. Junior dos Santos is UFC's first big-time rivalry]
Cain, on the other hand, can conceivably put Dos Santos out, or take him down en route to a decision or submission win. Velasquez may not have the one-punch KO power that the Brazilian does, but he has many more tools.
Velasquez can punch, kick, wrestle and push a pace that Dos Santos has shown to struggle with on his heels. Additionally, I think Velasquez’ teammate, wrestling coach and fellow UFC 166 main-card fighter (more on that below) Daniel Cormier is right that this fight is happening too soon for Dos Santos.
Dos Santos reportedly went into his second fight against Velasquez last December with a serious health condition, the result of over training. He got bullied and severely beaten in that fight, of course, and then went on to fight again in May. Sure, Dos Santos won that bout against Mark Hunt but he had to go through nearly three full rounds and, of course, a tough training camp leading up to it.
In the span of just 10 months, Dos Santos will have gone through three training camps and three fights and at least one spectacular brain beating. The damage sustained through all that is nothing to sneeze at and his mind and body could probably use some extra rest before taking on Velasquez again.
Cormier has said that Dos Santos, great as he is, simply has not had enough time in between fights with Cain to improve and make adjustments necessary to win. That sounds about right.
Dos Santos did virtually nothing right against Velasquez ten short months ago. Can he do a 180 degree turn on Saturday?
I’m picking Cain by 4th round stoppage over a game but fading Dos Santos.
What say you, Lil Evil?
Jens Pulver: Junior does have a lot to change up if he wants to beat Velasquez again but I think he can do it. Last time, Junior got rushed, out-worked and beat up.
Cain came in with that impressive stamina but also an impressive will to win. Cain had lost his belt and wanted it back.
Junior, now you are the one that doesn’t have the belt. If you’re hungry and you want it back, now you have the chance to be the hungry one out for redemption. Last time it looked like he was winded or that his heart wasn’t in it but you know that it can’t be like that this time around.
One big thing that Junior needs to use in his favor this time around is his size. Junior, oh my God, you’re a specimen. You’re huge. You need to slow Cain down by making him hold on to you, make him carry you around.
You want to land a hook? Set it up. Beat him when he comes in, because he’s going to come in. Cain charges. When he does, grab a hold of him. Make him expend a lot of energy to either get the take down or get back out and get the distance to strike.
If Cain just gets to go out there and pot-shot you again, out-speed you, then you’re going to have an issue. Push him against the cage. Hold him. Hit him with that hard hook, but you’ve got to set the hook up.
Cain has hit a different level with his fighting and if you give him an opportunity, he’s going to run over the top of you but he’s the smaller guy. It shouldn’t even be possible. He shouldn’t be able to run over the top of you. Junior is bigger and strong so if Cain is going to get take downs it cannot simply be from running over the top of Junior like he did the last time, with ease.
When Junior wants to strike he’s got to use his foot work and set the hook up behind a hard right hand or off of a jab. He’s got to throw in combos. It is much easier said than done, but Junior, you can’t let Cain dictate the pace of the fight and run over the top of you.
Cain is going to out move Junior. I know a lot about being the smaller guy like Cain will be. Being the littler guy, Cain is going to be bouncing around out there. So Junior, you’re going to have to have great stamina. You’re going to have to push Cain off at times and get up off the ground. When you do that, guess what? Cain may take you right back down and you may have to do it all over again.
You have to have a lot of gas in that tank, man. Without your lungs and legs, Cain is going to melt you. He’s going to hurt you with his conditioning. We already know that Cain is going to come in crazy shape. So, you have to match that. If you are sweating that and are just hoping to go out there and land a bomb, it’s not going to happen.
Importance of conditioning
The biggest thing about a five round fight is who is better conditioned. I won a world title and held a world title for one reason and one reason only – I wasn’t the most skilled but my gas tank was ridiculous and I knew it. I knew that come the third round, I’m just starting to hit my stride. Come the fourth and fifth, I know they are melting. If I feel a little burn in my lungs, I know their lungs are on fire. You have to have that confidence going into it.
You’re right that in order to beat Cain, Junior will have to hit him. Junior will have to knock him out like he did the first time.
But I’m going with the guy with the bigger punching power. Junior has the power and if he has a good strategy and conditioning, he’ll have his chances to land that power.
When Cain is blasting and charging into you with takedowns or combs, he’s giving you the space. Again, it is easier said than done – I’m not saying that any of this is easy – but Velasquez will close the distance and Junior will have his chance to connect with big shots while he’s doing it and opening himself up.
Daniel Cormier vs. Nelson
Cagewriter: Alright, my bias towards elite wrestlers who learned how to strike is about to become super obvious. I love the grudge match co-main event between Velasquez’ teammate and former Olympic wrestler Cormier and Roy “Big Country” Nelson but this is an easy one to pick for me as well
Look, Cormier absolutely does not want the full-bodied Brazilian black belt Nelson on top of him for any extended period of time and he cannot let the bearded brawler land his over hand right flush on the chin – both situations could spell disaster for Cormier – but I don’t think Nelson will get close to doing either.
[Related: Daniel Cormier refuses to underestimate Roy Nelson]
Cormier will more than likely be able to control whether or not the fight ever goes to the ground and on the feet, he is the far more diverse and quicker striker. I think Cormier touches up Nelson on the feet with quick feet and hands before taking it to the ground in the late rounds and either grinding or taking out Nelson on the ground with strikes.
Be real, Jens, do you see it going differently?
Jens Pulver: Man, I never mind picking the under dog or the guy with KO power. I’ll take Nelson in a second.
Cormier has so much hype behind him and an incredible wrestling pedigree. He’s also accomplished a ton in MMA in a short period of time. The sentimental part of me goes for “Big Country,” though.
There’s just something about Roy Nelson and that something is that he can hit you and he can knock you out. And, I love it.
I’m not going by who looks the best on paper, who’s faster, who’s got more skills, who’s younger. I’m going with the guy that can end the fight at any second here.
The KO factor
On their feet, I don’t fear Cormier’s punching power as much as Nelson’s. Cormier, like good wrestlers are, is great at grabbing you, moving around you, holding you against the fence, taking you down and landing damaging punches that will ultimately end the fight. But on the feet, the man that can win with the one-punch knock out is “Big Country.”
By the same token, if Nelson gets put on his back by Cormier, I think he’ll be stuck there. That wrestler is just going to be able to come off to the side and control him. That’s what wrestlers do.
Wrestlers are made to pin you on your back and leave you on your back. That’s why they almost feel as comfortable in your guard as a jiu jitsu player feels off of his back.
How much energy will Big Country expend, how much confidence will he lose, every time he’s got to get his butt off the mat? Nelson’s timing is going to have to be on point.
If Cormier just wants to settle in on Nelson on the ground, it will be hard for Nelson to get up. Wrestlers are great at setting down on you and not letting you move when they want to. Matt Hughes was great at that. When Matt Hughes wanted to just power down on you he quickly went from being a 170 pounder to feeling like a 250 pounder. When they want to knuckle down and hold you there, wrestlers make it real hard for anyone to move. When they lighten up to throw punches, you’ve got to utilize that time for your scramble.
When Cormier is throwing punches, that’s the only time that Nelson will likely have to get under him or knock him off balance. That will be the same on the ground. When Cormier is on top of Nelson and is throwing strikes and shifting his body, Nelson will have to find space and time to get back to his feet.
“Big Country” has just done some great things out there with his hands, the way he fights and I’m always going to go for him. I gotta hope for it.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
Cagewriter: I can’t argue with you saying that Dos Santos and Nelson are the guys in their fights most capable of ending the fight suddenly at any point, Jens. Now it’s my turn to pick the underdog.
In a sense, former training partners Sanchez and Melendez are similar fighters. Both don’t mind scrapping on their feet and both look for take downs and are excellent ground grapplers with insane conditioning. However, Melendez is certainly the more fluid striker and wrestler with Sanchez only holding an on-paper advantage in ground grappling.
Still, I’m going with Sanchez. Simply put, it is nearly impossible to look good against “The Dream.” The kid may look ugly doing it, but he always gets in your face and forces a gritty, scrambling, knock down, drag out battle. In those types of fights, anything can happen.
[Related: Gilbert Melendez, Diego Sanchez ready for long-awaited fight]
I’m picking Sanchez to withstand damage on the feet and on the bottom on the ground from Melendez before slightly tiring out the former Strikeforce champ, reversing positions on the ground and putting Gilbert into deep waters off of his own back late in the fight.
Jens Pulver: You’re right that Gilbert and Diego are similar in ways. Everything Diego can do, Gilbert can also do.
I’m not going to say that Gilbert is better, but I will say that he is the fighter with all the momentum. I love Gilbert’s style and I love the way he fights. Plus, he is just on a tear.
The value of momentum
Diego has had so many fights, has been in the UFC for so long that I think he’s in the place where sometimes your momentum or confidence or whatever you want to call it, goes down. Right now, Gilbert is on fire and that psychological component can make a huge difference in a fight.
Gilbert can do the same things Diego can – scrap on the feet, wrestle, go for submissions – but I think he’s more in tune with that style right now than Diego seems to be. I do see this as a close fight, though.
Gilbert is definitely going to look to pound Diego out on the ground after knocking him down or taking him down but it will be a matter of whether or not Diego can withstand that. On paper, he’s got the skills.
Win the scramble, win the fight
The fight could end up being a stand up battle and I think Gilbert can land some good shots there. Melendez is absolutely the better wrestler but if he takes it to the ground and Diego is able to avoid taking too much damage, Gilbert might have to stand back up, sit back and do more damage on the feet before possibly transitioning back to the ground to finish.
I think the fight will really come down to the transition from the take down to getting to the side to getting the back, to getting a better position, etc. It will be about the scramble that ensues following the take down.
I think Gilbert wins that fight. When Gilbert takes you down, he’s already passing your guard on the way to the ground. He’s looking to create that scramble and capitalize on it.
I’m not really banking on a submission unless there is a great deal of fatigue later on in the fight but I think putting on damage is Melendez’ bread and butter. He’s on a roll right now and he’s staring at the title. His momentum right now is pretty tough to stop.
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