Velasquez-dos Santos: Something has to give
When Cain Velasquez defends his heavyweight title against Junior dos Santos on Saturday, one thing is guaranteed. One of the fighters, and possibly both, will be faced with situations they have never seen in their UFC careers.
That much is a lock. There is a reason why this fight, the company’s first-ever live event on network television, airing on Fox at 9 p.m. ET/6 PT from the Honda Center in Anaheim, Calif., will be intriguing from the opening moment.
On the 18th anniversary of the first UFC event, at no point in company history has there been a championship match between two more competitively dominant fighters.
It’s not just that neither has lost in the Octagon. It’s not even that neither has ever lost a round. Neither fighter has been in a disadvantageous position in a UFC fight for more than a few seconds at a time.
As great as champions past and present have been, no other main event fighters in UFC history can make this claim. Georges St. Pierre, as dominant as he’s been, has lost twice in the Octagon and lost a few rounds here and there, has been cut, and has had to stare down adversity many times. Anderson Silva, considered by many as the greatest fighter in the sport’s history, was on the defensive for nearly 23 minutes straight against Chael Sonnen, and was put on his back and lost rounds to Dan Henderson and Travis Lutter. Even Jon Jones lost a round to Stephan Bonnar.
Right away, whether it’s a barrage of shots standing, or a takedown with some ground and pound, either Velasquez (9-0) or Dos Santos (13-1) will face something he hasn’t experienced. And how one or both deal with it may be the story of the fight.
Velasquez has at least faced occasional moments of danger. In his fourth UFC fight, against Cheick Kongo, the only top-tier striker he’s faced in his career, he was hurt with hard punches at the start of all three rounds. But after being knocked to a knee, he regained composure and immediately took Kongo down every time. In seven UFC fights, Dos Santos doesn’t even have that split-second moment, and he’s stood with fighters with dangerous knockout power like Shane Carwin, Roy Nelson, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic and Gilbert Yvel without ever even being rocked.
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Oddsmakers have listed the champion as a 7-to-4 favorite, and fighters in the sport favor him by an even greater margin. Those numbers are based on the mantra repeated by so many in the sport that Velasquez is the best heavyweight in the world. Velasquez has also never lost a fight, while Dos Santos was submitted with an armbar in a 2007 fight with Joaquin Ferreira in Sao Paolo, Brazil, back when he was an unknown and inexperienced fighter. But he’s had years of training on the ground with the famed Nogueira brothers. While he’s never had to show it in his three years in the UFC, that would indicate he’s likely improved a great deal on the ground since his loss.
But even if Velasquez is truly the best heavyweight in the sport, that doesn’t make him invincible. There are bad style matchups for everyone. If Dos Santos’ takedown defense is strong enough to take that out of Velasquez’s arsenal, Dos Santos would be that bad style match-up.
An amazing statistic, as noted by Rami Genauer of Fightmetric.com, is that in his entire Octagon career, Velasquez has spent a total of 25 seconds on his back, the few ticks with Kongo that he recovered from, and a couple of takedowns from Brock Lesnar that he immediately got up from.
In his seven UFC fights, his fists have stopped six, mostly from nonstop ground and pounding while controlling his opponent.
Dos Santos, meanwhile, has only spent 13 seconds on his back in seven fights, which includes five stoppages from punching. In his case, the damage was mostly done standing.
That immediately tells you the second key to the fight, which may tell the ultimate story. How effective will Velasquez’s wrestling game be? Most of his finishes are set up by his wrestling.
In Dos Santo’s most recent fight, he completely negated the wrestling game of Carwin, the 1999 NCAA Division II heavyweight champion. The Brazilian has claimed that Velasquez won’t be able to keep him down and that will spell the difference in the fight. On the flip side, Velasquez was able to push such a fast pace that he was able to take Lesnar down, and finish him in the first round.
Statistically, Velasquez has completed 68 percent of his takedown attempts, fourth best in UFC history. But conversely, Dos Santos has stopped 83 percent of the takedowns attempted on him. The key here is twofold, how those contradicting statistics play out early, and moreso, what the effect of sweat and stamina is on these stats as the fight plays out. Usually in UFC, if the wrestler isn’t effective in his early takedowns, he gets weaker as the fight goes on and the advantage goes to the striker.
Because of Velasquez’s conditioning, though, that may not be the case here. Dos Santos, if he can’t take Velasquez out early, may have to continually stop a nonstop wrestling attack from a man with machine-like lungs for as long as 25 minutes.
Dos Santos is a few inches taller, although both men’s reach is listed as being identical. He also has stronger boxing, better movement standing, avoids punches better and has more knockout power. Velasquez is the better wrestler, has the better conditioning, and perhaps a more diverse standing attack with better kicking. Both can take a good punch, but Dos Santos is more proven against stand-up fighters. The advantage in the submission game is unknown, and likely, not going to be applicable in this fight. It is unlikely this fight will end via slick submission, and if there is a tap, it’s more likely one or the other beats someone into a submission position.
From a statistical standpoint, they are the two most proficient strikers in UFC history, although statistics only tell part of the story in this case. Velasquez in his seven fights has connected with 6.3 times more strikes than his opponents, the most of any fighter in any weight class in UFC history. Dos Santos is second, connecting 4.8 times more than his opponents.
In the case of Velasquez, that’s because he puts opponents on their back, and became of his incredible stamina for a heavyweight, can punch nonstop for as long as the fight goes, and controls his opponent on the ground where they can’t punch back. Those stats would tell you that he’s difficult to hit, but that’s not the case standing, it’s just that his fights have never stayed standing unless he’s wanted them to.
In a sense, Dos Santos’ figure is more impressive, because his fights have mostly been standing, and it shows just how difficult he is to hit. Carwin, his last opponent, has some of the best knockout power the sport has ever seen, but couldn’t come close to landing his big shot in three rounds.
Both have the power to take guys out, as shown by all of both men’s finishes coming from strikes. Velasquez averages a knockdown or finish every six minutes of 33 seconds of fighting, third best in history. Dos Santos averages a knockdown or finish every seven minutes and 10 seconds, fourth best in history.
“I don’t think so,” said Dos Santos when asked if he thought the fight would go the distance. “I’m ready to go five rounds. I had a really good camp in Brazil, but I think this fight will finish before five rounds.”
Velasquez’s mentality, as it is in every fight, is to go in with the idea the fight is going the distance.
“I think it’ll go five rounds,” he said. “I think it’ll be a five-round war. That’s what I’m training for.”
The third factor is stamina. Unless a devastating shot lands early, both men are in with the toughest opponent they have ever faced, so a long fight is likely to be more difficult for both men. And neither has ever gone five rounds.
“He has amazing stamina,” conceded Dos Santos. “For sure it’s going to be a great fight and a war.”
Velasquez noted that after being forced to take months away from training due to surgery to repair an almost completely torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder in the Lesnar fight, his conditioning was the first part of his game to fully come back.
“It’s something he’s born with,” said his trainer, Javier Mendez. “It’s not that he has a special way of doing cardio.”
Velasquez dismisses all the talk around the game of his being this guy who never gets tired, saying he gets tired like everyone else, but mentally can push his way through it, because of his upbringing. His father worked nonstop in the fields and was paid based on productivity.
He spent time with him and learned that work ethic as a child. He kept it up through youth wrestling, high school wrestling, and college wrestling, where he was a national champion in junior college and a two-time All-American at Arizona State. He excelled at every level before being delivered by college wrestling coach Thom Ortiz to the front door of the American Kickboxing Academy gym shortly after the 2006 NCAA tournament, and in short order became the talk of the fighters as the alpha male in one of the world’s toughest gyms.
But Velasquez’s ring rust, being out a year with a shoulder injury, is real, a point in favor of Dos Santos. While Dos Santos has slowed in his longer fights, a point for Velasquez. In Dos Santos’ win against Carwin, he destroyed Carwin in the first and came close to finishing. The second and third rounds were a lot slower paced. With Nelson, he also slowed down his punching output as the fight went on, but he never came close to gassing.
“We’ve got a game plan,” said Mendez. “In every fight, we go in feeling Cain has the advantage the longer the fight goes. But we’re not planning a strategy based on Junior getting tired. Because if we wait for him to get tired, what happens if he doesn’t? We think it’s going five rounds and he’ll be strong for all five rounds.”
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