Dos Santos rises with heavyweight tide

Kevin Iole
Junior dos Santos is the center of attention in the UFC heavyweight division

VANCOUVER, British Columbia – It wasn’t long ago that the majority of guys who made up the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s heavyweight division resembled the beer-bellied sluggers in the middle of the lineup of the company softball team.

At the highest level now, however, the division is stacked with fast, agile and powerful athletes, as Junior dos Santos proved Saturday in a one-sided beatdown of Shane Carwin in the main event of UFC 131 at Rogers Arena.

Dos Santos was brilliant in outclassing Carwin at just about every aspect of the game en route to a unanimous decision. Judges scored the bout 30-27, 30-27 and 30-26 for the 26-year-old Brazilian, who knocked Carwin down with a right in the first and nearly finished him.

By the end of the fight, Carwin’s face resembled a pound of ground beef. Referee Herb Dean ordered the ringside doctor check Carwin’s eye with about a minute left in the fight because a piece of skin under his eyelid was flapping around. The doctor allowed it to go on, though Carwin’s face was a mask of blood, cuts and welts.

Dos Santos was wary of Carwin’s power all night, though he neutralized it expertly by keeping a jab in the big man’s face consistently. Carwin never got into position where he could let his biggest weapon, his powerful right, become a factor.

That was a key for dos Santos, who has dreamed of winning the title since joining the UFC in 2008.

“All fights I take seriously, but this one was very important for me,” he said. “There were too many things [at stake] for me, so I was a little bit nervous.”

His reward for winning, though, is a shot at heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez, likely in November, though that’s hardly much of a reward. Velasquez, who is rehabilitating his right shoulder following rotator cuff surgery, is every bit as athletic as dos Santos, but he brings a lot more weapons to the table than Carwin.

It’s a sign of the times that the best fight that could be made for heavyweights in mixed martial arts now features a pair of 240-pound guys and not the behemoths who had to cut 25 pounds just to make the division’s 265-pound limit.

Dos Santos said he plans to work hard to improve his boxing, which carried him to victory Saturday, though that caused UFC president Dana White to raise an eye.

“He’s going to have to get a lot more well-rounded,” to beat Velasquez, White said of dos Santos. “He said he’s going to work on his boxing? Dude, you better start working on your kicks, your punches, because Cain Velasquez does everything. He’s got cardio for days and the thing about Cain Velasquez is that he’s ‘The Terminator,’ man. He keeps coming forward and he does not stop until he finishes you.

“I’m not his coach or whatever, but I’m just giving my opinion. But he’s going to have to work on a lot more than his boxing to get ready for this fight.”

Dos Santos was plenty ready on Saturday. It was Carwin who had the reputation as the slugger, but dos Santos nearly finished it late in the first round by cracking Carwin. He landed a crisp right as part of a flurry that sent Carwin tumbling to the ground.

Dos Santos followed in hot pursuit and began to fire away, looking for the finish. He threw so many shots that at one point, he looked at referee Herb Dean and begged him to stop it.

“I was getting tired of hitting him, hitting him, hitting him,” dos Santos said, chuckling. “He didn’t stop the fight so I asked him, ‘Hey, stop the fight, man.’ He said, ‘Keep going, keep going, keep going.’ Then, Shane had a good defense. It was the right decision. You saw Shane Carwin get back to his feet and keep fighting with me.”

Dos Santos was so in control of his emotions throughout, despite his relative youth, that he made a brilliant, but little noticed move with a minute left. After the doctor checked Carwin’s eye and ruled that he could continue, Dean ordered the fighters to resume action.

That prompted dos Santos to surprise Carwin by shooting in and taking him down. Carwin’s only chance to win at that point was to land a home run shot out of nowhere to end the fight and by putting him onto his back, dos Santos essentially eliminated the one-punch option.

It showed quite a bit of savvy even for a veteran, but it was remarkable for a 26-year-old who didn’t begin to train until just five years ago.

He’s now 13-1 and has a series of impressive wins over elite heavyweights, including Fabricio Werdum, Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Gabriel Gonzaga, Roy Nelson and now Carwin.

His toughest challenge, however, lies ahead. Velasquez has by far the best cardio conditioning in the division and he’s an elite wrestler.

It sets up for a potentially top-shelf bout that would be a showcase of what is to come in the heavyweight division.

“Even when you have all these divisions with exciting guys, and people used to talk about the guys in the WEC and how exciting the WEC cards were, but when you have a real good heavyweight fight, that’s what gets people excited,” White said. “I was excited for this fight the whole time. Right when they got up into the Octagon, my stomach was turning. It was one of those kinds of fights.

“The other thing is, when you have a heavyweight division where you know these guys are just boring and are going to lay around and do nothing, well, we don’t have any guys like that. The guys who we have here now, especially adding [Dave Herman] as an addition, too, it’s huge. I'm really happy with our heavyweight division and people love to see the heavyweights fight.”

Few heavyweights fight better than dos Santos.

If there is one who does, however, it’s Velasquez. And that's what makes the division now suddenly so compelling.