The Rear Naked Column 06.10.11: Heavyweights Collide!
Posted by Samer Kadi on 06.10.2011
Shane Carwin has stepped in for Brock Lesnar to take on Junior Dos Santos at UFC 131 this weekend! But who will walk away the winner and new #1 contender to the heavyweight title? 411's Samer Kadi takes a look at the fight!
The talent pool in the heavyweight division might be at an all time high, but the division hasn't seen any stability since Randy Couture defeated Tim Sylvia to capture the title in March of 2007. After a successful title defense against Gabriel Gonzaga later in the year, Couture famously "resigned" from the UFC to leave the heavyweight division in limbo. However, Brock Lesnar's rise and subsequent title shot – premature as it was – would give the division a much-needed lifeline.
Despite his return, "The Natural" was clearly in the tale end of his career and a passing of the torch seemed fitting. Unfortunately, following a brutally dominating performance against Frank Mir at UFC 100, Lesnar's momentum was halted after he had to go through a bout with diverticulitis that would sideline him for a full year. Since then, the division has consistently struggled to recover despite the occasional bright spot. Lesnar's return and heroic performance against Shane Carwin followed by Cain Velasquez's rise to the top seemed to have finally triggered the true start of the "golden era" of heavyweights, until all three of the aforementioned fighters fell victim to long-term injuries once again. Fortunately, Lesnar's injury coincided with Carwin's return, and the former UFC interim champion will be stepping in to replace his former nemesis and take on Junior Dos Santos this Saturday for a shot at the returning Cain Velasquez.
It seems odd to say this about a former top contender who less than a year ago was competing for the belt, but relatively little is known about Shane Carwin. The first step up in competition he took came against Gabriel Gonzaga in 2009, and since then, he has only fought against Frank Mir and Brock Lesnar. Up until the Lesnar fight last year, Carwin had yet to get out of the first round. In fact, he had never fought past the three-minute mark of any fight in his career. The Lesnar bout did little outside of confirm what was mostly known – or at least suspected – about Carwin. He hits extremely hard, is a good wrestler (Carwin did stuff Brock's takedown attempts in the first round) but has a limited gas tank. The inactivity, coupled with limited in-cage time makes it difficult to gauge Carwin's skill set beyond obvious.
Since his upset of Fabricio Werdum, Dos Santos has stayed very busy. In fact, this will be his most extended layoff since signing with the UFC in 2008. Yet, despite competing inside the Octagon no less than six times, his ground game hasn't been tested. If nothing else, this is a testament to Dos Santos, who has virtually dominated every second of his previous bouts in the UFC, and not unlike Carwin, mostly made short work of his opponents.
Dos Santos embodies the tired adage of "the best defense is a great offense." He doesn't allow his opponent to dictate the tempo of the fight, and is generally fighting on his terms. More importantly, Dos Santos masks some technical flaws in his striking defense with sheer volume and brutal offensive combinations that few heavyweights can live up with. When he throws, Dos Santos' punches aren't quite straight and he does tend to drop his left hand and leave himself exposed. However, the speed and accuracy of his combinations make it incredibly difficult for the opponent to capitalize. Therefore, while his aggression and some fundamental holes in his defense could – in theory – get him in trouble, it would take a savvy counter striker with great head movement and immaculate timing to slip the Brazilian's hooks and uppercuts before connecting.
Unfortunately for his opponents, at heavyweight, very few fighters possess that kind of skill set. Moreover, Dos Santos' own skill set is a rarity in that division. How many heavyweights can pile up the pressure on their opponents and put together punching combinations with such efficiency? That kind of offensive arsenal is what makes Junior Dos Santos such a unique fighter. Rather than be content to set up a big right cross with a simple one-two combo and backing off, Dos Santos has developed a nasty left hook and an even more lethal right uppercut.
This one-two combination that most of Dos Santos' peers rely on happens to be Carwin's bread and butter, but he does it better than anyone else. Carwin's right cross might just be the sport's single most destructive weapon in terms of pure power. He sets it up with a short jab and can amazingly generate an enormous amount of power with very little wind up. Carwin's power doesn't exclusively emerge out of his right hand, as evidenced by the lead uppercut which put Brock Lesnar on queer street. The right cross could come in handy if Carwin uses it well to counterpunch. He will hold a reach advantage, and if Dos Santos plants his feet and starts unloading, Carwin could well end his night with a well-timed counter.
That is easier said than done, as Dos Santos will be the quicker man, and Carwin has yet to display some counterpunching proficiency. It is also hard to discuss Carwin's striking defense with any sort of certitude. In his fight with Gonzaga, Carwin was getting tagged liberally before taking advantage of his opponent's overzealousness and putting him to sleep in typical fashion. Since then, he has only competed twice and neither fight revealed more about that aspect of Carwin's game.
Of course, Carwin's other – and more obvious – road to victory lies in his wrestling. Junior Dos Santos' defensive wrestling has yet to be seriously tested in his UFC career. The one time he was actually taken down happened against Gabriel Gonzaga, but Dos Santos was able to spring back to his feet seconds later. Unlike Dos Santos' original scheduled opponent Brock Lesnar, Carwin doesn't really have the most explosive power double leg takedown. He also lacks Lesnar's speed in switching levels and shooting in. What his bout with Frank Mir showed however, was the fact that he's extremely dangerous in the clinch. For all intents and purposes, this will be Carwin's best path to glory. He does need to be wary of Dos Santos' knees from close-quarters however, as "Cigano" showed in both the Cro Cop and Roy Nelson bouts that he does have a few tricks up his sleeve that go beyond his boxing. Nevertheless, the clinch remains an element that Carwin should be able use to his advantage.
The dirty boxing he displayed against Frank Mir was quite simply disturbing. To be able to summon up that kind of power from such close range is quite astonishing. And yet, Dos Santos' chin isn't nearly as fallible as Mir's, nor will he be content to simply get underhooks and try to defend the takedown. Dos Santos should be aware of the fact that he will need to disengage and avoid tasting Carwin's devastating short uppercuts. The one surprising aspect of Carwin's fight with Mir is that the latter actually managed to stay upright after Carwin clinched up. Whether Dos Santos can consistently shrug off the takedowns remains to be seen, but with his opponent's limited gas tank, doing so in the first round goes a long way in edging him closer to victory.
Carwin claims to have rectified his cardio issues and there is little doubt that he has worked hard on doing so. However, he is still a 260-pound man with great muscle mass that will require oxygen. Such severe cardio issues can't simply go away overnight, and a near one year layoff to a rather serious injury doesn't help matters. On the other hand, Dos Santos' cardio isn't bulletproof either. In fact, he seemed quite tired towards the second half of the Roy Nelson bout despite being in control the entire time.
Should Carwin get Dos Santos down, use his weight on top of him and manage to land his fearsome ground-and-pound, he could well be the next man to earn a crack at Cain Velasquez. However, even going back to his pre-UFC days, Dos Santos has always demonstrated some truly dynamic hips. Training with the Nogueira brothers hardly ensures the same level of bottom game, but Dos Santos' hips will make it very hard for Carwin to control him and hold him down.
In the end, I don't see Carwin having too much of an easy time taking Dos Santos down, and "Cigano" possesses the better, faster, and more diverse striking. It's certainly a competitive bout as Carwin is always a punch away from victory and has the wrestling skills to boot, but I see Dos Santos catching Carwin on the way in with a trademark uppecut late in the first round for the win.
Regardless of the outcome, one can only hope that this fight marks the beginning of a change of fortunes for the heavyweight division. Frustrating injuries have consistently obstructed some potentially mouthwatering fights from materializing, and hopefully this fight along with the return of the heavyweight champion can finally trigger the real start of a heavyweight golden era in the UFC.
SPECIAL ANNOUNCEMENT: While I haven't been able to do a monthly Q & A as originally planed, you will be pleased to hear that the "Rear Naked Column" Q & A will be returning next week. Leave your questions in the comments section below and I will be addressing them in seven days.
REMINDER: Be sure to check out the latest edition of the 411 Ground and Pound radio show. Mark Radulich was doing his usual hosting duties and was joined by Jeffrey Harris and yours truly to discuss GSP vs. Diaz, review The Ultimate Fighter Finale, and preview UFC 131. Join us this Sunday as we will look back at UFC 131 and discuss Dana White's major announcements.