The Rear Naked Column 10.16.13: The Rubber Match
Posted by Samer Kadi on 10.16.2013
Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos will square off for the third time in two years over the UFC heavyweight title! After they've each picked up a win, who will take home the rubber match? 411's Samer Kadi takes a look!
Its status as MMA's weakest and at times, most embarrassing division is well-earned. Its oxygen consumption equals that of every other weight class combined, and cardio is often thrown out the window before Bruce Buffer is done with his fighter introductions. However, every now and then, the heavyweight division offers a bout that captures the imagination of fight fans like no other. Whether it is Randy Couture and Pedro Rizzo setting the gold standard for five-round wars, or Fedor Emelianenko‘s titanic battles with Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Mirko "Cro Cop" Filipovic, little can rival the electricity of a legitimately thrilling heavyweight prizefight.
I wrote this introduction two years ago, ahead of what was a monumental heavyweight title bout on the UFC's first ever card on FOX. For years tipped to be the future of the division, Velasquez and Dos Santos had lived up to the expectations, and prepared for what was considered one of the biggest bouts in heavyweight MMA history. Predictably, the fight did not quite meet the soaring promises, as the action would last no more than 64 seconds. A well-placed Dos Santos overhand right ended Velasquez's title reign abruptly and crowned a new heavyweight kingpin. And yet, in a thin division with declining veterans, few -- if any -- rising prospects, and inconsistent top 10 fighters, odds were pretty safe on their paths crossing again...and again.
After Cain Velasquez redeemed himself with an absolute mauling of his foe in the rematch, it seemed as though we were in store for a career-defining rivalry that would forever be associated with both men's legacies. And while this likely holds true still, the rapid pace in which it unfolded makes what should be a titanic battle feel a touch less momentous.
The tie-breaker to arguably the most significant series of fights since Chuck Liddell's trilogy with Randy Couture is taking place a mere two years after both competitors first locked horns. Instead of a climactic conclusion -- at least for the time being -- to an iconic competitive rivalry, we're left with a rushed piece of match-making that feels overkill. As a result, there is a lack of buzz in the air that takes away from the magnitude of the occasion.
That however, has little bearing on the technical intricacies that make this such a compelling battle. The stylistic match-up that made their first encounter so hotly anticipated is even further magnified two fights later, as both competitors are now familiar with each other's styles and have to make the necessary adjustments accordingly.
A disappointing narrative emerged following each of the first two fights, and that is the now cliched "why would a rematch go any different"? Following Dos Santos' quick KO of Velasquez, many claimed a rematch was almost pointless. Curiously, the same trend reappeared following Velasquez's win last year. The answer is simple: Fighters improve and adjust, especially when they're so evenly matched. More importantly, each man has proven he can beat the other by actually...beating the other.
Ahead of their rematch last December, I wrote the following:
"It is hard to fault those who are unable to get up for a rematch of a 64-second fight that ended in decisive fashion. However, the same interesting stylistic match-up that made the build-up to their first encounter so fascinating is present in the rematch, and despite finding himself staring at the ceiling a year ago, Cain Velasquez presents a set of skills that is sure to catch the champion's attention. In fact, the AKA standout remains the most well-equipped fighter to dethrone 'Cigano.'"
Replace "64-second fight" with "25-minute domination" and exchange their respective names, and the above statement holds true just the same for the rubber match.
Despite the events that transpired in the rematch, there remains a serious case to be made for Dos Santos possessing the best boxing in the division. In the past couple of years, he has adopted a more measured -- but nonetheless aggressive -- approach. He utilizes his jab to set the tone of the fight, control the distance, and set-up his patented combinations. Dos Santos' left hook-right cross combo is something Velasquez needs to be aware of, while his uppercut is even more menacing and remains his best single strike. It is a game-changer in any fight, and he uses it just as effectively moving forward as he does when countering. In fact, due to his aggressive nature, Dos Santos' counter-punching ability is often overlooked. He possesses incredible timing on the aforementioned counter right uppercut, and his counter left hook is almost as deadly.
That however, does not negate any of Dos Santos' glaring weaknesses in the stand-up game. He has a nasty habit of throwing a single jab to the body with very little set-up, which in turn leaves him exposed to counters. He generally tends to drop his left hand whenever he throws, making him quite the hittable target. He often masks those defensive deficiencies with the sheer volume with which he throws, but that is hardly the optimal solution. Moreover, the Velasquez rematch exposed severe holes in Dos Santos' footwork, as he simply backpedaled with minimal lateral movement, and got clobbered with repeated straight rights for his troubles. In fact, Velasquez often moved in rather recklessly with little set-up, but took advantage of Dos Santos' fear of the takedown to surprise him with his striking. Dos Santos would be wise to have that scouted this time around, step in, cut him off, and counter.
For his part, Velasquez has been guilty of stiff head movement in the past, and the issue is not fully rectified. Like Dos Santos, he uses his overwhelming offense to cover for his defensive gaps, but they remain there to be exploited. Most notably, when Velasquez misjudges the distance, he tends to pursue with his attacks, instead of simply walking back and resetting. Dos Santos made him pay the first time, but the AKA standout got away with murder a number of times in the rematch.
Velasquez possesses the more diverse striking. His leg kicks are some of the best in the division, he uses the lead left high kick well to keep his opponent honest and gauge the distance, and he covers distance well -- albeit in risky fashion. Once he's on the inside, Velasquez truly excels, and that is exactly where Dos Santos does not want the fight to unfold. Be it his three-punch combinations from that crucial mid-range, or his dirty boxing on the inside, Velasquez is a terror to deal with once he can control where the fight takes place. His true forte is in the clinch, where his short uppercuts, left hook-right hook combination, and single leg takedowns are unlike anything heavyweights are accustomed to endure.
To his credit, Dos Santos dealt with Velasquez's takedown attempts -- and takedowns -- rather admirably, despite being beaten up and out of gas. He shrugged him off on more than one occasion, regained his feet repeatedly, and in fact forced Cain to exert far more energy than he perhaps would have expected, and it showed. The Brazilian possesses dynamic hips, and Velasquez couldn't -- and likely won't be able to in the rubber match -- ride out rounds on top.
That of course, does not change the fact that whenever Velasquez was on top, he did land his customary ground-and-pound. However, his aggressive top game opens up scrambling opportunities for his opponent. Velasquez does not like to sit in guard, and he'll often stand upright and rain down punches, which, while tedious for his opponent, also means he'll sacrifice position on a number of occasions.
Nevertheless, should the fight turn into the sort of battle that we witnessed in the rematch, Dos Santos will be fighting a losing battle. Regaining his feet is noteworthy, but it doesn't negate the takedown and punishment that preceded it. Velasquez is arguably the best in the world at landing in dominant positions immediately off of takedowns, making immediate hip escapes trickier.
Those questioning Dos Santos' chances need to carry in mind that every single punch which he throws is a potential fight-ender, and it goes beyond the proverbial puncher's chance too, as "Cigano" actually possesses hand speed and boxing skills to compliment his power. Nevertheless, Velasquez has earned the right to be the favorite, and the deeper the fight goes, the more Dos Santos' chances of landing that critical blow diminish. If JDS does not capitalize on some of Cain's sloppy habits early, as he did in their first bout, he is likely in a for a similar scenario to that of the rematch. However, Velasquez will likely be more prepared to keep the pace up this time around, on his way to a late stoppage.
Quick Note: Those wondering where my partner in crime is, will be perhaps disappointed (or relieved!) to know that Jeremy will be taking a hiatus from writing about MMA due to understandable burn-out. We will still be doing podcasts previewing and reviewing events, but as far as weekly columns go, you'll have to deal with me going solo and bringing back "The Rear Naked Column."