Killing the King: Cain Velasquez

Jack SlackLead MMA AnalystOctober 16, 2013

Dec 29, 2012; Las Vegas, NV, USA; Cain Velasquez attends post fight press conference following UFC 155 at the MGM Grand Garden Arena. Mandatory Credit: Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports
Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

Anyone who witnessed Cain Velasquez's dismantling of Junior dos Santos in their second bout will surely understand that Dos Santos has a tough task ahead of him at UFC 166.

Velasquez is relentless, a trait that is rare and troubling at any weight class but even more so at heavyweight. 

Where Dos Santos is a measured and methodical fighter who takes time to find his openings, Velasquez is a bulldozer who drives into his opponents without respite for the duration of a fight. They wilt and shell up, or he finishes them.

Despite being considered an extremely well-rounded heavyweight, however, Velasquez's modus operandi is no mystery, nor does he hide his intentions in a deep bag of tricks. Almost invariably he will come in with a jab, move, then come in with a jab and a right hand before ducking for his opponent's hips.

Simple, right? Certainly not simple to deal with.


The Standard Velasquez Setup

You needn't think far back to remember Erick Silva being starched by Dong Hyun Kim. Talented strikers make defensive sacrifices to deal with great takedown artists. Dos Santos, like Silva, keeps his non-punching hand low in order to block his opponent from getting to his hips.

After shucking off a few takedowns in the opening round of his return bout against Velasquez, Dos Santos was looking to counter whenever possible but kept his defensive hand low. Attempted uppercuts resulted in him getting cracked with an overhand, just as Alexander Gustafsson's long uppercuts often do.

The overhand or any sort of arcing right works remarkably as a gap closer because unlike the jab it does not maintain distance; instead the overhand serves to collapse distance.

"Jab and shoot" has long since become outdated because the two movements are contradictory. A good jab serves to keep distance, while a shot is about getting deep on the opponent's hips. "Jab and shoot" basically ensures a fighter has to go through the longest possible distance to get to his opponent's hips.

The overhand, however, is a shorter-range punch. It is accompanied by necessity with a dip forward and to the left, providing its own head movement. Teaching wrestlers to move their heads well enough to avoid getting hit by more experienced strikers is tough. Velasquez still comes in jabbing with his chin up and gets caught with counter jabs a good deal of the time, but anyone becomes a harder man to hit during an overhand.

The second important point about the overhand or most rear-handed punches is that it is a damn hard punch. Anyone can throw a right hand hard with some practice. Consequently it serves as a double threat. A wrestler is no longer just a wrestler. If a fighter tries to defend the wrestler's go-to strategy by stuffing the shot, his hands leave his guard, and he can have the boom lowered on him by the overhand.


Countering the Setup

One of the key problems that Dos Santos faced in his last match with Velasquez was dealing with the level change off this overhand. Dos Santos, flustered by Velasquez's pressure and takedown attempts, wound up trying to counter every jab that Velasquez threw with a jab of his own. This is all good, but he was attempting to do so on the retreat.

While Cain does open himself up chasing, Dos Santos will not get any power moving away.
While Cain does open himself up chasing, Dos Santos will not get any power moving away.

A retreating jab is not a power punch but a setup punch. The rear foot is moving back and so is the body weight. It is an arm punch designed to blind or lift the head in hopes of planting the rear foot, pushing off of it and cracking the blinded opponent with a hard right hand. A retreating jab is not a good counter on its own.

Dos Santos lifts Cain's head and blinds him with the jab while backing away.
Dos Santos lifts Cain's head and blinds him with the jab while backing away.

Then fails to follow and eats a hard right hand. This happened over and over.
Then fails to follow and eats a hard right hand. This happened over and over.

A master of using a blinding jab to hide a counter right hand was Jersey Joe Walcott. By now, many of you will know him as one of my favourite fighters, and that's because he was as savvy as they come.

He was a master of drawing better boxers onto his right hand. He was the ultimate anti-technician—the better a boxer his opponent was, the worse Walcott made him look. Teofilo Stevenson was also great at blinding oncoming opponents with the jab and landing a long right hand.

Dos Santos wasn't looking for the right hand, however. He was landing single jabs while backing up. This left him wide open for the overhand that Velasquez threw after his jabs, and then left him stunned as Velasquez changed levels and went for his hips. Dos Santos was providing openings in his guard, with none of the benefits that good punches usually give to offset these risks.

In Velasquez's basic jab-overhand-level change, Dos Santos has several good opportunities to counter, but should he open himself up at any point, he will leave himself exposed to hard blows and a takedown. Basically, with Velasquez using the same setup over and over, Dos Santos has three main opportunities to counter.

  1. Blind with the same counter jab, but follow it with a right hand before Velasquez can follow with his own.
  2. Counter the right hand.
  3. Counter the level change.

Countering the right hand of course means catching the right hand first. Attempting a direct counter with the left hand low is just suicide. Both Dos Santos and Antonio Silva attempted to counter Velasquez with a right uppercut simultaneous to his dipping right hand; both got hit, and Antonio Silva got knocked out.

As good a boxer as Dos Santos is by MMA standards (clear your head of any nonsense about him having anything for the Klitschko brothers), I doubt we will see him shoulder rolling Velasquez's right hand and coming back with a counter right uppercut or straight. That could work a treat here, but he just isn't the shoulder-rolling type.

Very few good boxers can land a counter jab, drop their hand and shoulder roll into a right-hand counter. James Toney and Floyd Mayweather are excellent at this, but even most fighters who are good at shoulder rolling cannot do it so well off a counter jab.

Countering the level change is perhaps a better idea. Doing so with the uppercut again would be ill advised as evidenced by "Bigfoot" and JDS in the above frames. What Dos Santos could do, now that he has shown he is willing to kick, is use his knees more effectively.

Nothing keeps a wrestler off his game as well a knee shooting up to meet him each time he attempts a takedown. The idea that Dos Santos is going to avoid all takedowns is pretty optimistic or near delusional.

Assuming he has been training to get back up from the ground, it might be worth trying to catch Velasquez coming in and fighting his way back up. This could be preferable to Dos Santos exhausting himself and getting hit as he tries to stop takedowns.

The king of the intercepting knee was Joachim "Hellboy" Hansen. If you haven't heard of him, he's probably one of the best lightweights to have ever competed in MMA and for certain one of the most exciting. In between regular suplexes, helicopter armbars and rolling back takes, he had some of the meanest knees against ducking opponents in the game.

Having seen him knock out Caol Uno, Masakazu Imanari and Luiz Azeredo each with a knee strike as they ducked, trying to shoot on Hansen was always a terrifying prospect.

Hansen essentially accepted that he would have to play guard at some point and so opted to get off his best strike as his opponent lunged toward it with his face, presumably reasoning, "If I end up in guard, at least he'll think twice about shooting again when I get up." But in Norsk.

Using one's knee strike to punish takedown attempts also carries less of the danger of eating a punch that a counter uppercut does. The fighter's head may still be protected with his elbows and forearms.


Ring Craft

This is a constant feature of my analyses, but it is a crucial one. Ring craft is the be-all and end-all of fighting, because if a fighter never hits a wall, he can move freely indefinitely. Dos Santos is not nearly as good at navigating the Octagon as he is at landing pot shots in the centre of it. 

I have previously likened Dos Santos' boxing style to fencing, being more in and out on a line than one based on lateral movement. When he retreats, he often does so straight backward until he feels the fence, and then he begins to circle.

This meant that against Velasquez and Mark Hunt, Dos Santos ended up circling out into left hooks along the fence when he had no ground through which to retreat. He has a great chin, but if I were placing bets on how he will eventually get knocked out, getting trapped along the fence would be a close second to getting hit with his hands down.

Cain lands a left hook as Dos Santos tries to circle off the cage.
Cain lands a left hook as Dos Santos tries to circle off the cage.

Mark Hunt achieves exactly the same left hook.
Mark Hunt achieves exactly the same left hook.

This fact alone makes Velasquez a nightmare matchup for Dos Santos. Dos Santos hates the fence, and Velasquez adores it. Anytime Velasquez can get Dos Santos along the fence and threaten even a lackadaisical takedown, he can get his opponent's hands away from his face and start roughing him up with punches all over again.

Now, retreat is a useful tool against Velasquez. His hyperactive offense should leave holes to counter through, but then all he uses it for is getting on top of his opponents. If his opponents are simply shuffling back jabbing, he can walk them down and then swarm in on them.

The further Cain has to chase, the more he opens himself up and throws himself off balance.
The further Cain has to chase, the more he opens himself up and throws himself off balance.

It is rare that I praise Cheick Kongo's hands, but he beautifully demonstrated the art of getting Velasquez to overextend. Stand in front of Velasquez and it's jab, right hand, shot, but if you can get him chasing, he opens himself up more.

Kongo flicked his lead hand in front of Velasquez's eyes while retreating. He did a bad job of staying off the fence, but he did an excellent job of drawing Velasquez forward, blinding with the lead hand and then following with the right as he retreated.

Velasquez, with his aggression and porous defense, seems to be a tailor-made opponent for back-step punching.

I spoke earlier about how the retreating jab is not a power counter, but back-step punches—which are rarely practiced much in traditional boxing—can prove to be true power counters while on the retreat. Essentially instead of jabbing as he retreats, a fighter shifts his lead foot to his rear, changing stances while extending what started as his lead arm.

This creates distance and a barrier through which the opponent cannot pass in the form of the extended left arm, braced by the retreating left leg as it touches down. Against an aggressive fighter, this works a treat. The back-step punch should always be followed with a second back-step punch.

In boxing form, the rear foot moves back, and the lead foot moves back into a stance with it. Back-step punches are thrown by retreating with whichever side one is punching with.

It is not necessary to step back into a southpaw stance, only to bring the left foot back underneath the fighter before he kicks the right foot out behind him. This method provides a faster retreat than would otherwise be possible, coupled with a hard right hand as the opponent chases.

The left straight keeps an opponent on the end of the reach, blinds him and lines him up for a back step into orthodox stance and a hard right hand. A few guys have been good at this, and none of them have been what you would call orthodox boxers.

Muhammad Ali, Anderson Silva, Fedor Emelianenko, sometimes Chuck Liddell and frequently Igor Vovchanchyn, to name a few. Back-step punching has an interesting history and serves well in avoiding standing toe to toe against an aggressive fighter.

A good boxer must be able to move backward, but so few can punch well while retreating.



Dos Santos will have to fight off takedowns, and he must be able to get up from the floor. If Velasquez doesn't get caught up in fighting on the feet or put off by his first takedown getting stuffed, it is difficult to see a turn of events where Dos Santos can stop shot after shot, never going to the floor.

His life is going to be hard; he is going to have to work in short windows on the feet when Velasquez isn't chest to chest with him. In their last meeting, this caused him to take ill-thought-out shots and get hit more than he normally would.

It is in Dos Santos' interest to make this into the kind of fight he likes, because Velasquez isn't going to give it to him. Velasquez knows not to stand around and play silly beggars with Dos Santos; he knows that he needs to be up in his opponent's face from the first bell until the referee separates them.

It is Dos Santos' job to make sure that doesn't happen. Even periods when little is happening give an advantage to him in this bout. Velasquez is known as the whirling dervish, the hive of activity. When an active fighter is in an inactive round, he appears ineffective, and judges can often perceive him to be losing an even round.

Of course, winning points this way is not a guaranteed victory. Dos Santos should be doing what Lyoto Machida and Anderson Silva do so well, limiting exchanges. When he lands, he lands with power. He doesn't land with volume. Prolonged exchanges are Velasquez's wheelhouse, and he can duck into a takedown whenever one occurs.

Getting a cushion of a round or two by avoiding action and pot-shotting might well be a better plan than simply looking for the knockout from bell to bell, but as long as Dos Santos is hitting hard and getting away, he has a good chance.

The harder he makes Velasquez work to force an engagement, the more chance he has of hitting Velasquez clean with a counter. 

Aggression does leave holes, and they do exist in Velasquez's aggression, but distance and a chase are necessary to bring those holes out. Dos Santos would do far better executing a Machida strategy of running three times and intercepting with a right straight once than he would attempting to counter with a body jab or hook or throw a jab while backing away each time Velasquez comes in.

The flaws are there. Velasquez does leave himself exposed, but at the same time he has heavy hands, elite wrestling and a pace that cannot be matched. Dos Santos has the tools and the power; it's whether he can understand the difference between worthless counters and priceless ones that will decide how this fight plays out.

Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.

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