One hundred and three years ago America was treated to "The Fight of the Century."
Jack Johnson defended his heavyweight crown against the only man to have retired with that title, Jim Jeffries. The ungodly power of the challenger proved worthless as the savvier champion smothered him in clinches, breaking only to deliver a flurry of blows before re-engaging. Jeffries simply had no answer.
Rare is the occasion on which the gap between the champion and his top-ranked contender is so broad and so harsh.
Yet after bearing witness to Cain Velasquez's massacre of Junior dos Santos at UFC 166, I find myself recalling Jack London's account of the Johnson-Jeffries bout: It was not a case of too much Velasquez, but of all Velasquez.
Easily we forget when one man loses so decisively that both are very human. There were merits and flaws to both performances; the list of each man's strategic vices and virtues simply amounted to Velasquez winning and doing so emphatically.
With that in mind, let us review the fight and the methods that Velasquez used to stifle the Brazilian puncher.
A Man in the Rigging
What was evident throughout the fight was that Junior dos Santos can stop Velasquez from taking him down; he stifled numerous takedown attempts and fought back valiantly. Dos Santos used the fence to hold himself up and to allow himself to attempt to break away from Velasquez while the latter attempted to get him to the floor.
Improvements in wrestling and ground game didn't take away the issue of Junior being beaten up while neutralizing these facets of the game.
The fence served as Dos Santos' safety net: keeping him upright in the face of Velasquez's grappling, but it served as much to ensnare him. Along the fence Dos Santos was hard to get off of his feet, but he had little means of offense.
By pressing Dos Santos into the fence, Velasquez was able to flatten out Dos Santos' boxing stance, destroying his means of generating his numbing punch. Meanwhile Velasquez, with his head underneath of Dos Santos' and with his feet slightly staggered and driving into the fence, was able to land with weighty blows.
Dos Santos did find a small measure of joy in striking with his back to the cage, borrowing from Carlos Condit the strategy of clipping his opponent with an elbow whenever he could. It was refreshing to see Dos Santos rely on something other than his hands, and the elbows certainly gave Cain reason to be wary each time a small space was created between the two fighters.
Nevertheless, Dos Santos struggled to break from these clinches and more often than not was trapped against the fence for extended periods.
Fighting in the Breaks
Dos Santos' plan wasn't a secret; he wanted to strike Velasquez during his approach out in the centre of the cage. We have discussed before how often Velasquez eats strikes on his way in.
Rather than sticking to the retreating counter jab that served him so poorly in their last bout, Dos Santos threw his right straight much more readily in this bout and landed well with it on a few occasions. He also showed a decent left hook from time to time.
Unfortunately Junior dos Santos doesn't have different gears and can only fight at one intensity; each time he missed a punch the force with which he threw it would almost turn him around. This gave Cain more than enough opportunity to move in on Dos Santos and start making his life very difficult indeed.
It is hardly worth harping on about how little Dos Santos would have to offer either Klitschko brother in a boxing match, but the UFC 166 main event drove home an important point about boxing that I think we tend to forget in MMA and even kickboxing.
Head Position is Everything
In professional boxing, after each combination or counter is completed, evasive action must be taken to avoid a counter punch. Professional boxers spend rounds on the double-end bag and on the mitts with their coaches to drill this in.
When you see a fighter throwing himself off balance as he punches, as Junior often did, or failing to take any kind of evasive action after a punch, you must understand that he is toeing the line of calamity.
When Velasquez hurt Dos Santos with an overhand right, it was almost identical to the first bout. Junior would throw his own punch and then just stop. Because Dos Santos failed to move his head or get behind his lead shoulder, he was wide open for the Velasquez swing that followed.
Many fighters in MMA and kickboxing who have a reputation for skill with their hands suffer from the same flaw. Ray Sefo, for instance, had some of the sharper boxing in K-1, yet his brief boxing career showed exactly the same thing.
As Sefo parried a jab and attempted his counter left hook, which worked a treat in kickboxing, he found himself being force fed his opponent's right hand. I talk about "closing the door" with the left hook and how it keeps a fighter relatively safe from the opponent's right hand (more on this from the Melendez-Sanchez bout later in the week), but if the fighter does not recognize the purpose of closing the door and make sure that his shoulder is protecting him, he will still be struck.
Head position and movement is not just important in boxing range, however. It is vital in wrestling and ground fighting as well. Cain Velasquez was able to absolutely dominate the clinch portion of the fight because by getting his head underneath of Dos Santos', he could keep the Brazilian pressed flat against the fence with little room to move.
This is something that is becoming more and more commonplace in MMA. Fighters are taking an underhook on one side, pushing their opponent to the fence and getting their head underneath their opponent's. This leaves the pushing fighter in a stance that is staggered enough to generate power on punches with their free hand, while their opponent is pinned in place.
In addition to the old underhook, head fight and punch technique, Cain showed brilliant curved knees and decent elbows.
Perhaps the most interesting point that this bout raised in my mind was the grey area that surrounds jockeying for head position. Both heavyweights fought diligently for head position but clashed heads numerous times as a result.
The line between jumping swiftly into a clinch while looking for head position and the act of butting as one closes the gap is certainly a blurred one. Seeing the swelling on both men's faces after the bout one can not help but wonder how much came from the head fight.
With that said, neither of these fighters is a dirty fighter, simply savvy. For his part, Dos Santos was doing a good job of driving his hand into Velasquez's throat as he tried to create space from the clinches, and it was not uncommon to see his fingers stray into Velasquez's eyes. Velasquez took this well and has his eyes closed a surprising amount of the time when he is head fighting anyway.
The Tragedy of the Trilogy
The first tragedy of this rushed trilogy is that Junior dos Santos showed genuine improvement. He fought off the takedown attempts and looked to land his right hand much more aggressively than in their second meeting.
The difference between the two men is that Dos Santos is predictable.
Where Velasquez uses the same entry to the clinch almost constantly, his overall tactics throughout the bout vary. Velasquez can look for the takedown or he can smash his opponent along the fence, or he can light them up as they try to stop him; he has a complete bag of tricks.
Conversely, Junior Dos Santos is a very skilled but limited fighter. He excels in one area of the fight, the striking game, and even there he refuses to use anything but his boxing for the most part.
Furthermore Dos Santos is not good at moving around the cage, backing straight onto the fence before inevitably attempting to circle out to his right. Between his last two bouts with Velasquez and the bout with Mark Hunt in the middle, Dos Santos has eaten dozens of left hooks in this way.
Dos Santos would do well to watch Daniel Cormier's bout with Roy Nelson to see circling out done right. Cormier was rarely along the fence, but when he was he would fake going out one way until he sensed a reaction, then dodge out the other, while moving his head. Against Roy Nelson one could circle away from his right all night, but Cormier showed he was comfortable to circle either way and keep Nelson guessing. Dos Santos has none of that savvy.
The second tragedy of this trilogy is that we will forever be forced to listen to uneducated fans claiming the outcome of the first bout was the result of a "lucky punch." In truth the lucky punch does not exist. In their first bout, Dos Santos did everything he normally does and Velasquez fell for it. That's all there is to it.
Unfortunately history likes to remember the winner of a trilogy and make excuses for the odd match out.
Matt Serra will likely never get the credit he deserves for his repeated right hooks to the body before winging his right hand over the top of Georges St. Pierre's sagging hands. Junior Dos Santos will probably never get the credit he deserves for drawing Cain into jabbing across himself and landing the right hand over the top just the same.
When fans see an overhand, all they can think of is luck.
The final tragedy of this great trilogy between the two top fighters at heavyweight is that it is already over.
Were there ever a rivalry that I would loved to have seen played out over years, with each fighter being forced to take several fights before another title shot, it is this one. Giving Dos Santos just one bout between his loss to Velasquez and their third bout was obviously not enough to see much improvement. To have him fight against someone completely unrelated to Velasquez, a one-dimensional striker, served only to build hype and not to develop Dos Santos' skills or career path at all.
Pick up Jack's eBooks Advanced Striking and Elementary Striking from his blog, Fights Gone By.